From the Archives: The Most Iconic American Fashion Designers You Should Know

As recently as the 1940s, Paris was considered by most to be the fashion capital of the world, with American designers taking inspiration from the European city.

During the German occupation of France during World War II, New York Fashion Week began — and today, the NYFW calendar is filled with some of the biggest shows each season, courtesy of top designers like Michael Kors, Marc Jacobs and Tom Ford.

In those early 1940s days, Bill Blass was a fresh-faced young designer learning from fashion editor Baron Nicolas de Gunzburg. In 1959, Blass’ eponymous brand started, and he quickly rose through the ranks, becoming well known for his couture gowns and furs. The icon sold his brand in 1999 for $50 million and passed away three years later at age 79.

Blass Fashion designer Bill Blass poses with models wearing his new look for adult Girl Scouts at New York's Fourt Seasons restaurant, . The new design is presented in a dracon polyester dress as well as the pant and jacket uniformsFASHION BLASS GIRL SCOUT LOOK, NEW YORK, USA
Blass Fashion poses with models wearing his costume for adult Girl Scounts at the Four Seasons restaurant in New York in 1984.
CREDIT: Suzanne Vlamis/Shutterstock

Roy Halston’s heyday was in the same era as Blass. The Iowa native began his own label in 1969 and became known for his entourage of supermodel pals, known as “Halstonettes.” Among the famous ladies in the pack? Pat Cleveland, Karen Bjornson and Alva Chinn. The fashion legend passed in 1990 following a battle with HIV/AIDS.

Roy Halston and friend attend the movie premiere party for 'The Towering Inferno' thrown by 20th Century Fox's Dennis and Terry Stanfill at the Four Seasons on December 18, 1974 in New York...Article title: 'Eye View: The Firemen's BallThe Towering Inferno' Premiere, New York
Roy Halston at a movie premiere in 1974.
CREDIT: Fairchild Archives

Halston famously dressed Jackie Kennedy for her husband’s 1961 inauguration, and Oscar de la Renta was also known for outfitting the first lady. The Dominican-American designer, who died in 2014 at age 82, was trained by Cristóbal Balenciaga and Antonio del Castillo before launching his eponymous brand. He also did stints at Lanvin and Balmain, becoming the first Dominican-born designer to work for a French house.

Oscar de la Renta with model wearing a woven fur-trimmed jacket with skirt from the his Fall 1979 collectionOscar de la Renta Fall 1979 RTW, New York
Oscar de la Renta with model wearing a woven fur-trimmed jacket with skirt from his fall ’79 collection.
CREDIT: Fairchild Archives
Marc Jacobs accepting an award from Oscar de la Renta during the CFDA Fashion Awards Dinner at the Metropolitan Museum of Art's Temple of Dendur on January 12, 1988 in New York...Article title: 'Eye: The Great UnwashedCFDA 1988, New York
Oscar de la Renta (L) presents Marc Jacobs with an award at the 1988 CFDA Awards.
CREDIT: Fairchild Archives

Like de la Renta, Carolina Herrera dressed Jackie O, along with other American first ladies such as Michelle Obama and Laura Bush. The Venezuelan-born designer is no longer involved with design for her eponymous label, which showed this week at NYFW.

Designer Carolina Herrera with a model in a textured bridal gown in the Carolina Herrera Fall/Winter 1981 showCarolina Herrera Fall 1981 Show, New York
Designer Carolina Herrera (R) with a model at her fall ’81 show.
CREDIT: Fairchild Archives

Perhaps the designer most associated with Americana is none other than Ralph Lauren, who feted his brand’s 50th anniversary last year. Lauren was one of the first to spotlight American culture in all its glory on the runway — with Western boots, denim and equestrian styles aplenty. The 79-year-old has also designed plenty of apparel and footwear for the U.S. Olympic teams over the years, most recently in 2018.

Ralph and Ricky Lauren attend the annual scholarship fund-raising event at New York's Dalton School on December 4, 1972 in New York...Article title: 'Eye ViewDalton School Auction, New York
Ralph and Ricky Lauren attend a scholarship fundraising event at New York’s Dalton School on Dec. 4, 1972.
CREDIT: Fairchild Archives

Vera Wang worked for Ralph Lauren before breaking out on her own into bridal, and like her former boss, she has experience designing for the Olympics.  A former figure skater, Wang created costumes for some of the best-known American Olympians in the sport, including Nancy Kerrigan and Michelle Kwan.

Vera Wang attends the CFDA Fashion Awards at the New York State Theater at Lincoln Center on February 3, 1997 in New York...Article title: 'The CFDA Awards: Veterans DayCFDA 1997, New York
Vera Wang attends the CFDA Fashion Awards in 1997 in New York.
CREDIT: Fairchild Archives

Known first for her seven easy pieces, Donna Karan began her eponymous label in 1985. The August FN cover star worked at Anne Klein before branching out on her own. Over the years, she has been a staunch supporter of philanthropy, with a particular focus on women’s issues.

Donna Karan on the runway during the finale of her fall 1985 ready to wear collection on May 3, 1985 in New York. Article title: 'Dressed Up DaysDonna Karan Fall 1985 RTW, New York
Donna Karan on the runway at the finale of her fall ’85 show at NYFW.
CREDIT: Fairchild Archives

Fashion is an industry known for its exclusivity, and the majority of the designers who gained fame in the early to mid-20th century identified as white men. (In evaluating the most iconic American designers, FN focused on designers through the year 2000.)

In recent years, the CFDA has made distinct efforts to improve diversity and inclusivity in the industry. Last month, the council added four new members to its board, all people of color — Maria Cornejo, Carly Cushnie, Virgil Abloh and Kerby Jean-Raymond — on their way to achieving icon status themselves.

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