15 Iconic Women Designers — And The Pieces That Made Them Famous

They made fashion history.

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Influential women designers

With fashion’s long and winding history, it’s difficult for even the most knowledgeable experts to decipher who invented what. There are, however, notable figures in modern history who paved the way for the making of your favorites styles today. Many of the individuals behind these “iconic” designs are women designers. “Who better to design for women than women?” Beth Dincuff Charleston, a fashion historian and professor at Parsons School of Design, says to TZR. “No amount of design training or business acumen can replace the experience of living in the body you are designing for.”

Maureen Lehto Brewster, a fashion expert and Assistant Professor of Fashion Merchandising at University of Maryland Eastern Shore, agrees: “The designers were able to speak more directly to the needs of their female consumers — to identify with them and thereby create clothing that reflected their lifestyle, interests, and aspirations ... That's not to say that gender is the source of their talent for design, but rather that this talent was enhanced by their understanding of their audience.”

Ahead, discover 15 such women designers who, through their creations, left a lasting impact on the fashion world that can still be felt to this day. Without further ado, keep scrolling to brush up on your fashion history.

Ann Lowe: Formal Wear Fit For A First Lady

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Perhaps you’ve heard tidbits about the midcentury American couturier Anne Lowe, whose clients included the Roosevelts and the Rockefellers. The daughter of a dressmaker, Lowe was a pioneering Black business woman and designer, responsible for generations of New York City socialite fashion. Though, her most iconic confection is perhaps the ivory silk taffeta wedding dress she made for Jacqueline Bouvier ahead of her marriage to future President John F. Kennedy.

In a style that aligned with the 1960s, “her work is beautifully and meticulously crafted,” says Lehto Brewster. “She was also independent and tenacious; she left her first marriage to pursue design, came back from financial disaster many times, and contacted Jackie Kennedy directly to express her sadness that she was not respectfully credited for her work on Kennedy's wedding dress.”

Coco Chanel: LBDs & Tweed Sets

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Contrary to popular belief, Coco Chanel did not invent the little black dress or the tweed set. Though, she did popularize the styles. The former was actually adapted from the uniforms of working class women, while the latter had roots in contemporary menswear.

“[The little black dress] was styled to appear more effortless and simpler than the deco and decadent styles that preceded it,” explains Lehto Brewster. She also points to the designer’s robust marketing as a big reason why we so strongly associate the garment with the French fashion house. “Some designers are just more adept at publicity.” Chanel’s suits, on the other hand, were noted for their meticulous details, like weighted hems that helped the clothing drape evenly about the body. She also fashioned them in coordinated, quilted linings, which were sometimes brought to the exterior of the suit for an even bigger statement.

Norma Kamali: Sleeping Bag Coat

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Designing clothing may not have been Norma Kamali’s initial career goal (that would be painting), but her innovative work has no doubt changed the way women dress. Born in New York in 1945, Kamali first became fascinated with style after coming across vintage pieces from the ‘30s and ‘40s while spending time in London. Then, in 1969, the creative opened a boutique in Manhattan with her then-husband, which marked her first foray into design.

A year later, the Fashion Institute of Technology grad came up with the sleeping bag coat — which is, well, exactly what it sounds like. The genius concept hit Kamali on a camping trip when she draped the outdoor staple over her body on a bathroom run. “As I’m walking into the woods I’m thinking, ‘Oh my God this is such a great coat,’” she told the Museum at FIT. Officially launching in 1973, the puffy, ultra-cozy outerwear was an instant success. In addition to the popular jacket, Kamali helped put styles like hot pants and high-heeled sneakers on the map. We also have the New Yorker to thank for designing high-end sweats before athleisure was even a thing.

Diane Von Furstenberg: The Wrap Dress

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Upon its creation in the early 1970s, Diane von Furstenberg’s wrap dress style was highly sought after by everyone from the Studio 54 lot to the Park Avenue crowd. And even today, it’s so versatile that actors and royalty wear it as much as business women, academics, and journalists. The original design was a long-sleeved silk jersey dress featuring a fitted top and a skirt that wrapped around the body to tie at the waist. Feminine yet functional, it responded to the liberated mood of American society at the time, during which more women joined the workforce and opted for suit jackets and trousers.

“Designers such as Yves Saint Laurent were popularizing suits for women, and second wave feminism was calling attention to outmoded, hyper-feminine gender norms,” recalls Lehto Brewster. “The wrap dress was fluid and hugged the body, was simple and elegant, feminine but not stuffy. It was somewhat reactionary to the androgynous or masculine silhouettes of suiting, but still modern and sensual.”

Donna Karan: Modular Garments

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American designer Donna Karan cut her teeth working under Anne Klein before going on her own to create Seven Easy Pieces, the foundation of modular (or mix-and-match) dressing. The interchangeable group of clothes (which included a bodysuit, a tailored jacket, a wrap skirt, and a white shirt, among other things) made American sportswear what it is today — practical, versatile, and relatively inexpensive. “Women could achieve a variety of looks and identities, to be worn in all areas of life,” says Dr. Alexis Romano, a fashion historian and lecturer at Parsons School of Design. “The wearer became the designer in a sense.”

Betsey Johnson: Whimsical Style

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Quirky, fun, adventurous... so many words come to mind when thinking about Betsey Johnson’s designs. Introducing her brand in 1978, the former Mademoiselle magazine editor moved the needle by arguably pioneering the “weird” girl look — a trend that has re-entered the zeitgeist in recent years. Some specific styles that contributed to Betsey’s signature kitschy aesthetic? Puff-sleeve dresses, crochet tops, and tulle skirts. And this carefree vibe didn’t just extend to her clothing — the designer herself was known to do cartwheels and splits rather than a bow at the end of her fashion shows.

Rei Kawakubo: Ultra Avant Garde Silhouettes

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Going against the grain of quintessential 1980s clothing — that is to say, the ultra luxe and figure-hugging fashion of the time — Japanese fashion designer Rei Kawakubo rooted her label, Comme Des Garçons, in the balance of art and fashion and reframed common notions of beauty.

“[Her clothing] works with the body, but also redefines what a body looks like, where it begins and ends,” says Lehto Brewster, who also points out that the purported “un-wearability” of Kawakubo’s creations refers more to society’s views on practicality. “It can of course actually be worn, but you might not want to because it’s ‘weird,’ it juts out from your body and takes up space, it reshapes your body into something unrecognizable. Most women’s fashion is designed to complement the body, to work with it or else work it into something idealized ... Kawakubo is not interested in that.”

Mary Quant: Miniskirts

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Dame Mary Quant has often been credited with ‘inventing’ the miniskirt — perhaps the most defining element of 1960s dressing — in the heyday of Swinging London and the Youthquake. In reality, Quant popularized above-the-knee styles by offering them at a more affordable price point than her contemporaries, like Courrèges. While many people saw her designs as provocative, her clothes were still very popular amongst the zeitgeist because of the aforementioned pricing and Quant’s approachable styling and marketing methods. Taking after its name, her King’s Road boutique, called Bazaar, was a space for consumers to socialize and interact with her work and bred a community of fans.

Jil Sander: Minimalist Look

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Jil Sander walked so the likes of Mary-Kate and Ashley Olsen, the founders of The Row, could run. She’s been championing the minimalist aesthetic since launching her eponymous brand in 1973, which debuted with a selection of neutral outerwear and trousers. However, her inaugural collection and PFW debut in 1975 didn’t exactly win over the fashion set; it wasn’t until the early ‘90s that everyone came around to her trademark understated look. During the decade, the German designer found her footing, releasing buzzed-about campaigns, one being her 1996 ad fronted by model Guinevere van Seenus. Sander, who remains a leader in the fashion space today, continues to be a north star for minimalist dressers everywhere.

‌Miuccia Prada: A Jolie-Laide Aesthetic

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In French, jolie laide refers to “the beautiful, ugly.” For designer Miuccia Prada — the heiress to the luxury goods company then known as Fratelli Prada — this manifests in her collections via pleated skirts, clunky shoes, and shift dresses. Like Kawakubo, Prada was “interested in rethinking the fashion of the body,” according to Romano. “And it wasn’t a typically glamorous, sexy body, but [her approach to design] was saying that women can have different body types and they could look like intellectuals.”

Elsa Peretti: Tiffany & Co. Jewelry

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After establishing industry cred as a model in the ‘60s, Elsa Peretti turned her professional ambitions to the jewelry biz. Her first piece, created with the help of designer Giorgio di Sant’Angelo, was a necklace inspired by a sterling silver bud vase sourced from a flea market.

In 1974, Peretti joined the team at Tiffany & Co., where she brought silver jewelry back to the house for the first time in a quarter of a century. Her signature designs, including the Open Heart pendant and Bone Cuff bracelet, made waves in Hollywood, often seen on stars like Diana Ross, Liza Minnelli, and Sarah Jessica Parker as Carrie Bradshaw in the Sex and the City movie.

Sonia Rykiel: The “Poor Boy Sweater”

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‌Similar to DVF’s wrap dress, the “poor boy sweater” by Sonia Rykiel spoke to the rise of second wave feminism, a movement that redefined how one lived and, therefore, dressed. A ready-to-wear designer to her core, Rykiel, who hailed from France, eschewed any couture-related sensibilities and opted to create pieces that were flattering and comfortable, such as knitwear in a slimmer silhouette.

“The beauty of that sweater is that it hugs the body and it’s very form-fitting, but also stretchy and comfortable,” explains Romano. “[It] spared women from having to go to the tailor or dressmaker to make a more formal woven garment fit perfectly.” Audrey Hepburn and Françoise Hardy were among the stars who wore the sweater style throughout the 1960s and ‘70s, and renditions of it continue to appear in Rykiel’s collections today.

Tory Burch: Ballet Flats

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Even if you don’t much about Tory Burch, you’ve definitely spotted her signature Reva ballet flats on the feet of celebrities and fashion girls alike. Launched in 2004 in partnership with her ex-husband, Christopher Burch, the former fashion copywriter’s label blew up with after introducing the medallion-adorned slippers in 2006. Just two years later, she was awarded Accessory Designer Of The Year by the Council of Fashion Designers of America.

These days, the label is loved for for more than the footwear that put it on the map. For Spring/Summer 2024, industry insiders can’t get enough of her the futuristic collection, which boasted flouncy skirt mini dresses — see the pink ballerina-esque design Hailey Bieber just wore — and structured blazers.

Madeleine Vionnet: Bias-Cut Dresses

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Madeleine Vionnet’s dress construction from the early 1900s has had long-lasting effects on minimalism in fashion. Her use of the bias-cut, a technique of cutting across the grain of a textile so that it drapes naturally on the body, made for a “seemingly simple silhouette that allowed for heightened movement,” Romano says. Though, with the cut’s growing popularity, women also had to become accustomed to revealing their bodies in a way they hadn’t before. “While this freed women from corsets and other structured underpinnings, it meant that they were tasked with attaining the slim, athletic bodies that were on fuller display in these clothes.”

Phoebe Philo: Simplistic Look

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For die-hard old Céline fans, the Phoebe Philo needs no introduction. When she was student at the esteemed Central Saint Martins in the late ‘90s, the designer forged a friendship with British designer Stella McCartney. Upon graduation, she worked at Chloé for five years alongside her pal. In 2008, Philo took the helm of Céline, where she gave the powerhouse a minimalist look — and introduced buzzy styles like luggage totes, wooden wedges, and pajamas tops.

Following a five-year break from the fashion industry, Philo made quite the comeback last October when she launched her long-awaited namesake label (which is brimming with luxe textured styles like calf hair totes and leather fringe mules). Kendall Jenner has already co-signed her newest designs, having worn the leather cape bomber jacket last December.

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