Who are the greatest fashion designers of all time?

Roger Tredre analyses how the fashion industry might define ‘greatness’ in the 2020s. The second edition of his book, The Great Fashion Designers, co-authored with Brenda Polan, is published this month.

The fifty greatest designers since Charles Frederick Worth? That’s the task Brenda Polan and myself set each other when we wrote the first edition of The Great Fashion Designers back in 2009. It was no easy task, the choice narrowed down after much debate, some of it learned and courteous, much more of it shouty and fuelled by fine wine.

Core research material for the project – our own interviews with 19 of the 55 designers, dating right back to Brenda’s encounter with Andre Courrèges in 1979.

Eleven years on, we have upped that number by five to a total of 55 – and the debate has been no less furious. Just five more designers to represent an entire decade? In the end we narrowed it down to seven, then took the seven to present to post-graduate fashion journalists at Central Saint Martins, who took a vote.

The seven were Raf Simons, Hedi Slimane, Phoebe Philo, Alessandro Michele, Demna Gvasalia, Virgil Abloh and Stella McCartney. The last two got the chop from the students.

Were they right? Frankly, I’m not sure. Stella McCartney, described recently by British Vogue as ‘the conscience of the fashion industry’, seems to me to have emerged as potentially the most important of them all, leading the way towards a sustainable future. Likewise, Virgil Abloh, for all his complications, is an essential voice as a kind of Marcel Duchamp of modern fashion. And just as McCartney has an important role as a signifier of a change of mood in consumer culture, so Abloh – as an African American – represents a new spirit of diversity sweeping through the creative industries.

All that said, this time round for this second edition I wondered whether we were writing a valedictory book to designers. The academic debate these days seeks to play down the role of individuals and explore the input of everyone from the stylists to the pattern cutters, and put the spotlight on the unsung heroes – les petites mains toiling long hours in the ateliers of Paris. There’s also a school of thought that argues we should really be writing about Mr Nike and Mr Levi Strauss, not autocratic designers (as most of them are, truth be told) refining their very singular visions.

The skills needed to be a fashion designer are certainly changing. There is less emphasis on technical prowess and more on an instinct for trends. And there are other changes in the air – for example, in future, more consumers are likely to design their own clothes and order items directly from the manufacturer.

Many great designers have had good business instincts – particularly the Americans – while others have benefited from entrepreneurial partners (Yves Saint Laurent from Pierre Bergé, most famously). But all have in some way been servants of commerce. Fashion is an applied art and designers cannot toil for long in a garret and wait for posterity to acknowledge them. All have understood the need to please a customer while expressing a creative response to the world around them. An observant reporter for The New York Times, writing back in 1913, said of Jeanne Paquin: “She maintains the attitude of an artist, but we know she is the most commercial artist alive.”

Ultimately, we took a broad and all-embracing view of what a great designer is. From business moguls to celebrities to true creative geniuses, anyone can claim designer status. In the final analysis, though, we kept returning to a celebrated comment by the late, great Karl Lagerfeld. “Who has the biggest influence?” he declared. “It’s unimportant who is the most gifted.”

Lagerfeld was being his usual provocative self, but he had a point. Timing it right is an essential part of the process of turning an idea into a phenomenon. Some of that timing is luck, while much of it is a hard-to-define process of sensing what’s in the air, anticipating the future.

The good news is that great design can never be entirely replaced by machine-learnt design driven by Big Data – and that is a cause for celebration. While the world is changing, the vision of a great designer can still light creative fires that are gloriously unpredictable and uplifting.

The Great Fashion Designers is published by Bloomsbury. Roger Tredre is a Senior Commissioning Editor at Fashion Unfiltered. Copies of the book can be purchased here.

The page could not be loaded!