Fashion Designers have been shaping the world of fashion and to some extent popular culture for well over 100 years.
The top fashion designers are usually those that have pushed the boundaries and broken the mold in terms of design.
Blending fashion, art and materials whilst often borrowing from various subcultures capturing the zeitgeist of their era.
Top Fashion Designers
1. Giorgio Armani
Born on July 11, 1934, in Piacenza, Italy, designer Giorgio Armani first served in the military then entered and dropped out of college. Going to work for a leading department store in Milan, La Rinascente, he began his study of fashion.
Armani joined the fashion house Cerruti as a designer before establishing his own label in 1975 with long-time partner Sergio Galeotti. Armani’s men’s suits spiked in popularity in the 1980s when featured in both the film “American Gigolo” and the television series “Miami Vice.”
Galeotti passed away in 1985 and Armani took over the executive duties of the design house, too. His men’s and women’s lines feature neutral colors and body conforming designs. In the late 20th century, he branched into housewares, restaurants, and hotels.
2. Coco Chanel
Born on August 19, 1883, Gabrielle Bonheur Chanel, better known as Coco, grew up in Saumur, France. At aged 12, Chanel’s mother died and her father placed her in an orphanage. There, nuns taught her to sew, providing the basic skill of her future career.
She first worked as a nightclub singer, but patrons noticed her talent for millinery and in 1910 helped finance the start of her first shop on Paris’s Rue Cambon. Her hat designs took off first, then a simple jersey dress.
Her women’s fashions have always leaned toward comfort and glamour. In the 1920s, she first added her trademark perfume, Chanel No. 5 and her trademark suit in 1925. It borrowed heavily from menswear looks, but evoked a feminine appeal. Although she died on January 10, 1971, her fashion house continues to produce cutting edge women’s fashions.
3. Calvin Klein
Calvin Richard Klein entered the world on November 19, 1942 in The Bronx, NY, the son of a Hungarian emigrate grocer and a homemaker. His maternal grandmother owned a tailor shop and visiting it often exposed the young Klein to fashion from childhood.
He began sketching fashion designs as a pre-teen and his talent for such led to his attendance of the High School of Industrial Arts and the Art Students League. He graduated college in 1963 from Fashion Institute of Technology. Five years later, he partnered with childhood friend Barry Schwartz to open his first showroom with $10,000.
In the early 1970s, Klein landed a distribution deal with New York City department store Bonwit Teller. Beginning with women’s fashions, he expanded to men’s then children’s later in the decade. During the 1990s, record executive David Geffen invested in the design house which continues to bring out casual fashions with a sensual twist.
4. Tommy Hilfiger
Born on March 24, 1951, Thomas Jacob Hilfiger, played football at Elmira Free Academy High School. The son of watchmaker and a nurse, he is the second of nine children in an Irish-American family.
In his teens, he redesigned blue jeans to re-sell in his hometown and at 18, opened a retail store catering to the hippie crowd. He did not try fashion design until 1984, when he launched his brand with funding from Mohan Murjani.
His preppy clothing with its red, white and blue theme struck a chord with the Hip Hop set who wore his clothes baggy and as a sign of affluence. The brand’s popularity bobbled in 2000, but re-surged a decade later. Hilfiger continues at its design helm.
5. Donna Karan
Born Donna Ivy Faske on October 2, 1948, designer Donna Karan found herself influenced early on by her model mother and suit designer stepfather. She dropped out of high school in Hewlett, Long Island, NY and shopped her early designs in local stores.
In 1968, she entered New York’s famed Parsons School of Design. She and first husband, Mark Karan, designed for the brand Anne Klein. Leaving Anne Klein in 1984 and her first marriage, Karan founded her own design house and re-married, beginning her union with artist Stephan Weiss.
The following year she debuted her first collection which catered to the career woman. She still designs modern clothes for modern people as well as offering a fragrance line.
6. Gianni Versace
The storied designer Gianni Versace, born December 2, 1946, in Reggio di Calabria, Italy, knew from the start he would design fashion. In an industry considered detached from other aspects of culture, Versace, partnered with siblings Santo and Donatella to create iconic fashion influenced by art and music.
He designed for Princess Diana, Elton John, Madonna, and Tina Turner. Versace’s influence was widely felt in both European and American fashion. The designer relocated to the United States and was living in an opulent mansion in the tony South Beach area of Miami, FL when he was murdered by spree killer Andrew Cunanan on July 15, 1997.
His siblings carried on the work of the family’s fashion house and the Versace name continues to represent opulence and sophistication mixed with street smart fashion.
7. Ralph Lauren
The designer of the preppy line Polo with its signature fragrance of the same name began life in The Bronx, New York City as Ralph Lifshitz. Born on October 14, 1939 to Ashkenazi Jewish parents who immigrated after escaping Belarus, he is the third of four children.
Both he and his brother Jerry changed their last name to Lauren in their teens due to teasing and bullying at school. While he developed his distinctive fashion sense as a teen, inspired by Fred Astaire and Cary Grant, he did not begin his fashion career until after attending Baruch College and serving in the US Army.
Beginning in sales at Brooks Brothers, he moved to Beau Brummell in 1967. There he founded his fashion dynasty by designing neck ties on the side. Branding them Polo, he sold them at large department stores such as Bloomingdale’s. A $30,000 business loan let him expand to a full menswear line and just three years after his start, he won a Coty Award for his menswear.
He followed with a women’s business suit line and the now ubiquitous short-sleeve cotton shirt known generically as a polo shirt, but also by its branded name of Polo. Its front carried the company logo of a polo player, designed by tennis pro Rene Lacoste.
He followed with the luxury clothing line Ralph Lauren Purple, home furnishings under Ralph Lauren Home and a set of fragrances. In 2015, he moved from CEO of Ralph Lauren Corp. to executive chairman and chief creative officer.
8. Yves Saint Laurent
Born in Oran, Algeria on August 1, 1936, Yves Henri Donat Matthieu Saint Laurent grew up in privileged surroundings in a Mediterranean villa with his two sisters. His attorney/insurance broker father also owned a cinema chain.
Though bullied in school, he focused on fashion and drawing his own designs. By his teens, he created dresses for his mother and sisters. A meeting at aged 17 with French Vogue editor Michael de Brunhoff spurred his enrollment at the Chambre Syndicale de la Couture and resulted in an introduction to Christian Dior.
A later lawsuit involving Dior resulted in an award of £48,000 which enabled he and partner Pierre Berge to open their own fashion house. His designs for women ranged from sheer blouses to blazers.
His designs became a favorite of actresses and models. His work experienced a slight downtrend in popularity in the 1980s, but resurged as the elite railed against the grunge look of the 1990s.
The designer closed his last personal involvement in the fashion house in 2002, then retired to Marrakech. In 2007, French President Nicolas Sarkozy appointed Saint Laurent Grand Officer of the Legion d’honnerur. The following year, on June 1, the designer died after a brief illness.
9. Christian Dior
Born on January 21, 1905 to a fertilizer manufacturer and a homemaker, in the seaside town of Granville, France, Christian Dior originally studied political science in college. Although he wanted to study architecture, his father wanted him to become a diplomat.
Graduating in 1928 from Ecole des Sciences Politique the designer, the designer opened an art gallery with his dad’s blessing. In 1931, he closed the gallery to go to work as an illustrator and began at Figaro Illustre in 1935.
He entered fashion just before World War II broke out, working with Robert Piguet. Dior served in the French Army during the War until the French surrender in 1940. Returning to Paris, he worked with Lucien Lelong creating designs that showcased luxury and femininity during times of hardship. He quickly became a favorite among actresses and socialites.
While on vacation in Italy, he died from a heart attack on October 23, 1957. Although he designed for less than two decades, he influenced many other designers and his fashion house lives on with the name Dior evoking a sophistication still respected throughout the world.
10. Karl Lagerfeld
Iconoclast Karl Otto Lagerfeldt, better known simply as Karl Lagerfeld, began life in Hamburg, Germany on September 10, 1933. His parents, a condensed milk importer and a violinist, encourage intellectual study and discourse.
When World War II broke out, his parents moved with he and his two sisters to the countryside where they could live with comparatively little interaction with the Nazis. When the war ended, the family returned to Hamburg, but the then teenaged Lagerfeld moved alone to Paris, France to participate in its fashion movement.
Winning the coat category of a design competition at age 16, he forged a friendship with another competitor, Yves Saint Laurent. First working for French designer Pierre Balmain for three years, then another fashion house, he established his own design house in 1961.
Known for innovation in design and for constantly reinventing himself and his designs, Lagerfeld continued designing collections for other fashion brands, including Fendi, Chloe, and Chanel. In 1984, he launched his label, becoming known for bright colors and bold designs.
In 2005, he sold the label to American designer Tommy Hilfiger, but continued to design, creating a clothing line for Macy’s and glassware for Orrefors. His death on February 19, 2019 ended a design era, but his brand lives on as a part of the Hilfiger corporate structure.
11. Miuccia Prada
Maria Bianchi Prada intended to have a career in political science or theater. Born on May 10, 1949, the designer first earned a Ph.D. in political science from University of Milan, then studied mime for five years at Piccolo Teatro.
At 29, she joined her family’s luggage business and that day in 1978 became a turning point for the fashion industry. Prada first revamped the luggage designs, then introduced a line of backpacks and handbags in 1985. This she followed with a ready-to-wear line of stark fashions resembling uniforms.
Favoring androgynous models and neutral colors, the designer rejected the prevailing looks of the time. Marrying designer Patrizio Bertelli, the couple continued to update her family’s firm. In 1992, she introduced Miu Miu, an affordable fashion line geared toward youth.
She followed it in 1995 with a men’s line. Prada continues to diversify with new fashion lines and purchasing stakes in other fashion houses including Church & Company, Fendi, Helmut Lang, Jil Sander.
12. Jean-Paul Gaultier
Best known for Madonna`s conical bras for her 1990 Blond Ambition tour, the fashion designer Jean-Paul Gaultier born in 1952, knew from the outset that he would design clothing.
The sole product of a cashier and a bookkeeper, his earliest fashion influence was his maternal grandmother who had a collection of corsets. By aged 13, Gaultier designed for his mother and grandmother and he landed his first professional position at 18 with Pierre Cardin.
He spent 1970 at Cardin before moving to Jean Patou the following year. He eventually returned to Cardin before founding his label in 1976 with partner Frances Menuge. He mixed street fashion, punk, androgyny and femininity together in a juxtaposition of elements to create a unique brand. His looks and shows resemble no other.
Gaultier pairs leather jackets with crinoline skirts, corsets with flowy skirts, and of course, designed bras meant to be worn on the outside of the outfit. Although his partner died in 1990, Gaultier continued creating, launching a fragrance line, a television show called Eurotrash, and a couture line.
He continues to design for his brand, has collaborated with Hermes, as well as creating costumes for film and musicians for their concert tours.
13. Stella McCartney
The second of three children of musician Sir Paul McCartney and the late photographer Linda McCartney, Stella Nina McCartney was born September 13, 1971.
She began designing while still in college, beginning with a line of t-shirts. Rather than a runway show, she had her friends, supermodels Kate Moss and Naomi Campbell model her fashions at her college graduation form London’s Central St. Martins College of Art & Design.
She moved into a design job at house of Chloe where she focused on what women wanted in the clothing. In 2001, she launched a joint venture with Gucci Group to introduce her label.
Like her mom, she practices vegetarianism. She carries that over into her designs, using no animal derived materials. Since its launch, she has added an eye care and organic skincare line, perfume plus lingerie.
She also launched projects with Adidas and H&M. The designer married publisher Alasdhair Willis in 2003. The couple have four children.
14. Jimmy Choo
Born Jimmy Choo Yeang Keat on November 15, 1948 in Penang, Malaysia to a shoe cobbler and a homemaker, he followed in his father’s footsteps, but moved to England to do so.
Choo’s father taught him the art of hand making shoes, requiring him to sit and watch the process for months before allowing him to try it himself. In the early 1980s, the younger Choo moved to England to study his craft at Cordwainers Technical College, graduating with honors in 1983.
In 1986, he established his initial cobbler shop in Hackney, England. Two years later, he landed an eight-page Vogue spread and became a favorite designer of Princess Diana. Vogue accessories editor Tamara Yeardye Mellon convinced Choo to create a high-end footwear line designed by him, but crafted in an Italian factory, then sold in a branded London boutique.
The 1990s witnessed explosive growth for the designer, who branched into handbags and accessories. Choo missed crafting the shoes himself though and sold his shares of the design house in 2001 to Robert Bensoussan.
He re-established himself in London in a small shop where he personally crafts a few pairs of shoes per week under the brand Jimmy Choo Couture. He also teaches a handful of students to craft shoes, just as his father did when he was a boy. In 2000, Choo was knighted in his home country of Malaysia and in 2003, he was knighted in the United Kingdom.
15. Alexander McQueen
Designer Lee Alexander McQueen was born to a social science teacher and a cab driver on March 17, 1969, the youngest of six children. He earned an O-level in art from Rokeby School in 1985, then continued his studies at Newham College, studying tailoring.
The designer landed an apprenticeship with Anderson & Sheppard, then moved to Gieves & Hawkes and Angels and Bermans to work on theatrical costumes. This trio of tailoring positions on Savile Row helped shaped the unique artistic nature of his later work at Givenchy.
While he apprenticed, he continued his studies, first at Rosetta Art Centre, then at Central Saint Martins College of Art and Design for an MA in fashion he completed in 1992. After introducing three major collections independently, he signed on with Givenchy in 1996, remaining there until 2001.
He began his tenure by insulting the fashion house’s founder as “irrelevant” and spent his time there attempting to update the venerable fashion house. Establishing his own house worked better for the edgy designer. In 2000, Gucci purchase 51 percent of McQueen’s company.
McQueen’s shows tended toward the theatrical and he eschewed traditional runway shows. His models did not walk the “T,” they strutted or lounged through a shipwreck or had glass walls shatter around them.
McQueen took his own life on February 11, 2010, nine days after the death of his beloved mother. The Alexander McQueen company continues operation under its controlling interest owned by Gucci.
16. Michael Kors
You know Karl Anderson Jr. better by his professional moniker Michael Kors, but the native New Yorker born on August 9, 1959 did not change his name for professional reasons.
When Kors was a toddler his parents divorced. His mother remarried when he was five years old. Since he was getting a new last name, his mother also let him choose a new first and middle name. She also allowed her talented kindergarten who already worked as a model to design her wedding dress.
He moved as a teen to New York City to attend the Fashion Institute of Technology, but quit after two semesters. In 1978, he landed a job at Lothar’s that was part design, part merchandising. He launched his introductory women’s collection in May 1981 with distribution at Bergdorf Goodman and Saks Fifth Avenue.
He shopped his women’s designs via trunk show and displayed his collection to influential fashion editor Anna Wintour on the bed in his apartment. He built a following that included Barbara Walters before having to conduct a Chapter 11 reorganization in 1990.
Kors then launched KORS Michael Kors with a lower price point while working as creative director at house of Celine, a position he undertook in 1997. In 2003, he won the award for Menswear Designer of the Year and the following year he kicked off an eight year stint as a Project Runway judge.
In August 2011, he married long-time partner Lance La Pere, mere weeks after the state of New York made gay marriage legal. The Kors brand now includes women-swear, menswear, accessories and perfume lines as well as watches
17. Vera Wang
Born on June 27, 1949, Vera Wang, the daughter of Chinese immigrants attended prep school at the Chapin School and graduated with an art history degree from Sarah Lawrence College. She studied at the Sorbonne during her sophomore year.
Initially Wang wanted to dance and studied at School of American Ballet. She also competed at a high level in figure skating, placing fifth with her partner at the 1968 US National Championships. Her athleticism and dance training influence her designs, as did her stint at Vogue from 1971 to 1987.
In 1987, she moved to Ralph Lauren as a design director providing the experience in the business side of fashion she needed. Two years later, she designed her first wedding gown – her own. With backing from her father, she opened her first boutique.
In 1994, she expanded to designing costumes for figure skaters and evening gowns. She now also offers fragrances, lingerie and desserts as well as having authored a wedding guide.
18. Donatella Versace
Born on May 2, 1955, in Reggio Calabria, Italy, the daughter of a dressmaker, Donatella Versace, followed her mother and brother into the fashion business. After leaving college, Versace went to work with her older brother, Gianni, at his fledgling fashion firm founded in 1978.
Their brother, Santo, also began working with them at the firm. Donatella took over the creative reigns of the business in 1997 when Gianni died. She infuses the designs with influences from rock’n’roll and clubbing. She has two children with former spouse Paul Beck. Her daughter works at the family business and designs costumes in New York City.
19. Vivienne Westwood
The daughter of a cobbler and a cotton mill worker, Vivienne Isabel Swire, was born on April 8, 1941, in Glossop. Moving to Harrow as a young woman, she studied teaching and worked in a factory.
Though her first marriage dissolved in three years, her next relationship with Malcolm McIaren, the manager of The Sex Pistols, resulted in her entering fashion. She began designing jewelry and the band’s attire.
Although she and McIaren ended their relationship in 1982, she continued designing men’s and women’s fashions. Her cutting-edge designs earned her a vast following that included the punk set and Margaret Thatcher. 1992, ten years after Westwood and Mclaren split, Westwood married a second time. She wed her assistant and design partner, Andreas Kronthaler.
20. Pierre Cardin
The Italian designer known for integrating the avant-garde and Space Age into fashion, Pierre Cardin, began life on July 7, 1922 in Venice, Italy. His wine merchant father and homemaker mother encouraged him to study architecture, but he moved to Vichy to study dressmaking and tailoring.
Post-World War II, he worked for Paquin, then Christian Dior. He opened his first tailor shop in 1950 and introduced his women’s ready-to-wear collection in 1959. The following year, he added a men’s ready-to-wear collection.
He soon added fragrances and accessories. Cardin began the trend of fashion designers licensing their names for use on other products. He branched out into industrial design, design automobiles.
21. Christian Louboutin
Born in 1963 in in France, Christian Louboutin is the youngest of four children of a stay-at-home mother and a cabinetmaker, Louboutin discovered his fascination for shoes as a child visiting a museum.
He drew his earliest designs as a teen. Expelled from high school at 16, he landed his first fashion job at shoe designer Charles Jourdan at age 18. He branched out on his own in 1992, adding his trademark red sole to his shoes one year later.
He added women’s purses to his line in 2003 and men’s shoes in 2011. Princess Caroline of Monaco and Madonna wear his designs.
22. Roberto Cavalli
Born on November 15, 1940 in Florence, Italy, designer Roberto Cavalli debuted his designs with a line of women’s evening wear made of leather. He then widened his design scheme to include animal prints.
In 1988, he invented the printed blue jeans and in 1994, sandblasted a design onto a pair of blue jeans, debuting a new line called Cavalli Jeans.
The following year, he partnered with Lycra to create stretch jeans. In later years, he updated the look of the Playboy bunny costumes and designed concert costumes for Christina Aguilera and Jennifer Lopez. In 2007, he partnered with H&M to design a ready-to-wear/street wear line.
23. Marc Jacobs
Native New Yorker Marc Jacobs was born April 9, 1963 to two talent agents employed by the William Morris agency. He and his two siblings re-located with his mother when his father died when Jacobs was seven years old.
He went to live with his grandmother in Manhattan’s Upper West Side. From her he learned knitting and developed his interest in fashion. He met his mentor, Perry Ellis, while working an after-school job at a clothing store.
He entered The Parsons School of Design after high school. The founder of grunge fashion debuted his first collection while at Parsons – a collection of oversized, hand-knitted sweaters. In 1984, he joined Reuben Thomas, Inc. and launched Jacobs Duffy Designs, Inc. with Robert Duffy.
In 1988, he joined Perry Ellis as a lead designer and under that label, debuted the grunge look. In 1997, he joined Louis Vuitton as creative director and opened the first of his boutiques. In 2013, he left Vuitton and focused on his own brand, launching its makeup line. He downsized his brand in 2015, but continues to design.
24. Domenico Dolce and Stefano Gabbana
One half of the massive luxury fashion house, Dolce & Gabbana, Domenico Dolce was born in Polizzi Generosa, Italy on Aug 13, 1958. His business partner, Stefano Gabbana, was born November 14, 1962 in Milan, Italy.
The two met while nightclubbing, began dating and went into business together. Despite a breakup of their personal relationship in 2003, the pair continue to design together.
Dolce & Gabbana’s fashions tend toward animal prints and extravagance. The design house got its big break in 1993 when Madonna chose it to provide fashions for her Girlie tour.
25. Valentino Garavani
You probably know Valentino Clemente Ludovico Garavani better by his first name only, also the name of his brand – Valentino. Born in Voghera, Lombardy, Italy, on May 11, 1932, he excelled in his studies, traveling to Paris, France to study fashion.
In 1959, he completed his fashion training and re-located to Rome Italy to found his brand. He created his own color, Valentino red, which helped vault him to popularity among the elite women of the world including Jacqueline Kennedy for whom he designed grieving attire after the death of her first husband, President John F. Kennedy, Sr. and her wedding gown for her second marriage to Aristotle Onassis.
In 1960, he met Giancarlo Giammetti; the two became romantically involved and entered into a business partnership. Valentino released numerous collections and lines including R.E.D. Valentino, Valentino Garavani, Valentino, and Valentino Roma.
He and partner Giammetti sold the fashion firm in 1998 for $300 million to HdP which sold it in 2002, to Marzotto Apparel. Valentino released the final haute couture collection he personally designed in 2007.