It’s easy to believe that fashion is a woman’s world. The standard runway season predominately caters to women’s fashion, as do most department stores and clothing boutiques. However, looking back on the biggest houses in history, most of them were founded by men. As fashion was, and is, a business, women were often limited in their financial decision-making. Over the years, women have gained more fiscal independence, allowing a number of female designers to step out and launch their own brands. In celebration of International Women’s Day, here are 12 Maisons established by some of the most powerful female designers in history.
In 1909, Gabrielle “Coco” Chanel started her name brand as a single Parisian boutique frequented by the mistresses of some of the city’s most powerful men. As her list of wealthy clients grew, so did her business. By 1915, Chanel was one of Europe’s most coveted design Houses. Over 100 years later, the brand has continued to grow under the dutiful leadership of the late Karl Lagerfeld and, now, his successor Virginie Viard.
Italian fashion designer Elsa Schiaparelli planted her roots in Paris in 1927 with her own maison, showcasing garments inspired by Paul Poiret as well as Surrealist painters like her friend Salvador Dalí. She often incorporated trompe-l’œuil elements and her signature “shocking pink” into her collections. Although she ceased operations in the early ’50s, Marco Zanini relaunched the House of Schiaparelli in 2014.
After a false start in 1912, impacted by the First World War, Madeleine Vionnet relaunched the House of Vionnet in 1923. Called the Queen of the Bias Cut, Vionnet found returning clients in Old Hollywood stars like Greta Garbo, Katharine Hepburn, and Joan Crawford. Her pension for sensual shapes was a key component of 1930s fashion. She closed the house again in 1939 as the Second World War closed in. While her maison was short-lived, Vionnet has been credited by many designers as an inspiration for their own style, including Rei Kawakudo, Issey Miyake, Azzedine Alaïa, and John Galliano.
In 1945, Gaby Aghion and her husband Raymond left their home in Egypt to start a life in Paris. Seven years later, she opened the House of Chloé. Her first fashion show took place in 1956 outside the Café de Flore, the hub of sophicated French youth at the time. Many have credited Aghion with coining the phrase “prêt-à-porter.” Though she retired from the public eye around the 1960s, she continued to lead the brand until 1985.
Jeanne Lanvin started out simply making clothes for her daughter. However, by 1889, the 32-year-old was launching her own House of Lanvin, the third oldest European fashion house still in operation. After seeing her daughter’s garments around town, word spread among the wealthy women of Paris who commissioned Lanvin for their own unique pieces, thus beginning a legacy that lives on today.
Sonia Rykiel launched her name brand in the 1960s after the success of her Poor Boy Sweater. Not only was she known as the Queen of Knits, she was the first designer to put seams on the outside of her garments. Many consider her a leader of the all-black ensemble trend that continues to define Parisian style.
Comme des Garçons
Tokyo-born Rei Kawakubo established Comme des Garçons in 1969 in her hometown. Her clothes focused on anti-fashion motifs and avant garde construction. While her initial collections were primarily black and white, Kawakubo began branching out to more colors in the late ’80s.
German designer Jil Sander founded her namesake brand in 1968 in Hamburg, Germany. While outside the typical fashion hubs, Sander gained a prominent following during the late ’80s and ’90s, which led the Prada Group to purchase in the brand in 1999. Over the years, she has left and returned as head designer for interim periods.
Vivienne Westwood found her roots in the British punk movement in the ’60s and ’70s by designing clothes for The Sex Pistols’ manager Malcolm McLaren and his boutique Sex. Her eclectic and provocative sense of style was a defining part of punk fashion. More than 50 years later, Westwood continues to find ways to shock audiences.
Donna Karan New York
After an early career under Anne Klein, New York City native Donna Karan launched her brand in 1988 with her husband and co-CEO Stephan Weiss. She quickly became known as the Queen of Seventh Avenue, and eventually developed a more youth-centric label called DKNY. She left the company in 2015.
At 16, Stella McCartney interned for Christian Lacroix. In 1995, she presented a her final fashion collection at Central Saint Martins on models Naomi Campbell and Kate Moss. By 2001, McCartney had launched her name brand, which upholds her own vegetarian beliefs by not using any real fur or leather. The house also promotes sustainability by producing eco-friendly garments.