Already a prolific fashion writer with several books under her belt (including Vogue: Twentieth Century Fashion), Linda Watson has now turned her attention to the most radical and ground-breaking designers in the style world. Delving into the careers of the industry’s tastemakers, Fashion Visionaries will strike a chord with fashion fans and wannabe design students.
Watson’s selection of 75 designers shows that a lack of academic training doesn’t stop a visionary making their mark. For every perfect student of New York’s Parsons School of Design, London’s Central St. Martins or Tokyo’s Bunka Fashion College, there’s another industry favourite who rose from being a shop assistant or a seamstress. The list of self-taught designers is longer than you might think, and includes Helmut Lang, Jean Muir, Emilio Pucci, Elsa Schiaparelli and Vivienne Westwood.
Whilst some big names skipped fashion school but studied relevant alternatives like fine art, sculpture or architecture, those who came from totally different worlds really stand out. Ottavio Missoni is a classic example – an Olympic athlete, he got into design by making wool tracksuits in the town of Trieste after World War Two (and later crafted the Italian athletes’ uniform for the 1948 Olympics). Today the Missoni brand is world-famous and is a fashion dynasty, forever reinventing its bold patterned knitwear.
The book’s entries are roughly arranged in chronological order, running from Thierry Hermès to Gareth Pugh, with some fun clashes between the pages. Donna Karan, famous for creating an in-demand collection of ‘seven easy pieces’ women could use as a simple but elegant capsule wardrobe, is followed by self-confessed showman Thierry Mugler, who once said ‘I don’t believe in natural fashion’. There are further contrasts between the designers obsessed with the creative process, like the elusive Martin Margiela, and those who poke fun at their own industry, like Franco Moschino (whose rebellious spirit is well and truly continued by Jeremy Scott, current creative director at Moschino).
Several of the most business-minded designers built themselves an empire that went far beyond couture or ready-to-wear. Halston expanded to include items like luggage and carpets, whereas Armani and Missoni opened hotels, and Biba branding appeared on ‘everything from baked beans to dog food’. However, the ultimate businessman was surely Pierre Cardin, who put his name to razors, food, frying pans and yachts, but also opened showrooms in both China and the Soviet Union during the 1980s, which was no mean feat in itself. Ultimately Fashion Visionaries acknowledges that some basic commercial decisions, such as launching a perfume or collaborating with another brand, aren’t about selling out: they just keep couturiers from running into serious debt.
What’s really incredible about Fashion Visionaries is the number of everyday items we buy without realising who made them ubiquitous. American Claire McCardell made ballet pumps popular; Mary Quant is the one to thank for mini-skirts (the ‘mini’ name refers to her favourite car); Gabrielle ‘Coco’ Chanel was the first to use jersey fabric for outerwear instead of underwear. However, the best invention comes from Salvatore Ferragamo who, like several others in the book, struggled to fund his business and went bankrupt. Cash-strapped but still determined to experiment, he played around with wine corks and dreamt up the cork wedge, which has been a staple summer shoe for decades. The next time you meet someone who claims not to follow fashion but wears wedges all summer, you can put them in their place.
There are only a couple of issues with the book, but they really are minor – for example, a description of Beyoncé and Missy Elliott as ‘soul singers’ is wide of the mark. More importantly, I’d have liked to see a bigger selection of modern designers added to Fashion Visionaries, like Viktor & Rolf, Thom Browne or the much-missed Meadham Kirchhoff (the latter revealed last year to be ‘in a quagmire of debt’, with their entire archive lost to their studio landlord). Otherwise, Fashion Visionaries is a comprehensive journey through the industry’s most striking figures, and it’s a lasting reminder of fashion’s power to transform.
Published by Laurence King, Linda Watson’s Fashion Visionaries is available to buy online here.