Women Behind Major Fashion Houses

Before you get hooked on to The Assassination of Gianni Versace: American Crime Story, and you know that you will, get to know one of the most prominent player in the deceased designer’s life, Donatella Versace, who heads the fashion brand now. She has managed to successfully cast away the looming shadow of Gianni Versace’s design legacy and create her own voice for the brand. She is also a member of the ‘Kickass women in fashion’ group that hosts some of the most powerful, and well-dressed, women in the business. We cannot verify the existence of said group, but we’re pretty sure these women meet and laugh at anecdotes of mansplaining and the latest Colbert monologue over bubbling champagne and canapés.

From the Fendi sisters, who took their family’s leather goods business to dizzying heights, to former Spice Girl Victoria Beckham, these are the most powerful and iconic women behind some of the biggest fashion houses in the world.

The Fendi sisters

The Italian luxury powerhouse, which is famed for reimagining the classic fur coat, was, at its height, a rare fully female fashion dynasty, all courtesy the five women at the helm, who affectionately became known as the Fendi sisters.

Sophia Venturini Fendi with her ‘Baguette’ bag

“Fendi is matriarchy,” Carla Fendi had said in a 2005 interview with author Alain Elkann and this remains true as Sophia Venturini Fendi, Anna Fendi’s daughter and creator of the iconic ‘Baguette’ bag, is now the brand’s creative director. Because of the brand’s cultural importance to Italy, special government dispensation was granted to them to allow their descendants to adopt their maternal surname.

The Fendi sisters with Karl Lagerfeld

They brought in Karl Lagerfeld onboard as the creative director in 1965. Lagerfeld, who eventually became known as the sixth Fendi child, still remains the brand’s head womenswear designer.

Paola, Anna, Franca, Carla and Alda Fendi took over the family’s leather goods business in 1946 and revamped it into a luxury fashion house. Their parents Eduardo and Adele Fendi founded the company in 1925, but it was only after the sisters’ takeover that the brand got wider recognition and prestige.

Aside from establishing the brand as a force to be reckoned with in the fashion industry, they cemented Fendi’s reputation as a patron of Italian heritage and arts with their concerted efforts towards promoting it.

Stella McCartney

The Central St. Martins alum was appointed the creative director of French brand Chloe, amidst criticism, most notably from Karl Lagerfeld. He felt that McCartney might not have been the best choice to lead a fashion brand and was only appointed because of her illustrious connections to the music world.

She decided to open her own label in 2001. It was then that she established her reputation as an eco-friendly designer by refusing to use leather in any of her collections. “I was definitely ridiculed at that time,” she recalled in a 2016 lecture at the London College of Fashion, where she is closely involved in the Sustainability Masters course.

On World Ocean Day this year, she announced the launch of a sustainable line in partnership with Parley for the Ocean, an organization that recovers up to 120 tonnes of trash from the oceans every month and turns it into filaments. The consumers who are used to the understated luxury of her creations will just have to get used to it, she says. “If they don’t notice it and if they feel that living on this planet longer is a luxury, then yes, that’s my idea of luxury,” the designer told the New York Times, “To take something destructive and to turn it into something that’s sexy and cool, how can that not be a luxury?”

McCartney continued her efforts to reduce the destruction of the planet by developing an eco-friendly viscose, as an alternative to the regular kind that required nearly 120 million trees to be cut down annually. Her label became the first luxury fashion house to be a part of the National Resource Defence Council’s ‘Clean By Design’ initiative that focuses on improving process efficiency to reduce waste and emissions.

Maria Grazia Chiuri

The Italian designer, who has had over 25 years of experience, including a 17 year stint at Valentino as a co-creative director, wasted no time before establishing Dior as a supporter of women’s rights. For her debut show in Paris, the designer sent down models wearing slogan T-shirts bearing the title of Nigerian writer Ngozi Adichie’s essay: We Should All Be Feminists. “If Dior is about femininity, then it’s about women. Not about what it was to be a woman 50 years ago, but a woman today,” she said, after her show.

While she understands the heavyweight legacy that she has inherited with her new title, she also knows the importance of bringing the brand into 2017. Her secret trick? She imagines Christian Dior and her daughter Rachele having a conversation in her head. While Dior represents the brand codes and the values it stands for, her daughter gives her an idea of how these ideas would be received by the audience of now. Because of this, she sees herself as the ‘curator of the idea of Dior.’

In what can be called a momentous feminist movement in fashion, Dior (that has been credited for mansplaining feminine charm for 70 years) appointed Maria Grazia Chiuri as its first female creative director in 2016.

Victoria Beckham

The British designer’s triumphant second-act, followed a bright career as Posh Spice, started off with trepidation amongst the fashion elite. According to a Guardian report, there was a palpable feeling of skepticism amongst the editors gathered at a suite in the Waldorf in New York for the launch of Beckham’s fashion label. But the low-key collection, featuring 10 dresses, won the approval of the editors present, and subsequently the rest of the industry, mostly due to Beckham’s earnest conviction.

The world was prepared to write off Victoria Beckham’s fashion label as yet another celebrity vanity project, but the former Spice Girl who had no formal training in design proved them wrong and how.

She once said that she is not the best singer, nor was she a good dancer or possessor of supermodel looks. But she has always worked hard and made the best of what she is, and according to her, this is what the secret to her unprecedented success as a fashion designer is. Even though other members of her team may be responsible for the drawings and pattern cutting for her designs, the vision is always hers.

Tory Burch

Blake Lively wearing a Tory Burch dress in Gossip Girl

Her designs became further ingrained into the consciousness of young fashion enthusiasts due to its starring role in most of Gossip Girl episodes.

Oprah Winfrey pronounced Tory Burch as the ‘next big thing in fashion’ on her first appearance on the show. The words proved prophetic and the American designer went on to become one of the most well-known designers in the world.

Tory Burch Reva flats

Now the label includes ready-to-wear fashion, shoes, handbags,accessories, watches, home décor and a fragrance and beauty collection. She is best known for her Reva ballet flats, named after her mother, in every conceivable colour possible.

The one-time publicist to designer Vera Wang, she is often heralded as a visionary for being one of the pioneers to merge fashion and technology. At the New York Fashion Week in 2014, she became the first designer to use Google Lightbox’s ad technology to livestream the runway show across the web. Her label is also one of the first major fashion brands to move into wearable technology after collaborating with Fitbit for a line of accessories.

Donatella Versace

The name Versace is not only associated with high octane glamour anymore. Versace is luxury, from couture creations gracing the red carpet to plush interiors of private jets, the label has firmly established itself as the premiere name in all things luxurious. All this can be credited to the woman at the helm, Donatella Versace.

Versace Spring 2006

“Male designers work for an ideal woman, female designers work for a real woman,” she was once quoted saying. True to her word, the brand became aspirational for women, offering a rare combination of sexy glamour and comfort with each slinky cocktail dress it produced.

Versace Fall 2000

From the beginning, her taste was different than her brother’s. It was apparent from the first few collections from the fashion house that the new aesthetic was a pale imitation of what people had come to expect from Gianni Versace. It was around this time that Donatella sought rehabilitation for her issues with addiction. After her stint in rehab, there was a noticeable change in the brand’s code as she finally decided to retire her brother’s vision and gave the brand her own voice.

Donatella and Gianni Versace

Donatella Versace succeeded brother and founder of the label Gianni Versace as the creative head of the brand after he was fatally shot in 1997.

Versace with TAG aircrafts

While she celebrated the glorious history of the brand by continuing to include the out-there glamour synonymous with Versace in the brand’s collections, she was always looking to the future. It was this foresight that led to the expansion of the label into non-clothing luxury items, especially to the indecently rich Russian clients, something that was met with criticism at the time she started it. The rest of the industry caught up after the boom in Russia and Eastern Europe as a market for luxury fashion.

Donatella had been a close advisor and muse to her brother throughout the brand’s rise in the 80s and the 90s but not everyone responded positively to her new role. Detractors pointed out that her wild, partying ways and continued substance abuse made her an unsuitable candidate to take over the brand.

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