American fashion designer Calvin Klein and model/actor Brooke Shields at Studio 54, New York City, 1981. (Photo by Tom Gates/Getty Images)
Fashion is important. Not merely as an extension of our personalities, not just an expression of our personal tastes. No, our clothing, for better and worse, is also packed with innumerous, not-so-secret signifiers of status and class, gender and sexuality, power and politics. Our wardrobe, however spontaneously or precisely assembled, communicates cultural values, the influence of different eras and locales, the dueling desire for communal identification and individuality. In this sense, fashion designers are the very creators of those aesthetic tools by which we assimilate or seek distinction.
The modern fashion industry as we know it has its roots in the elaborate, couture (made-to-measure) fashions of the 19th century French court, and throughout the early 20th century, up until the 1960s really, Paris reigned as the center of high fashion around the world. World War II changed the global map of political and stylistic influence. Ready-to-wear collections did away with much of the previous decades’ pomp, and soon youth movements across the United States and Europe would usher in an era of subcultures and their corresponding styles (from the Teddy Boy look of 1950s London to the hippie look of 1960s America) that would resonate for decades to come.
The simple, tailored, unisex-look of American ready-to-wear would reach international acclaim beginning in the 1970s, in no small part due to the efforts of the following three mavericks of American style. They’ve won awards. They’ve garnered acclaim and controversy. But most of all, they gave, and continue to give us, new ways of re-imagining our place in the material world.
Fashion designer Calvin Klein, Los Angeles, 1979. (Photo by Joan Adlen/Getty Images)
In 1968, Calvin Klein, a prodigious New York-born designer, opened a small coat shop in the York Hotel. By the mid-70s, he’d added a menswear and womenswear collection, established licenses for shoes, sunglasses, and other accessories, and created his signature tailored denim pants, fueling a massive designer-jean frenzy. With a keen eye for edginess, Klein paired his simple collection pieces with controversial advertising, most notably the 1980 television segment featuring a 15-year-old Brooke Shields asking, “Do you want to know what comes between me and my Calvins?”
In 1982, Klein was awarded the Council of Fashion Designers of America Award for outstanding design in both womenswear and menswear, becoming the first designer ever to receive both honors in the same year. But the man, and the brand, didn’t stop there. In 1992, he would go on to revolutionize the men’s underwear market by introducing the boxer-brief, made famous by print ads featuring a young “Marky Mark” Wahlberg and even younger Kate Moss. Calvin Klein Inc. was sold to Phillips Van Heusen Corp. (PVH; owners of Tommy Hilfiger and Izod) in 2002, and though Klein is no longer involved in the day-to-day design of collections, his brand remains strong, his choice of ads (Bieber anyone?) provocative.
Fashion designer Ralph Lauren pictured in East Hampton in November 1977. (Getty Images)
Born in the Bronx, Ralph Lifshitz always aspired to be somebody. It’s been said that, under his picture in his high school yearbook, he signed one word: “Millionaire.” As a teen, he was enraptured by golden-era films, idolizing stars like Cary Grant and Fred Astaire and Catherine Hepburn, drawn to the sight of “Woody”station wagons and other quintessential Americana. After dropping out of college, he served in the United States Army, leaving in 1964 to briefly work for Brooks Brothers as a sales assistant. Then, he had this idea. He wanted to design a wide necktie, like the type he’d seen actor Douglas Fairbanks Jr. sporting. He began producing ties out of used materials and selling them to local stores, until in 1967, with a $50,000 loan from manufacturer Norman Hilton, he opened a necktie store of his own, where he sold ties of his own design under the label “Polo Ralph Lauren.” The rest, as they say, is history.
By 1970, the man known as Ralph Lauren won the prestigious Coty American Fashion Critics’ Award for his menswear collection, an honor that predated what is perhaps his biggest achievement: the introduction in 1972 of a sportswear staple, his now famous short-sleeve pique shirt with signature Polo logo, a perfect blending of old-world airs with rugged American tailoring. Fast-forward forty years and Mr. Lauren is much more than a millionaire—he’s a philanthropist, a well-known collector of some of the finest automobiles in existence, and a recipient of the Chevalier de la Legion d’honneur. His brand is a multi-billion dollar enterprise, his legacy cemented in the annals of fashion history.
Fashion designer Perry Ellis with Lynn Coleman, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York City, 1981. (Photo by Tom Gates/Archive Photos/Getty Images)
In the six short years that he designed menswear, Perry Ellis became known as one of the most influential designers in America. Producing sportswear that included playful patterns, crisp colors, and impeccably constructed pants, Ellis introduced an effortless sense of sartorial possibility to a market dominated by stodgier, more traditional men’s clothing. Between 1979 and 1984, Ellis won eight Coty Awards and was presented with the Council of Fashion Designers of America (CFDA) Fashion Award. He also was an emphatic mentor to up-and-coming designers, and served as president of the CFDA from 1984 until his untimely death in 1986. Though Perry Ellis the brand now resembles much of the conservative menswear it initially parried, Perry Ellis the man is still remembered for injecting men’s fashion with a much needed sense of cool and whimsy.