jfW’s pick of luxury brands that have created history, broken trends and taught the world how to be fashionable. By Vijetha Rangabashyam
Give the prodigious little black dress or the ubiquitous pair of blue jeans that hangs in every woman’s wardrobe a thought. They come to our rescue anytime we have to defy serious wardrobe woes – the informal blue jeans have now taken even the professional world by storm. These essentials were once epiphanies in the minds of genius designers, who constantly fought trends and stood by their fashion ethos. Some of them have become such a cult that even today counterfeits are made and sold to make them affordable to everyone. The word luxury has been tagged to these exquisite pieces not only because of their worth but their quintessential style element created by design prodigies whose creations live eternally even after their passing.
Louis Vuitton - Travelling with Heritage
When you think about trendsetters in fashion, Louis Vuitton, famous for its one of a kind monogram, tops the list. It all began in 1854, when M. Vuitton introduced waterproof canvas trunks instead of genuine leather. At that time travelling meant carrying heavy dome topped trunks; however, M. Vuitton introduced the flat top, wooden trunks covered in trianon canvas which were light and airtight, appropriate for long voyages. For many decades, Louis Vuitton was only known for its flat topped luggage, till New York’s apple of the eye designer Marc Jacobs took over the creative reigns of the company in 1997.
After nearly a century since the brand’s inception, it ventured into other lines of luxury including apparel, handbags, watches and jewellery. Counterfeiting was not a sudden threat to Louis Vuitton considering imitations were made and sold in the markets even during the early years of its founding, but that meant constant innovation as well. From the Keepall, Noé to the very avant-garde Stephen Sprouse’s graffiti bags, Louis Vuitton has always been a hit among people so much so that the demand was always higher than the supply. What began as a small luggage shop in Paris is now the world’s most valuable luxury brand for six consecutive years.
Christian Dior - The New Look
If it was not for Christian Dior’s brainchild, The New Look, Paris would not have reclaimed its status of being the fashion capital of the world. In a post war era, when fabrics were prorated, full flowing skirts with waspy waists and soft shoulders that defined Dior’s debut collection were a welcome change. His gowns more often than not threw emphasis on the bust and hips, exaggerating the hourglass female figure. Dior was one of the first designers to make a revolution in the perfume industry by launching Miss Dior. In the early 50s, Dior officially became a luxury brand, making up 5 % of France’s total export revenue.
The demise of Monsieur Dior ended up in a brief period of chaos and financial instability till a young Yves Saint-Laurent was promoted as the Artistic Director of the brand. Though Laurent’s style echoed Dior’s aesthetics, he made pieces that were more wearable, which made him popular in the world of fashion. However, owing to his brazen aesthetics that were influenced by the 60s beatnik era, he was soon replaced by designer Marc Bohan who revived the original, conservative style of Dior. From being a purely haute couture brand, Dior is probably one of the few luxury brands that has manifested itself into a thoroughfare of luxury products that include footwear, perfumes, cosmetics, jewellery, leather goods, watches, and a children’s wear brand called Baby Dior.
Coco Chanel- Redefining Women’s Fashion
In a time when women’s fashion was contoured by corsets and figure-hugging gowns, Gabrielle Chanel was the pioneer in establishing comfort in her designs, as she once admitted herself, “Luxury must be comfortable, otherwise it’s not luxury.” Her sense of style was androgynous in its appeal – some of her trademark pieces like the jersey dress and collarless jackets were greatly influenced by elements of male clothing. She was also the first designer to introduce the eponymous Chanel No 5 perfume. In the 1920’s, she transformed the connotation of the colour black, from being a symbol of mourning to something elegant and sophisticated – the little black dress.
A lot of Chanel’s designs were also a reflection of her love for horse racing; the timeless Chanel 2.55 bag that we see so effortlessly carried by women even today is based on the quilted coats worn by boys at the horse racing track. To this day, women from all over the world carry pieces of fashion in their wardrobe which are reminiscent of Chanel’s style. Since Karl Lagerfeld took over the house of Chanel in the 80s, the designs may have changed in terms of colours and fabrics but the underlying spirit of Chanel’s original design ethos which is comfort, still remains the same.
Yves Saint Laurent – Where Fashion married Art
In the 50s when haute-couture was still a closed affair, where fashion was a one way street, this wonder boy of fashion let his free spirit wander in his creations - think pop art dresses, safari jackets and the famous Piet Mondrian shift dress. Success came to Laurent at the tender age of 21, when Dior declared him his protégé. However, after about six collections, he was fired by Dior for his iconoclastic designs which were always not well received by the public. But Laurent followed his free will along with his partner Pierre Bergé and launched his eponymous label in 1961. Laurent filled the gaps between the blurring lines of fashion, a mélange of male and female, classic and modern, bourgeoisie and proletariat. He took inspiration from the beatnik era of the 60s, of turtleneck sweaters and berets, dark glasses and jumpsuits, skinny jeans and pencil skirts. His Le Smoking tuxedo was a phenomenon - he was the first designer to make trouser suits for women. He was a democratic designer for having made ready-to-wear readily available to the masses by opening the Rive Gauche prêt-à-porter boutique.
The infamously famous Opium was launched in the 70s, which garnered a lot of negative publicity from the media courtesy its bold and controversial ad campaign, but for YSL it worked to its advantage. In 1999 the Gucci Group bought the YSL Label and since then the creative reins have been passed on to design mavericks like Tom Ford and Stefano Pilati. YSL gave us trouser suits, see-through blouses, tight pants, thigh high boots and so on but more so than anything, the designer gave women empowerment through fashion.
Prada – The Constant Inventor
As irony would have it, a small leather good’s company that was begun by a very patriarchal Mario Prada in 1913, is now an enormous fashion house run by his granddaughter Miuccia Prada. Miuccia was a Major in Political Science, though suddenly the responsibility of running a heritage founded by her grandfather fell into her hands. Mario Prada had the ball rolling by creating fine luxury leather pieces and accessories that caught the attention of many aristocrats including the Princess Grace of Monaco. However, Mario’s inventions became a thing of the past, they were not appropriate anymore and Miuccia had the task of altering the brand’s character to appeal to the young. Around this time, destiny worked in her favour, when she met her life partner, Patrizio Bertelli, who also would be her business-alter ego. Bertelli’s business sense and Miuccia’s creative genius was so symbiotic that Prada was soon a pioneer in the market rubbing shoulders with its contemporaries.
The credit for the brand’s comeback, however, was the simple black backpack Miuccia had created with the tough military spec black nylon that her grandfather had used as a canvas for his steel trunks. Miuccia won the image of a leading clothes designer shortly after launching the Prada ready-to-wear line. She came to be known as the player of fabrics and fashionistas of the world looked forward to her collections every year. Bertelli on the other end constantly expanded the Prada Empire by indulging in acquisitions of high end brands. Shortly, every young woman’s dream came true with the launch of MiuMiu – a label for the chic, modern, woman of the day. If we look at the history of fashion and how it has shaped the mindset of many a fashion enthusiast, Prada hits the chord.
Gucci – The G Phenomena
When we think of luxury Italian brands, the first one to pop into mind is Gucci. The bamboo handbag handles, shoulder strap and snaffle bit decoration handbags, the silk foulards carrying the butterfly patterns and the great penny loafers are some of the many admirable trends set by Gucci. Having worked in hotels, Guccio Gucci developed an admiration towards luxury luggage carried by guests, which urged him to return to his hometown Florence, where he opened a fine leather goods store. The brand was nowhere to be seen among the A-listers, till Aldo Gucci, the eldest son took over the company at a later date. It was his brainchild that popularized the brand and freed it from the label of being just a handbag and luxury luggage business. Following his father’s path of innovation, Aldo’s son Paolo, introduced the first ready-to-wear collection in 1960. What started off as a casual expansion soon became a success over the years, setting historic trends of shiny velvet pants and fur piped coats.
An unfortunate misunderstanding between the father and son led to the deterioration of the company and the family lost control of the brand. However, with Tom Ford at its creative helm, the brand did not just stop with innovation but went on to acquire the likes of Yves Saint Laurent Rive Gauche, Bottega Veneta and Sergio Rossi. Today, Frida Gianni is the creative director of the brand and she has gone back to basics, where the Gucci story truly began: its heritage.
Calvin Klein - Calvinizing the World
In the late 60s American designer Calvin Klein would persistently take his samples up to the Seventh Avenue, to make his pitch to the buyers of Bonwit Teller, a departmental store in New York. Soon, his labels were splashed across the windows of pretty much every 5th Avenue store and the world would shortly see an empire born out of $10000.The phenomena of ‘luxury underwear’ began with CK’s line of men’s underwear – burly men with toned arms and chiselled abs were seen sporting CK underwear on bus shelters and hoardings. A little later, CK introduced a lingerie line for women that was very similar to boxers worn by men, bidding goodbye to silky, lace panties altogether. Luxury went beyond clothes and shoes; luxury had become an intimate affair in America by then. But it was not until the infamous ad campaign that had Brooke Shield posing in CK Jeans suggestively in 1980, the brand got world recognition; 2 million pairs of CK jeans were sold.
CK became a state of the art perfume brand with the launch of Obsession in 1985 and then Eternity in 1988. Escape was launched in 1991 and soon after, the brand broke the monotony of creating two lines of perfumes for men and women by launching CK One, a unisex fragrance that appealed to the youngsters of that era. His clothes were simple and it was the brand for career women who liked to be sure about themselves. After selling the company to Phillips – Van Heusen, the creative reins of women’s wear was handed over to Francisco Costa who improvised on the brand while retaining CK’s principle of simplicity.
Versace – Red Carpet’s Best Friend
Versace has always been about clothes that put the wearer instantly in the limelight; that is perhaps why no red carpet is seen without a celebrity dazzling in her custom-made Versace gown. The scandalous black, safety pin dress worn by Elizabeth Hurley at the premiere of Four Weddings and a Funeral is one of the most impudent dresses made in the history of fashion. Gianni Versace started this fashion empire in Milan by opening the first boutique on Via della Spiga in 1978 and he was shortly joined by his brother Santo and sister Donatella. As much as being a great designer, Gianni was also known for his sheer brilliance as a marketer – until Versace came into the picture, using celebrities as ambassadors was still a rarity. From music icons Paul McCartney and Michael Jackson featuring Versace in their music video ‘say, say, say’ to the stunning Cindy Crawford in the famous red Versace plunge gown which still is considered one of the biggest Oscar fashion moments, the brand had one thing in its pocket – oomph appeal.
After the shocking assassination of Gianni in 1997 by a spree killer, Donatella began handling the creative division of the company. Her popularity grew after she designed the evocative, green chiffon ‘jungle dress’ for Jennifer Lopez for the 2000 Grammy’s. The brand is also the first to venture into Luxury Hotel business, Palazzo Versace in the Australian Gold Cost being the first one. Ever since the death of Gianni, Versace has constantly reinvented itself under the guidance of Donatella, the leading lady of the brand.
Dolce & Gabbana - Into the Wild
Like many luxury brands, D&G is also a happenstance brand – Dominico Dolce met Stefano Gabbana at a nightclub and the duo soon realized that they had a vision that was similar. When the 80s fashion climate was still defined by shades of minimalism, a new fashion era was born, with a fresh take on fashion by the boys as they were famously referred to. The duo drew inspiration from Italy’s profound film history and minimalism was not a part of the D&G dictionary. Wearing underwear as outerwear was D&G’s innovation; they are known to have popularized the Sicilian widow look using yards of black lace for lingerie dressing.
Brand D&G is also famous for its larger than life ad campaigns featuring voluptuous leading ladies of the silver screen including Monica Bellucci, Scartlett Johansson, Isabella Rossellini and others. The brand’s involvement in fashion did not just stop with lingerie – they ventured into bridal lines, beachwear, ready-to-wear collection, fragrances and more. With D&G’s entry, the 90s saw the beginning of a new fashion movement that broke away from austerity, making it one of the finest luxury brands that appealed to the Gen-Y category.
Jimmy Choo - Fury of the Stilettos
Rumour has it that Academy Award winning actress Cate Blanchett steered clear of wearing her sprightly pair of Choos to the Oscars in 1999 because she felt they would steal her thunder! The realm of luxury footwear distinctively changed after the entry of Jimmy Choo; shoes were not just shoes anymore. The Malaysian’s talent was discovered by British Vogue’s Accessory Editor Tamara Mellon. Jimmy Choo was a humble cobbler born to shoemaker parents in Penang and ran a small made-to-order shoe making business in a makeshift parlour which was once a hospital in Far-East London. When Mellon started working for Vogue, anytime she had the requirement for shoes for special occasions, she would approach Choo to make them for her. What started off as a quasi-professional relationship, flourished into an artisan footwear brand. As a result of the kind of recognition the footwear received, Mellon requested her father to pump in a sumptuous amount of money and started an official business partnership with Choo, giving birth to Jimmy Choo Ltd. The flagship Jimmy Choo boutique in London was a raving hit. In the late 90s stores opened across the States in New York, Beverly Hills and Las Vegas.
The brand was popularized by the shoe-possessed Carry Bradshaw in the hit series Sex and the City when she said Jimmy Choo was one of her favourite shoe stores – patrons from all over the world had their eye on the notorious feather shoe featured in the show. Shortly after Equinox Luxury Holdings bought Choo, the brand introduced a luxury bags collection. Today the core team that began this footwear kingdom may not remain with the brand but owning a pair of Jimmy Choos is still like owning diamonds – they are precious.