Today that dynamic has changed dramatically, with women not only designing clothes that reflect what they need as modern consumers, but also owning and shaping the directions of their namesake brands and reaping the financial rewards and industry recognition for their initiatives. From models turned business brands, to fashion editors and designers to e-commerce pioneers, female fashion entrepreneurs have emerged as a highly visible presence. Such is the strength of women in the fashion world that selecting the ten most influential is a daunting task. This isn’t a definitive list but a personal shortlist of women whose influence shapes what we wear every day.
An intellectual fashion designer with a PHD, Prada took a small sleepy Italian luggage brand from obscurity to ubiquity. She took over the family firm in 1978 and her black nylon backpack with the triangular logo, a decade later, transformed the brand into a designer desirable. She later expanded the label into womenswear and menswear with a distinctive idiosyncratic edge, and maintains a unique gift for anticipating cultural shifts before other designers. She is a thoughtful creator who questions sexuality and femininity in her collections and is watched more intently by the fashion press and fellow designers, than any other industry figure. Her husband and business partner, Patrizio Bertelli has grown the Prada group with her to absorb Helmut Lang, Jil Sander, and shoemaker, Church and Co.
The former Spice Girl has managed to establish her fashion credentials within an amazingly short time. Her brand has rapidly emerged since its debut in 2008 as a favourite of fashion editors and wealthy women who relish her attention to detail, sinuous silhouette and muted luxe styling. Not the usual celeb-turned-designer, Beckham has worked hard and recruited serious industry talent to realise her vision. She is the architect of her stellar ascent and admits: “I’ve always enjoyed proving people wrong.” With a catalogue encompassing sunglasses, fragrances, a mainline collection, jeans and a diffusion range, the Beckham brand is firmly established and Victoria’s naysayers silenced.
A low-key designer who shuns publicity, Philo is nevertheless hugely influential. Starting her career as an assistant to Stella McCartney, first at her eponymous label and then at Chloe where she succeeded her boss as creative director, she quickly established her name. After a sabbatical from the industry she returned to helm Céline in 2008 for LVMH and has championed the revival of clean minimal chic with her low-key, spare yet strong design aesthetic. Her work fuses English tailoring with Parisian élan and she describes her oeuvre as “the work of a woman for women”. She cites “great fabrics and great cuts” as the things that always work and endure.
Alternatively known as Nuclear Wintour, the power-bobbed, sunglasses-toting editor-in-chief of American Vogue is possibly the most powerful fashion journalist ever. She set her eye on the top job at Vogue early in her career and worked avidly towards securing it. She brought a fresh approach to the title when she took over in 1988, notably mixing jeans with haute couture and bringing the magazine’s focus back onto great fashion. She can set trends, promote or destroy new designers and broker introductions in her role and has also used the magazine to controversially express her disdain for the obese and the ugly. She has been criticised for her elitist view of fashion, support of the fur industry and ruthless aesthetic but she has also been praised for her fundraising for both Aids charities and the Metropolitan Museum in New York. She says that she doesn’t think of herself as “a powerful person” but we beg to differ.
Famous for her simple yet sexy wrap dresses, which symbolised the sexual liberation of the ’70s, Von Furstenburg’s story is worthy of a bestseller. The daughter of an Auschwitz survivor, who taught her that “fear is not an option”, she married a Prince and has been described as “the most marketable woman since Coco Chanel”. Having launched her signature wrap dress in 1974, by 1976 she was selling 20,000 units a week and had graced the cover of Newsweek. Her pre-Raphaelite good looks, shrewd business brain and lush ’70s glamour made her the darling of Manhattan. Having oversaturated the market with her dresses, she subsequently moved into beauty, interiors and publishing but made a return to fashion in 1997. She re-launched DVF for a new generation and it had grown into a full luxury lifestyle brand by 2001. A cancer survivor, who promotes philanthropy, she was declared the Most Powerful Woman in Fashion by Forbes magazine.
As the founder and executive chairman of Net A Porter, the world’s premier online luxury fashion retailer, Massenet pioneered online fashion consumption. She saw the potential of the internet to sell fashion years before her competitors and had the determination to stick to her vision when the fashion industry didn’t appreciate the value of digital retailing. Credited with “the best eye in the business”, she has a telepathic ability to anticipate market trends, and selects a tightly curated edit of the most sophisticated labels for her global customers. Her business is a fusion of glamour and genuine business acumen, and her success the reward for guts of steel and the ability to “work her backside off”. Her integration of 21st century tech with classic chic and her recent role as head of the British Fashion Council guarantee her lasting influence.
Once christened the Queen of Cling, Donna Karan, celebrates 30 years of her label this year. A combination of earth mother meets savvy saleswoman, she dropped out of design school to work for Anne Klein and by 26 had succeeded the brand’s founder. She originated the concept of the capsule wardrobe and has always celebrated female curves (she is a size 16). Her design philosophy is built on comfort, ease of movement and sophisticated sensuality and has made her brand into one of the top US labels. Kinetic, original and a great saleswoman she made her millions by listening to her
clients to create clothes that are beautiful but wearable. She inspired an entire generation of female designers to follow their instincts and to make clothes that flatter women of all sizes. She has said: “Design and style should work toward making you look good and feel good without a lot of effort.”
With a background in PR and marketing rather than design, Tory Burch knows the value of brand building. Spotting a niche in the market for fashion that bridged the gap between “the haves and the have-nots” her preppy, bohemian label was targeted at aspirational mid-career women and mothers seeking affordable quality. Her signature bright palette, and double T medallion logo were a hit from the off, with the entire stock of her first boutique selling out in a single day. Despite a messy divorce from her business partner and husband, Chris Burch, she has become a fashion billionaire after only a decade. One of the most digitally savvy fashion brands she has partnered with Google to live-stream videos of her shows and now sells in over 1000 retail locations worldwide.
The daughter of Bernard Arnault of the LVMH conglomerate, the biggest luxury goods company in the world, this slim sophisticated blonde is sometimes described as a “wolf in a cashmere coat”. A discreet, but determined woman, she was appointed executive vice president of Louis Vuitton in 2013, after a very successful tenure with Christain Dior. As well as her role at Louis Vuitton she is on the board of Pucci, Loewe and Celine and is charged with re-positioning Louis Vuitton in the luxury market. Rigorous, well-educated and serious, she is no spoilt fashion princess but a shrewd businesswoman with painstaking attention to detail. Having appointed Raf Simons as John Galliano’s successor at Dior, she has an eye for talent and brand preservation.
Model, muse and style icon, the anti-supermodel who turned 40 this year has enjoyed one of the most enduring modeling careers ever. Discovered at 14 in JFK, she went on to become the muse of Corinne Day, the photographer credited with spawning the heroin chic aesthetic and the face of her generation. In stark contrast to the Amazonian supermodels of the time, Kate was waifish, flat chested, had crooked teeth and was only 5ft7in but she had a stunning face, a big personality and the ability own everything she wore. Signed as the face of Calvin Klein, in 1992, her adverts for the brand, frequently nude and make-up free made her famous on a global scale. She has graced over 300 magazine covers, and is still one of the worlds top earning models. A genuine style icon, she mixes high with low, vintage with designer and has parlayed her style into lucrative collaborations with TopShop, Longchamp, Rimmel and Coty. She has trademarked her own signature font which is her brand and has recently taken up a position as a contributing editor with UK Vogue. Despite the controversy over her alleged drugs use in 2006 she re-launched herself to top Vanity Fair’s best dressed list that year and in 2013 received a special recognition award from the British Fashion Council to acknowledge her 25-year career. Even though she may model less in coming years, her influence will endure through her fashion, beauty and magazine projects.