Fashion forgets more worthy designers than it remembers. After all, it takes a lot to not only create a reputation at the level of Coco Chanel, Christian Dior, or Cristobal Balenciaga, but to maintain that reputation long after departing this Earth. For some reason or another – whether their houses eventually lost funding or no one stepped up to the helm after the namesake designer passed away – there are hundreds of amazing, pioneering designers who influenced fashion as we know it today, but have been forgotten by time. In this installment of Fashion Decoded, Savoir Flair looks back on ten influential talents who deserve to be remembered for time immemorial.
The German-born, Paris-based designer Gustave Beer launched his career in 1886 designing umbrellas and fans, but later branched out into the making of stunning gowns that embraced both La Belle Epoque and Art Nouveau styles. He is also notable for being the first couturier to open a salon at Place Vendôme in Paris and the most expensive designer of his day, with many European royals as clients. Beer’s fashion house merged with House of Drecoll in 1929 to become Drecoll-Beer and eventually merged again to become the House of Agnes in 1931.
At the dawn of the fashion industry, there was couturier Charles Frederick Worth, whose flamboyant personality, stable of aristocratic patrons, and marketing schemes have cemented his status in culture as the first fashion designer. However, for reasons we cannot explain, one of his peers, Emile Pingat, and his incredible contributions to early fashion design have failed to be remembered at the level that Worth’s stellar reputation continues to enjoy to this day. To the American and European buyer, Pingat was considered equal to Worth, while some experts believe that Pingat’s cutting skills surpassed those of Worth. Though little is known about Pingat’s personal life, his work speaks for itself. Exquisite gowns and lavish outerwear were his calling card, and they were so beautifully made that, in 1885, The Parisian Couturier magazine declared Pingat to be “the most artistic of the Parisian dressmakers”.
Many designers start off by launching their own lines and, after reaching some level of success, may find themselves designing costumes for movies (like Ralph Lauren, for example). Fashion designer Norman Norell, who was born in Indiana, came at his fashion career the other way around. He was hired by Paramount Pictures in 1922 to create costumes for silent films and then moved on to Broadway, where he designed lavish looks for Ziegfeld Follies. It wasn’t until 1943 that he launched his own ready-to-wear line, but when he did, he was met with acclaim. His gorgeous fur coats, chemise dresses, evening gowns, and empire-waist frocks were a fast favorite among the socialites and stars of that era. Norell’s legacy was revisited in 2010 when Michelle Obama wore one of his vintage designs to a “Christmas in Washington” concert in Washington, D.C.
While Christian Dior is credited for pioneering the ‘New Look’, little credit is given to Claire McCardell, who pioneered the ‘American Look’ during the 1950s. Her sportswear aesthetic was modeled after her own life and sartorial needs, a fact she once relayed to Time magazine, saying, “I’ve always designed things I needed myself. It just turns out that other people need them too.” Her contributions to fashion include effortlessly chic ruched evening dresses, a wearable design called the ‘Popover’, and feminine sundresses with tie-around bodices.
Although Norman Hartnell is scarcely discussed these days, he was once credited as being the designer who turned London into a viable fashion capital. Hartnell was awarded the coveted position of being official dressmaker to Queen Elizabeth in 1940 and Queen Elizabeth II in 1957. In fact, his most iconic design was the wedding dress of Queen Elizabeth II in 1957, which she wore to her wedding to Prince Philip. Hartnell continued to create lavish looks for Queen Elizabeth II throughout his lifetime, including the famous pale-green dress that she wore on her first visit to the United States. Caroline de Guitaut, who curated the Fashioning a Reign: 90 Years of Style From the Queen’s Wardrobe exhibit, described the legendary gown, saying, “It was such a complicated process to make this dress, with seamstresses, embroiderers, and Hartnell himself working on it for days at a time. It has layers of crinoline, silk chiffon, silk tulle, and lace, with timbre embroidery and hundreds and hundreds of beads.” In addition to designing for the royal family, Hartnell was also a popular costume designer for the silver screen.
Muriel King started her career as a sketch artist, but later moved to the realm of fashion design, where she would become one of the first New York City designers to be a household name. King’s challenge was designing during the era of the Great Depression, a time when many went without fashion for the sake of surviving. King ensured that her clothes were both beautifully made and affordable, which brought her legions of loyal patrons. After reaching success as a ready-to-wear designer, King went on to create a personal wardrobe exclusively for actress Katherine Hepburn, as well as on-screen looks for Rita Hayworth, Margaret Sullivan, and Ginger Rogers. She was also shortlisted to create costumes for Gone With the Wind.
As a female designer working in London during the 1930s, Matilda Etches faced several challenges. It was difficult to maintain her own business without additional financial backing and, eventually, she closed her maison in order to regroup. By 1940, Etches was back on top and had become a household name in Europe and beyond. Etches was not a couturier for royal courts, but rather a thoughtful designer who was devoted to jumping creative hurdles. Her designs were not predictable – they were works of art and fantasy rather than what could be deemed traditional occasion wear. A great example of her artistry is found in the photo below of her West African dress that was made in 1948 and is currently on display at the Victoria & Albert Museum in London. The bodice is lined with rigid boning, around which batik fabric has been draped and folded, giving it a soft and supple appearance. Very few designers at the time were making clothes that sought outside cultural influences, but Etches knew the value of imbuing her clothes with craftsmanship and exotic origins.
Adrian Adolph Greenberg
Adrian Adolph Greenberg, also know as “Gilbert Adrian” or simply “Adrian”, is an American designer most famous for his costume work on The Wizard of Oz. However, Adrian’s contributions to the world of fashion go beyond the silver screen. In the 1920s, he worked as head costume designer for Cecil B. DeMille’s independent film studio and designed costumes for over 200 films. Adrian established a name for himself as something of a fashion savant and worked with major stars of the era like Rita Hayworth and Greta Garbo. His ‘Eugénie’ hat became a worldwide sensation, and he is also credited with starting the oversized shoulder-pad trend that defined the 1940s silhouette. The designer set up his own fashion house in Beverly Hills, where stars continued to call on him to make their red-carpet gowns and off-duty wardrobes. In the book American Fashion, Robert Riles had this to say about Adrian’s legendary career, “During the decade of Adrian Ltd., particularly during the war years, he was one of the American designers capable of making an individual statement. His influence was felt in every showroom and store in the country; his trim jackets and slinky crepe dresses were reproduced in every price bracket. To judge by his imitators, he was the most influential designer in their copybooks. For them he took the place of Paris.”
Everyone knows how incredibly quotable Coco Chanel was, but few remember the fiery personality and pioneering designs of Pauline Trigère. Like Chanel, Trigère was born in France, but it was in America that she would later find success. Trigère is a bit of a phenomenon – she launched her career as a divorced single mother in New York City in 1937 after escaping the Nazi regime in Europe. She was also the first designer to use African American models on the runway. Her designs were equally pioneering – her beautiful dresses appeared to have been made without seams. She also refused to sketch her designs, preferring to drape and bolt them herself. She is known for excellent tailoring, graceful embellishment, and sophisticated but dramatic silhouettes. Trigère’s quick wit is one aspect of her life that people remember most. Some of her more quotable moments include these gems: “There is room for only one prima donna around here, and that’s me,” and “When you’re feeling blue, wear red.”
Foale & Tuffin
The fashion conversation in London during the 1960s was dominated by the likes of Mary Quant and André Courrèges. However, the Foale and Tuffin label, named after design partners Marion Foale and Sally Tuffin, is remembered in history as having created some of the most ubiquitous designs of the ‘Swinging Sixties’. The refined pattern- and dress-making skills of the designers became the cornerstone of their brand, and their well-known aesthetic included little lace dresses, boldly patterned sheaths, and other self-defined “kooky” styles. “We suddenly didn’t want to be chic; we just wanted to be ridiculous,” the duo is quoted as saying to the American press in 1961. They were also known for excellently tailored clothing and experimenting with bespoke fabrics crafted by Bernard Neville. The duo disbanded in 1972 to pursue separate careers, but Foale still designs knitwear today.