Clothing made in France is famous throughout the world. Paris acts as the center of the global fashion industry, and it is known as the “global fashion capital. Paris is home to many prime designers, big brands in the fashion industry, and even well-known international beauty houses. In this article, you’ll learn about some of the most renowned French fashion houses and a brief but fascinating history about them and how they impacted the French fashion industry.
How the extravagant display of French fashion houses began
The French fashion industry dates as far back as the 17th century. Despite occasional lows, its reputation still endures. It is fair to say that the French’s extravagant style began with Louis XIV, the “Sun King,” who reigned from 1643-1715. Louis had a lavish taste and embraced extravagance. An example of his elegant taste is the Palace of Versailles. Louis was well-known for his exquisite attire and introduced the textile trade to France. Soon after, France became the go-to place for the highest-quality materials.
Through the 18th century, fashion’s primary purpose was to display one’s wealth. Women’s fashion echoes one’s status and place in the upper echelons of society and was a visualization of the saying, “Women should be seen and not heard.” Hence, splurging on frou-frou layers of silk, tulle, and velvet, along with intricate embroidery and exquisite embellishments, became the norm for the rich. This insatiable desire for opulent dressing drove the French fashion industry to be among the leading ones in the world.
In the 19th century, Englishman Charles Frederick Worth was the first person to open a French fashion house in Paris, France. He introduced haute couture, and with the development of haute couture, France strengthened its love of fashion. The introduction of haute couture marked the beginning of fitting cloth to a particular client and the opening of the great courier houses.
A revolution in French fashion
In the early 20th century, a designer named Poiret did something shocking; He rejected the corset and introduced the “freedom of movement” concept to women’s fashion. He paved the way for French fashion houses that came after him. Not everyone agreed with his revolutionary idea, especially some of the wealthy personalities of the time.
However, the masses seemed to like the idea and his designs when in 1901, he introduced the kimono cut jacket made out of black wool. In 1903, Poiret established his house of couture, and seven years later, he was known by the French as “Le Magnifique” and by Americans as “King of fashion.” Poiret’s naturalistic touch traced flowing curves and fabrics folded like ripples of water. For Poiret, beauty was focused on finer details. For the very first time, women’s bodies weren’t constricted, and neither were they fetishized for men’s gaze. Petticoats and corsets were out, and women could breathe again.
Elsa Schiaparelli, an Italian in Paris, was inspired by Poiret and embraced the abandonment of the corset, and added her impulsive style. Although she wasn’t formally trained in technical design, Schiaparelli was one of the first fashion designers to develop the wrap dress in 1930 and also the first to use zippers as a quirky visible embellishment – decorative, not just practical.
Some French fashion houses and how they impacted the industry
Coco Chanel, established in Paris in the early 20th century, was the most famous of the fashion houses in Paris at the time. The designer, who was Saumur-born despised uncomfortable garments such as the corset. Seeing potential in the “freedom of movement” trend, Chanel took ownership of the newly liberated silhouette and ran with it. Chanel created looser, comfortable, and free-flowing designs, which became extremely popular in the 1920s. Chanel revolutionized the industry when it created women’s dresses using jersey fabric; this was controversial because jersey was men’s underwear fabric material, and women weren’t supposed to know that men wore underwear.
However, during the second world war, French fashion houses, including Chanel and many others, had to close down. This situation made the French fashion industry suffer. The USA aimed to strengthen its fashion industry and leveraged the lull in the French sector to direct media attention to American designers such as Claire McCardell.
After years of rationing and shortages in clothing materials, French high fashion underwent a high-fashion revival, primarily due to the work of Christian Dior and his brand. Christian Dior became an icon in the French women’s fashion industry due to the ‘new look’ he introduced.
Dior’s new look transformed the female silhouette and was characterized by a nipped-in waist and a full A-line skirt that reached mid-calf, providing an hourglass silhouette. People initially criticized the look and the amount of fabric needed to make them. However, Dior had the last word when he stated, “Europe has had enough of bombs; now it wants to see some fireworks.” This statement helped to fuel post-war optimism. Some women weren’t happy with Dior’s styles due to the use of corsets, but that didn’t stop Dior’s collection from being a huge success.
Givenchy, with the help of Hepburn, reimagined Chanel’s LBD for a new audience, using sunglasses and a film called Breakfast at Tiffany’s. In 1957, Givenchy debuted his iconic design “Sack silhouette,” whose products revolutionized the female silhouette. The design enveloped the female wearer submerging her body and making it a mystery while raising the hemlines.
In the 1960s, the French fashion industry once again faced a huge threat, which was arguably the biggest threat to French fashion. French fashion houses of the time had to do something to maintain their stand on the international market. This threat arose due to the increasing popularity of youth fashion in “swinging London.” This movement was led by British designer Mary Quant, eschewing the traditional Parisian designs and going for more bold and generally sexy designs. These designs included extremely short miniskirts, which were adored by the younger generation as a symbol of sexual emancipation and sexual freedom.
However, in the late 1960s, the work of a young Yves Saint Laurent would help Paris regain its fashion crown. Yves Saint Laurent, called “boy wonder,” launched his debut “Trapeze” collection. In a move away from his master’s already established look, “boy wonder” also introduced a look that doesn’t hug the body but captures the changing mood.
In 1965, Saint Laurent unveiled his Mondrian collection, inspired by the painting of Mondrian; they are now called art themselves. In 1966, He introduced several men’s jackets into the female wardrobe, called “le smoking.” He created the classy tuxedo suit for women, creating an iconic look, and the sleek black jumpsuit. He was also the first couturier to introduce ready-to-wear clothing. Today, almost all of the original couture houses produce ready-to-wear clothing whose collections ultimately make more revenue than the couture collection, arguably contributing to high fashion longevity.
However, as Saint Laurent fashion house grew, competition arose. These competitors included four French juggernauts, namely Hubert de Givenchy, Pierre Cardin, Emanuel Ungaro, and Marc Bohan of Christian Dior. Five American competitors soon joined in.
In the Battle of Versailles, seismic shifts reverberated off the runway. They forced the French fashion industry to acknowledge the American industry as a contender while acknowledging the importance of commercial sportswear.
The competition between these French fashion houses ushered in the era of blockbuster shows. In the Battle of Versailles: Pierre Cardin commissioned a rocket, Emanuel Ungaro commissioned a gypsy caravan hauled by a rhinoceros, and Yves Saint Laurent commissioned a full-length limousine. These were frankly ludicrous design sets, but they set the standard for fashion runway extravagance. The battle of Versailles was instrumental in the growth and prominence of Chanel’s supermarket, Louis Vuitton’s glittering merry-go-round, and Dior’s Galliano shows.
Some other notable French fashion houses
Having talked a little about Chanel, Dior, Saint Laurent, and Givenchy, let me move on to other iconic fashion houses in France that you’d want to know about.
Since opening its first boutique in 1917, Balenciaga has been known for defying stylistic and societal norms. Back when Christian Dior opted for the hourglass look, Cristóbel Balenciaga went in the opposite direction, making designs with inverted silhouettes and creating the first high-fashion tunic and chemise dressings. Balenciaga’s designs proved to be a success with the high-flying fashion crowd, who wanted to be comfortable but also chic. Balenciaga still utilizes this innovative aesthetic, bringing out new and innovative designs that seem to capitalize on moments people don’t often see.
One of the notable French fashion brands is Jacquemus. After his mother suddenly passed away, Simon Porte Jacquemus, the founder, was prompted to pursue his love for design after realizing that life could be over in a split second. He named the brand after his mother’s maiden name. He started by dressing his friends in hand-sewn garments. 11 years later, Jacquemus became one of the notorious designer brands, putting out exquisite fashion week presentations each season. The fundamental unique selling proposition of the brand comes from the brand’s personable nature because no matter your gender, sexuality, or location, Jacquemus welcomes you.
Louis Vuitton is one of the oldest French fashion houses existing today. Louis Vuitton, unlike other fashion houses or brands, didn’t enter the fashion world by creating garments or footwear. Instead, the brand was created when in 1858, Louis Vuitton, the founder, introduced his flat-topped trunks with Trianon canvas making them lightweight and airtight. Before the introduction of Vuitton’s trunks, people used rounded-top trunks to promote water runoffs. However, the rounded tops meant they could not be stacked on top of one another, leading to difficulties in transporting them. However, Vuitton’s trunks were the solution to the problem. A lot of imitation and plagiarism followed Vuitton’s work, and after much, he branded his products with a trademarked logo. Decades later, Louis Vuitton’s son, Georges, took over and expanded into the fashion industry by creating iconic bags. Today, the brand is a giant and at the top of the global fashion industry.
Celine, established in 1945 by Celine Vipiana, is known for refining classics, particularly under the leadership of former and current creative directors Phoebe Philo and Hedi Slimane. Philo’s first Celine collection in 2010 was highly praised for its “minimal-meets-contemporary” or “cool minimalist style” feel. Slimane’s aesthetic made a new image for the brand without erasing its French heritage. Celine appealed to many youthful and modern women because of Slimane’s aesthetic, which represents corporate chicness, and because he added the word “Paris” to many of Celine’s designs.
There are many other fashion houses with French roots, including Lanvin, Balmain, Chloe, Hermes, Mugler, Isabel Marant, Sandro, and many more.
Generally, French fashion houses thrived through innovation and through recognizing changes in society’s attitudes towards fashion. They thrived on being different and being able to offer solutions to customer needs and wants. In essence, no two fashion brands are exactly alike. They all have their unique history and their unique way of providing what their customers want and need, making them spend. We’ve come to the end of the brief but fascinating history of some of the most famous fashion houses in French history.