The 25 Most Influential Postwar Women’s Wear Collections
Whether it’s a little white dress over a New York City subway grate or a cone bra on a statement-making pop star, the clothes we wear have the power to project all kinds of messages. The very existence of certain garments and silhouettes is often proof of moments of significant social change; we communicate the things we cannot say through the clothes we wear, which in turn can determine how we move about the world and where we’re allowed to go. In many ways, any history of fashion, however incomplete, is a history of us all. It’s also a survey of tailoring, textiles, innovation, infighting, business, bravado and, above all, beauty — ugliness, too.
Clockwise from top left: T’s editor at large and the debate’s moderator, Nick Haramis, with panelists Patrick Li, Pamela Golbin, Rick Owens, Matt Holmes and Carla Sozzani.
With that in mind, T assembled a panel of esteemed judges — the fashion authority Pamela Golbin, formerly the chief curator of fashion and textiles at the Musée des Arts Décoratifs in Paris; the New York-based stylist and T contributor Matt Holmes; T’s creative director, Patrick Li; the American fashion designer Rick Owens; and the Italian gallerist, president of Fondazione Sozzani and founder of the 10 Corso Como concept store, Carla Sozzani — to choose the 25 most influential women’s wear collections from the end of World War II to now. Before convening, each of them nominated about 10 collections he or she deemed worthy of inclusion. Then, on a Wednesday in late July, they gathered online to whittle down the list, which mostly reflects the order in which they were discussed rather than their ranking. There were a few clear favorites — everyone agreed to include at least one season of Comme des Garçons — and many tough omissions. (Yes, we know we’re light on Italians.) It was often difficult to single out one collection from a designer’s body of work, although that was the task; equally tricky was separating the clothing itself from the spectacle of a show. To be considered, a collection didn’t need to have appeared on a runway, and not all runway shows met the criteria. For example, the 1973 Battle of Versailles fund-raiser didn’t qualify because there were teams; for the monumental event, five French couturiers (Marc Bohan for Christian Dior, Pierre Cardin, Hubert de Givenchy, Yves Saint Laurent and Emanuel Ungaro) showed against five of their American peers (Bill Blass, Stephen Burrows, Oscar de la Renta, Halston and Anne Klein). We also agreed not to consider anything by the panelists themselves, which is why Owens isn’t on the final list, despite his multiple nominations.
Finally, two collections have been so instrumental to the development of contemporary fashion that we felt they were almost too obvious to take up a pair of precious slots. The first arrived in 1947, when a relatively young French designer named Christian Dior debuted a feminine New Look. Dresses with sloped shoulders were cinched tight at the waist, as were shawl-collared jackets worn with voluminous skirts that created not just an hourglass figure but an opulent antidote to the austerity of the era’s military uniforms. The second was an argument against the first, by the French couturier and milliner Gabrielle “Coco” Chanel — whose designs in the 1920s and ’30s communicated pragmatism and independence, and who felt Dior had done a disservice to liberated women. In 1954, at the age of 70, she came out of retirement, turning her classic tweed suits — updated during that period with a slim skirt and a collarless jacket with braided trim — into a repudiation of her competitor’s primmer ideals.
On the call that afternoon, unlikely shared opinions emerged amid unexpected disagreements. But the one thing everyone knew to be true was that there’s so much more to fashion than some fabric, which might explain why Owens showed up shirtless. — Nick Haramis
Pamela Golbin: May I jump in before we get started? I wanted to address from the beginning the very idea of ready-to-wear collections since World War II as a parameter: Ready-to-wear in its modern form didn’t exist in France right after the war; if we were willing to look only at ready-to-wear collections, we’d have to start in 1973. Every other collection until that point is couture.
Carla Sozzani: No, I started buying Saint Laurent Rive Gauche in 1966. That was ready-to-wear.
Golbin: Le Smoking was introduced in a couture collection.
Sozzani: But Rive Gauche opened in Paris in 1966.
Nick Haramis: And we’re off!
1. Yves Saint Laurent, spring 1971
In January 1971, Yves Saint Laurent presented an entire collection inspired by a single garment: a 1940s dress his friend the jewelry designer Paloma Picasso picked up at a flea market. Although he titled the show “Libération,” it would later become known as his Scandal collection: The parade of knee-length dresses worn with short fur jackets and wedge shoes conjured unwelcome memories of wartime Paris for some, whereas the splashy turbans, lipstick-stained mouths and garish colors marked a sharp departure from traditional ideas of good taste. Watching from the American and British press section, Saint Laurent’s muse, Loulou de la Falaise, listened in on the enraged reactions, recalling, “The things we heard — ‘This collection is for sitting on the bidet.’” And yet only a few months after its debut, the tide of fashion started shifting — with Saint Laurent anticipating the mania for retro-inspired style that would dominate the next few decades. By challenging propriety and blurring the lines between haute couture and prêt-à-porter, the designer broke with the past and embraced the energy and excitement of the streets. “Fashion is the reflection of our time,” he said, “and if it does not express the atmosphere of its time, it means nothing.” — Kin Woo
Haramis: Three of you chose to include Yves Saint Laurent’s fall 1966 collection, which featured his famous Le Smoking suit.
Golbin: This wasn’t the first time we found a tuxedo in a woman’s wardrobe, but Saint Laurent, who had been the heir to Christian Dior, gave the trend its lettre de noblesse.
Rick Owens: How can we not include this one? I don’t think we have to defend that decision.
Haramis: Carla might disagree.
Sozzani: I prefer spring 1971 — it got so many bad reviews. You’d read them and think, “How will he survive this?” In fact, I think it was one of his best collections, and I bought so much of it. When my sister [the famed Vogue Italia editor in chief Franca Sozzani] got married, I went wearing trousers and a jacket from the Scandal collection. It was unheard-of in the ’70s to go to a wedding in trousers. Years later, Saint Laurent became very bourgeois, but back then it was provocative and ahead of its time.
Patrick Li: Do you think Saint Laurent set out to cause a scandal?
Sozzani: No, of course not. It’s incredible how wrong the press can be sometimes.
2. Celine by Phoebe Philo, fall 2010
Though the Great Recession technically ended in the summer of 2009, its cultural reverberations were just being felt when Phoebe Philo presented her second runway collection for Céline. (Hedi Slimane removed the accent from the brand’s name when he became creative director in 2018.) Philo reverted to the French house’s sportswear beginnings with versatile clothes that telegraphed prudence and minimized the distance between the aspirational and the everyday. Black, white and navy dominated her palette, with a few splashes of olive green. There were separates — narrow trousers and knee-length skirts — sometimes in the form of an illusion, like a blue wool skirt and black leather tank fused into a single sheath or a collarless tuxedo dress constructed with brilliant simplicity to resemble, at first glance, a matching skirt and jacket. Such decoys expressed an ideal of coherence — that choosing two things to wear should be as easy as choosing one. Philo’s essentialism sent the eye searching for distinguishing features in even the simplest of items. And those features were inevitably there, often in a deliberate flourish of asymmetry, the discovery of which rewarded the viewer’s gaze and affirmed the collection’s consciousness. — Rose Courteau
Golbin: I chose this one because it was when she really established her wardrobe. It’s important to me that female designers are on this list because there weren’t many of them in the 1990s and early 2000s. She brought such an important design vocabulary to the table.
Sozzani: I love her work, but I don’t think she’s really a designer. She’s more of an amazing stylist.
Matt Holmes: When it comes to Phoebe’s time at Celine, I think about the influence it’s had on culture. I often see it out in the world and in places besides fashion magazines. My introduction to the brand was through her spring 2011 collection, when Kanye [West] started wearing the pajama shirt. I found it refreshing that men could wear her clothes, which were quite feminine. But if we’re talking about her laying a foundation as a designer, fall 2010 is the one. It was a strong show with all the building blocks.
A clip of the designer Phoebe Philo discussing her show.CreditCredit…Videofashion
Li: Phoebe’s Celine was incredibly influential —
Sozzani: Still is.
Li: So many of those high street brands wouldn’t exist if it weren’t for her. Carla, to your point, which is important, I think of Virgil [Abloh, the Off-White founder and the late artistic director of men’s wear at Louis Vuitton] as a boundary blurrer, more of a stylist or an art director than a true designer, but whose impact is lasting.
Sozzani: What she created was a language.
Li: An entire world, really.
Sozzani: That’s something today’s women are missing. So many others have tried to do what she did, but so far nobody has succeeded.
3. Balenciaga by Nicolas Ghesquière, spring 2002
Five years into his role as the creative director of Balenciaga, the young French Belgian designer Nicolas Ghesquière made cargo pants a through line of his spring collection, translating them from the lexicon of American streetwear — influenced by skater culture and hip-hop artists — to the runway, abstracting them with airy fabrics of sea green blue and dusty pink, and replacing their belts with sashes. Other pieces projected a similarly slouchy cool: salopettes with exaggerated hip pockets, a voluminous black cotton slip-on dress whose biblike construction revealed a wide swath of rib cage. The deconstructed utilitarianism of these silhouettes contrasted with a series of intricate patchwork tops and minidresses made from Indian-inspired fabrics and vintage brocades. Citing as his inspirations Los Angeles style, the Raphaelites and the flamboyant sweaters of the Dutch designer Koos van den Akker, Ghesquière provided a romantic template for eclectic urban dressing. He also sparked a discussion about artistic ownership when it was discovered that some of the collection’s most striking pieces were replicas of garments made by Kaisik Wong, a little-known Chinese American designer who died in 1990. Ghesquière didn’t deny his appropriation. “I’m very flattered that people are looking at my sources of inspiration,” he was quoted as saying. — R.C.
Li: One direct way into his world was through those cargo pants. I wouldn’t call it an easy idea — although it wasn’t that strange — and yet the impact those pants had was immeasurable. You saw their influence everywhere.
Owens: I think I made a mistake by not including Nicolas Ghesquière. That was dumb.
Golbin: Why do you say that?
Owens: Because you’ve reminded me how great his work at Balenciaga was. I’ll second the motion for spring 2002.
Holmes: Me too.
4. WilliWear by Willi Smith, 1978
During Willi Smith’s first two years in business, the designer’s clothes became quietly popular with a certain type of New York scenester. But it wasn’t until Smith’s first runway show in 1978 that WilliWear really became “our foray into the art world,” his business and creative partner Laurie Mallet later said. It took place at the Holly Solomon Gallery in SoHo, where 500 people reportedly gathered to see the emergence of a Black designer who’d come to be known as the inventor of streetwear. His clothes were relaxed but tailored, unfussy but modern — and, crucially to him, reasonably priced. “Nothing over $100, ever,” he told The Times of his debut, which included billowing high-waisted trousers he referred to as “dirndl pants.” The show opened with his sister, the actress and model Toukie Smith, wearing a lightweight, short-sleeved beige jumpsuit paired with fisherman-style sandals and socks. The collection had nautical and Southeast Asian themes, with soft jackets and loose dresses that allowed freedom of movement — and, for women of the 1970s, freedom from the more feminized uniform of previous decades. Smith was building a world around adaptable, gender-fluid “street couture,” but he died in 1987 at age 39 from an AIDS-related illness before it could be fully realized. — Jessica Testa
Li: It wasn’t high fashion; it was a much more democratic proposition, but one that used all the language of less accessible collections. The fact that he was a Black designer when that wasn’t common — it charted new territory. The clothes were beautiful, and I loved the store, which was designed by the architecture firm Site. It was a perfect package, and he’s not as recognized as he should be.
5. Donna Karan, fall 1985
Seven Easy Pieces: That was the concept behind the celebrated 1985 debut of Donna Karan’s namesake brand. Karan, who’d spent more than a decade designing for Anne Klein, had an instinct for smart everyday dressing and for finding an audience: She targeted customers who cared about fashion but were too busy to really care about fashion. (To this day, the concept is marketed as a “capsule wardrobe”; it turns out, nearly 40 years later, that many women still feel overwhelmed while getting dressed.) It was a stroke of genius, considering the timing: By 1990, women would represent more than 45 percent of the American labor force, up from 37.5 percent in 1970. Many of Karan’s mix-and-match separates were meant to accentuate their curves (the central easy piece was a bodysuit), while others leaned into the trend of men’s silhouettes in women’s wear. The crucial thing was that they could adapt elegantly from day to night. Other pieces in the original collection included a tailored jacket, a cashmere sweater, a wrap skirt and a classic white shirt. Karan was promising high-quality basics that would never be boring — a concept that has now become one of the American fashion industry’s principal selling points. — J.T.
Owens: Pamela, was this one yours? I was going to put it in!
Golbin: I thought it was important to include an American woman. She really follows in the tradition of Claire McCardell and Bonnie Cashin, where form and function come together in an incredible way. With Seven Easy Pieces, she established the working wardrobe of every woman in America and elsewhere, but it was also the iconography that would later come with it — in her advertising, for example. [Donna Karan’s spring 1992 ad campaign envisioned the inauguration and administration of the first female American president.] It was about the experience she brought with her from Anne Klein and the universe she created after that.
6. Hood by Air by Shayne Oliver, fall 2014
Co-founded by the designer Shayne Oliver in 2006, Hood by Air has been described as “luxury streetwear,” though those unfamiliar with Oliver’s work might underestimate the capaciousness of that designation. In 2014, a fashion journalist wrote that Oliver’s anarchic collective — HBA, as it’s widely known — was “one of the weirdest, wildest, and most intriguing things happening in New York fashion right now,” combining as it did “hip-hop, punk, athletics, androgyny, club gear, goth and tribal aesthetics.” She was referring to HBA’s fall collection that year, which had been shown as men’s wear on models of all genders and culminated in a troupe of voguers doing rigorous hair flips. Oliver, who has family roots in Trinidad, counts the dance clubs he frequented while growing up in Brooklyn as a primary influence. (The name Hood by Air is a nod both to the “hood” of Crown Heights and to the ’90s skater scene in downtown Manhattan, to which he traveled by subway.) In this collection, he deployed cargo pants, trench coats and thick-soled combat boots in leather and suede — and, of course, HBA’s foundational logo T-shirts, which provided succinct splashes of color in a sea of black. Many pieces were striped with far too many zippers to be strictly functional. Much like the models’ partial hairpieces — strung like tassels on the crowns of their heads — they offered a small example of the moment-to-moment choices (to zip or not to zip, to wig or not to wig) that can create what is now commonly called fluidity. — R.C.
Holmes: When Shayne came on the scene, it was like a meteor had hit. As a Black queer stylist, I found it very exciting. The feeling in fashion was very sort of blue-chip and corporate at the time. This show brought back the idea of showmanship to New York. His presence created a domino effect of more underground ideas infiltrating the mainstream at a time when everything felt so scrubbed-down and sanitized, as if fashion could only exist in Bryant Park. [Throughout the 1990s and until 2009, when the venues splintered, most New York Fashion Week shows were held in a tent a few blocks from the garment district.] Those HBA 69 shirts are being sold on Canal Street to this day. My local deli woman has one. It’s fashion that doesn’t feel so private.
Haramis: I believe you’d also compared it to a Rick Owens show.
Holmes: Well, sure, I thought Shayne was picking up a baton.
Owens: I love Shayne, but I think I would choose Jean Paul Gaultier, his predecessor, instead.
7. Jean Paul Gaultier, spring 1983
During Jean Paul Gaultier’s 50 years in fashion, his most recognizable motif has arguably been a corset with a sharp conical bra. The Dada collection for spring 1983 was where it started — more than seven years before Madonna famously took the cones on her “Blond Ambition” tour. It may seem quaint now, given the resurgence of corsetry and lingerie-inspired dressing, but there was a time when it was still scandalous or shameful to wear one’s underwear as outerwear. Gaultier made it subversive and sexually triumphant with the introduction of his corset dress: tight, strapless, below-the-knee, in a pale salmon beige with a faint floral print (the French designer had been inspired by the slips his grandmother wore during his childhood). The bra’s cups were pointed at the nipples like the bullet bras of the 1950s. Gaultier wasn’t the first person to put a conical bust on his runway (Yves Saint Laurent, inspired by Bambara art, did it in 1967). But by the following year, Gaultier’s bra would take on even more extreme proportions, rendered in orange shirred velvet like absurdist traffic cones. The rest was pop culture history. — J.T.
Li: Gaultier is important because he could stir the pot.
Golbin: It was transgression at its best, in every form, in the spirit of Le Smoking. But instead of men’s wear going into the women’s closet, here you had underwear becoming outerwear. It was about the reinvention of the clothes themselves and the culture surrounding them.
Owens: I think the trick with Gaultier, though, is that behind the transgression was exquisite quality. That’s what made us respect the transgression.
Li: The joy he brought to the runway was kind of revelatory, too.
8. Courrèges by André Courrèges, spring 1965
If his mentor, Cristóbal Balenciaga, mined the past for inspiration, André Courrèges, who worked with the house of Balenciaga for 10 years, was fixated on the future. A civil engineer by training, Courrèges, sometimes referred to as the “Le Corbusier of Couture,” employed a rigorous architectural approach, experimenting with geometry and innovating with textiles like vinyl and plastic. After making a splash with his fall 1964 collection of A-line dresses, drop-waist skirts and flat-soled go-go boots, he consolidated these ideas the following year with a new wardrobe the fashion press named “the Courrèges Bomb.” He showed exquisitely tailored pantsuits and, rather radically, above-the-knee hemlines worn with ankle boots — all rendered in his preferred palette of stark white with accents of pastel and bright red. The show was a summary of his progressive vision of fashion: He wanted to unshackle women from the strict, fussy silhouettes of the 1950s and speak to the decade’s new sense of freedom. “You don’t walk through life anymore. You run. You dance. You drive a car. You take a plane,” he once said. “Clothes must be able to move, too.” — K.W.
Golbin: Courrèges came from the house of Balenciaga and defined the modern wardrobe concept all in white. He introduces the minidress and the trouser suit, the two elements that are most important in today’s wardrobe.
Li: Sold. Let’s move on.
9. Alexander McQueen, spring 2005
Anyone questioning whether fashion can be considered art would do well to reacquaint themselves with the creations of Lee Alexander McQueen, who grew up in a working-class household in London and entered the tailoring trade as a teenager. He earned attention as a fashion student for his first collection, Jack the Ripper Stalks His Victims, which included a coat of pink silk satin printed with thorns; his own hair was sewn into the lining of some of his garments, a nod to the Victorian tradition of lovers gifting one another their locks. Future collections would vary in their source material, but each would display a similar commitment to narrative and an unsurpassed attention to detail. He was fascinated, too, by conflict and even the macabre. (His 1995 show “Highland Rape” took England’s exploitation of Scotland as its theme and featured his notorious bumster bottoms, credited with — or blamed for, depending on whom you ask — ushering in the ultra-low-rise jeans of the late ’90s and early aughts.) By the time he presented his spring 2005 collection, It’s Only a Game, he’d developed an extensive oeuvre, and he used the show’s conceit — a chess match played between America and Japan — as a guide, selecting concepts from previous years and reinterpreting them to correspond with the various pieces of a chess board. (Dresses finished with horsehair, for example, harked back to his fall 2000 Eshu collection and symbolized the knight.) The result was both a retrospective and a refinement, incorporating Japanese and contemporary American references into McQueen’s signature 19th-century motifs. Once all 36 models were assembled in a square on the runway, a chessboard was projected onto the floor and the women followed the choreographic commands of a robotic voice. McQueen’s East-West conceit would likely come under more scrutiny today, though even then he was accustomed to defending his creative decisions. — R.C.
Sozzani: I knew Lee very well. He even worked with me for a year when he was young. I loved the way he could cut, especially his jackets. It was as close as one could get to perfection. I particularly liked the mixing of feminine and masculine in this collection. Being there as he composed the chessboard was very emotional.
Haramis: I think that raises an interesting point about the difference between a show and a collection, the spectacle versus the garment itself.
A clip from the show.CreditCredit…Videofashion
Golbin: In the past 20 years, the show has taken on such an important role. I nominated McQueen’s last full collection for spring 2010 [the designer took his own life in February of that year], and that was quite a show. But as Carla said, this one not only brought together his innovative spirit — it also had all the cuts and pieces that were then used by other designers.
Li: I approached this list endeavoring to pinpoint influence and its lasting effect on culture. McQueen’s spectacular shows overshadowed the actual garments for me, even if they were very beautiful and extremely well made.
Sozzani: But this had everything: the cutting, the fabric, the composition!
10. Thierry Mugler, fall 1979
By the time he released his fall 1979 collection, Spirale Futuriste, Thierry Mugler was already known for riffing on science fiction tropes, costuming models in gold and silver lamé and fembot-sharp shoulders. Yet that season, his vision crystallized: Mugler’s women were the crew members on his freaky spaceship, spinning around galaxies in their high-neck tunics — with or without sleek hoods attached — metallic swingy coats and shiny trousers, the edges of their collars and masks turned up like villains’ mustaches. For evening, they wore holographic gowns and pleated capes. But spirals were the pivotal motif, down to the models’ sculpted, gravity-defying ponytails that twirled toward the sky. Mugler was inspired by the space age, but he wasn’t doing Courrèges, Pierre Cardin or Paco Rabanne. He was cartoonish and theatrical, but he wasn’t doing “The Jetsons” or “Star Trek,” either. He was doing Mugler. And though he was competing closely with Claude Montana’s image of the future — both designers showed that season in Paris’s Forum des Halles, at the newly constructed tent city for ready-to-wear shows — Spirale Futuriste has been called one of Mugler’s first commercially successful collections. Maybe his most visionary, too. — J.T.
Sozzani: This collection was very beautiful. Azzedine [Alaïa] made the tuxedos for it. Thierry thanked him in the show notes.
Owens: That’s why I chose it — because I knew Alaïa had worked on that collection. But also, there was more mystery to it than maybe we’ve come to expect from Mugler. This had a militaristic retrofuturism that preceded the sex-bomb goddess look he later developed.
Golbin: The fact that he mentioned Azzedine proves the extent to which Mugler’s ready-to-wear was based on construction. The workmanship was exceptional and, at the same time, those two, along with Jean Paul Gaultier and Claude Montana, ushered in a whole new era of creativity.
11. Balenciaga by Cristóbal Balenciaga, spring 1967
In May 1968, the Spanish couturier Cristóbal Balenciaga announced he was closing his salon at 10 Avenue George V in Paris after 31 years. “The life which supported couture is finished,” he said about the decision. “Real couture is a luxury which is just impossible to do anymore.” The outpouring of grief from his clients and the fashion press that followed was expected; at the time of his departure, he had achieved a legacy that included reshaping the female silhouette, achieving a sculptural purity through clever cutting and minimal construction. Case in point: his spring 1967 show, a series of austere dresses and capes, some made with only a single seam. The apotheosis — a bias-cut silk gazar wedding dress paired with a headpiece that resembled a monk’s hood — was arresting in its simplicity, exemplifying Balenciaga’s lifelong fascination with ecclesiastical vestments. In 2021, when Balenciaga’s current artistic director, Demna, staged the house’s first couture show in 53 years, he was unable to improve upon the original and simply remade the wedding dress, replacing the hood with an opaque nylon veil. Afterward, Demna said, “This dress was a manifestation of Balenciaga’s genius.” — K.W.
Owens: In my opinion, 1957 — around the time of his skirt suits and the chemise-style sack dress — was when he defined his label. Everything that came after was an evolution. I almost couldn’t narrow it down to a specific collection; during those early years, he created the Balenciaga that we all know and refer to today.
Golbin: In general, 1957 was an important year for fashion. It’s the year that Christian Dior passed away and Yves Saint Laurent took the reins. There were really two schools at the time: Dior had established the New Look — a very specific, very feminine silhouette — and then there were Gabrielle Chanel and Cristóbal Balenciaga, two outsiders who proposed a different silhouette in the fashion vocabulary. It’s true that 1957 was a pivotal year for Balenciaga, but I’d prefer to include 1967, because that’s the collection when he arrives at the most minimal construction of all his dresses, which is the wedding dress made from a single seam. His whole trajectory was about simplifying the garment to its purest expression, and that gown was like a puzzle. So, yes, ’57 is important because he introduces so many different innovations — the chemise dress, the flounced lace baby-doll dresses — but I chose the collection where he almost finished his life’s work. He had started more than 50 years earlier, and, with this collection, it was almost like he’d arrived at his final goal: simplicity to the maximum.
Owens: Wow, you’re an encyclopedia.
Li: This is where we should remember to separate the designer from the collection. It can be hard to distinguish between the two, but our challenge is to choose specific collections. Balenciaga was the master of a specific silhouette, so my reluctance to include him stems from the fact that it could have been almost any of his collections. But the way Pamela spoke about spring 1967, Balenciaga’s distillation of clothing into its purest form, has swayed me. His legacy didn’t come out of nowhere. It had 10 years of development behind it.
Owens: I focused on when he emerged because when you emerge is when you change things, when you become visible and surprise everybody.
12. Vetements by Demna, fall 2015
What does cool look like in the absence of occasion? It’s a question that each generation of young people must answer for itself. In 2015, the newly formed Paris-based collective Vetements, helmed by the Georgian designer now known mononymously as Demna (alongside his brother Guram Gvasalia, the company’s C.E.O.), answered in the form of androgynous and oversize takes on familiar items like leather jackets and nylon bombers, extending their sleeves to models’ fingertips and beyond. One might trace such exaggerated genericism to American normcore, though there was an intentional soberness to the presentation that recalled Soviet austerity; for example, a slouchy floral slip dress paired with yellow gloves that bore an uncanny resemblance to rubber cleaning gloves. This was in part the imprint of the Russian stylist Lotta Volkova, a friend of Demna’s who became an integral consultant, styling and casting the shows. If Vetements’ one-size-fits-all aesthetic was easy for fast fashion to replicate, the label also reaffirmed the individualism of everyday people, with models whose appearances ranged from common to interesting to unconventionally beautiful — but who were uniformly circumspect in their demeanor, as if reluctant to invest too much of themselves in what they were wearing. — R.C.
Holmes: This collection, which was shown at a club in Paris, was really when Demna started to turn heads. Everyone around me was wearing it. And it also felt like the clearest articulation of what he was trying to do with Vetements.
Golbin: Agreed, Matt. He was proposing an alternative vision to corporate luxury. It was hard for me to choose between Demna for Vetements and Demna for Balenciaga, but with this one he disrupted the whole system.
13. Comme des Garçons by Rei Kawakubo, spring 1997
Fashion has always, in some way, been about shaping the body — from the voluminous silhouette worn by the Elizabethans to the restrictive hourglass curves rendered by the Victorian corset. No one more markedly reinvented the way garments interact with the corporeal image than the Japanese designer Rei Kawakubo. In what is now referred to as her Lumps and Bumps collection, Kawakubo presented a series of dresses and skirts — some in flirty, feminine gingham — filled with unnatural protuberances and padded, unseemly bulges. With it, Kawakubo brilliantly upended the traditional model of clothing design, aggressively working against the body’s natural landscape. Her tumescent garments were a mischievous riposte to the prevailing attitude of the time that a woman should be subject to the male gaze — any gaze at all, really — and that fashion was meant to somehow fix or enhance the body. Her deformations did the opposite of seduce; indeed, it was fashion as a form of repulsion. In Kawakubo’s hands, the body was a canvas on which to work out ideas about gender, beauty and sex. The collection acts as a Rorschach test of sorts, with some seeing in the distortions pregnant bellies, schoolgirl backpacks or even a sendup of the swaggering padded shoulders adopted by women who entered corporate America in the 1980s. — Max Berlinger
Haramis: Finally, an entry we can all agree on.
Owens: Initially, I saw the slyness of taking something as historically artificial as a bustle and exaggerating it for a new generation. But I can see how it might have been liberating in a deeper way for women, so, Carla and Pamela, I’ll defer to you.
Sozzani: It taught us that we don’t need to be obviously sexy. For me, it was a big statement about freedom.
Golbin: I would add that it acknowledged for the first time a diversity of body types. Although the models themselves were thin, the clothing offered a new way of looking at a woman’s body, which was quite extraordinary at the time. Rei was saying, “Look at all these forms that we can have — they’re all different and they’re all beautiful.”
Holmes: I would argue that the collection changed the very definition of what it meant to be sexy.
14. Helmut Lang, spring 1998
Forget that this was the season that Helmut Lang, the ultimate pragmatist, moved his show up to the start of fashion month, breaking away from the rest of the New York designers and thereby reorganizing the entire calendar into what it is today (New York showing before Europe, not after). Or that the following season he’d present his collection on CD-ROM, a portent of things to come. This collection, more than any other, serves as an example of the quintessential Lang-isms that still define the industry today. There’s the sharp yet unfussy tailoring in stark black and white worn by both men and women; the elevation of lowly garments like jeans, tank tops and T-shirts into runway-worthy staples; the gritty, utilitarian details, like Velcroed vests or adjustable hip closures. Lang’s pieces are functional to their core, fashion’s answer to Le Corbusier’s so-called machines for living in. Indeed, Lang saw the beauty in the everyday as he brought a taut, worldly version of the city uniform to his catwalks, and in his clothes the public saw a hard-nosed aspiration in tune with real life at the tail end of the 20th century. Before the rise of streetwear, Lang excelled at taking items so commonplace that they went unnoticed and then reworking them into artful versions that revealed their sensual, sophisticated essence. — M.B.
Holmes: I was really looking forward to seeing which Helmut collection everyone brought to this conversation. His work is so wearable and modern, and I’ve always loved his ideas about casting — creating community by using friends and artists as models.
Li: This is one of the first times I remember consistently seeing men’s and women’s clothing together. I guess that’s not completely true, but the Helmut Lang language reflected that moment so perfectly.
Sozzani: If you close your eyes and think about Helmut Lang, this is what you see. It’s essential Helmut: mostly tailored black or white clothes. Men and women could exchange outfits.
Li: It was also an early example of utility as something to be desired. He valorized the idea of designer denim in a post-Calvin Klein landscape and turned it into a uniform.
15. Issey Miyake, spring 1989
While Issey Miyake’s signature pleats are more associated with the line he founded in 1993, Pleats Please Issey Miyake, it was under his namesake label that he debuted his “garment pleating” technique. Pleats appeared on high-waisted suspender pants in bright cobalt, neon yellow and pale orange, slim-fitting and flared, styled with matching double-breasted cropped jackets. They enlivened a transparent organdy top that resembled cicada wings. Some of them were sculpted into dresses and jackets that appeared stiff and almost crunchy; others wrapped more closely around the body, smooth and sleek. These experiments marked a new stage in the evolution of pleating, following designers such as Mariano Fortuny — who in the early 1900s developed his own patented silk-pleating technique — while paying homage to the ancient art of origami. Yet Miyake’s method wasn’t traditional: He made the pleats using heat and pressure only after the fabric was already cut and sewn; quite a bit of material was needed to create such tight folds. It was a technique Miyake spent years iterating as he pushed his designs beyond the perceived limits of form in fashion. The groundbreaking designer died this August at age 84. — J.T.
Li: This season is special, as pleating became the focus of the collection. It was an appropriation of Fortuny’s technique that Miyake made entirely his own. For me, it’s either a very specific silhouette, a material or a proposition that catapults a designer into eternal greatness. The Miyake silhouette was informed by the capabilities of the fabric.
Golbin: The technology was so integrated.
Sozzani: You can also put it in the washing machine, which is incredible. And it’s good for women who aren’t skinny. It’s an important collection in that sense.
Owens: I love Miyake, but if it were up to me, I’d save this space for Yohji Yamamoto.
16. Yohji Yamamoto, spring 1995
All design is a form of biography, but until his spring 1995 collection, Yohji Yamamoto had mostly avoided overt references to his nationality. Which is perhaps why this show, which took inspiration from Japan, his home country, was so affecting. “It was pure poetry,” Carla Sozzani said back then. “It was what fashion should be, something that makes you dream.” With a soulful touch, Yamamoto crafted a collection around the most traditional of Japanese garments, the kimono, spinning it into elongated robe coats and monastic separates. From the draped, oversize sleeves to the use of classic motifs like cherry blossoms on diaphanous silk, it was a meditation on the nation’s customs and traditions from one of its ultimate insiders. Notably, the collection used the traditional shibori dyeing technique, a handmade process that gives each garment a slightly different patina. — M.B.
Golbin: How can we not include Yohji? He, Miyake and Kawakubo all came to Paris, and each played an important role in this dramatic rethinking of the woman’s body.
Li: I love the handcrafted element of shibori.
Sozzani: This might be sentimental, but when I was editing a book about Yohji [ “Talking to Myself,” 2002], I realized that not too long after he and Rei Kawakubo broke up in the early ’90s [the couple were together for more than a decade, beginning in the late ’70s], his work had become much less interesting. In my opinion, this was his comeback collection. He’d had about three years of quiet and this made him famous again. As it should have: The work was incredible.
17. John Galliano, spring 1986
Critics were not kind to John Galliano’s Fallen Angels collection, which shares a name with a work by William Blake. They acknowledged the designer’s talent — he was 24 then, less than two years out of fashion school — but found the presentation at London’s Duke of York’s Barracks too impractical, too overworked, too Vivienne Westwood. His models had been doused in powder, some with matted hairlines and foreheads branded with drippy black ink stamps; they walked in bare feet or Patrick Cox “hobo” shoes that had been dragged through the mud. One reporter described them as “a ghostly tribe of mentally disturbed 18th-century refugees.” By all accounts, the collection did not sell well. But Fallen Angels was important enough to Galliano to inspire him nearly 35 years later, while designing Maison Margiela’s 2020 Artisanal collection. Providing inspiration for that collection were the drenched dresses that closed the spring 1986 show: empire-waist gowns splashed with water so that the sheer white fabric would stick to the body, evoking neo-Classical draping. The finale nodded to the lore of antiquity-obsessed Frenchwomen of the early 19th century suffering from “muslin disease” — an illness, legend had it, caught from walking around in gauzy gowns soaked to show off the body. — J.T.
Sozzani: I originally wanted to include his graduation collection [presented in 1984 at London’s Saint Martins College of Art and Design, now called Central Saint Martins]. I was there and it was impressive and romantic. But I forgot how much I loved the Fallen Angels collection.
Owens: Don’t get me started because I could go on and on about the way Galliano lets fabric float and fall into place. I’ve never seen anything like it. [Christian] Lacroix and Alber [Elbaz] seemed to whip meringues out of thin air, but Galliano’s confections were the lightest of them all.
18. Alaïa by Azzedine Alaïa, spring 1992
In 1990, the French Tunisian designer Azzedine Alaïa moved both his home and his atelier into the Hôtel des Évêques de Beauvais, a storied building in Paris’s Marais district. While renovating it, he discovered that the space had once been occupied by a former mistress of King Louis XV, Jeanne-Antoinette Poisson, the lively and cultured seductress who would later become known as Madame de Pompadour. This titillating morsel of trivia inspired Alaïa’s spring 1992 collection, a robust offering of some 100 looks that demonstrated not just his French savoir-faire but also his exacting technical finesse (no one, it should be said, could cut like him). The “King of Cling,” as he was known, was able to seamlessly evoke historical fashion flourishes — ample hip panniers, sleek redingotes, broderie anglaise, capacious crinolines — in a thoroughly modern, even sensual way. His interpretation blossomed into sharply tailored skirt suits with cleavage-highlighting square necklines; corsetlike, laser-cut leather obi belts; crisp white shirtdresses; elegant fluted pencil skirts; and frothy tiered minis, all of which paid homage to Versailles court costume without getting bogged down in accuracy. In 2018, the designer’s foundation mounted “The Secret Alchemy of a Collection,” an entire exhibition about this one show, which demonstrated the level of workmanship and detail that it contained. Some designers are creative powerhouses and others are breathtaking craftspeople, but Alaïa was the rarest combination of both. — M.B.
Sozzani: This was his last show before he stopped for almost 10 years, and I think it was his largest collection. There was a little bit of everything: the tailoring, the knits, the leather, the cuttings. It was an encyclopedia of his work all together in one collection. Azzedine is the great couturier, and any list without him would be incomplete.
19. Maison Martin Margiela by Martin Margiela, spring 1996
As Rebecca Mead wrote in The New Yorker, “Margiela makes clothes that are about clothes.” There may be no better example of this than his spring 1996 collection, a witty mix of the cerebral and the lighthearted in which, in lieu of “designing” clothes in the traditional sense — a chunky knit sweater, say, or a glamorous sequined skirt — he invited photographer friends to shoot these items, blew the images up to life-size proportions and then printed them onto generic lightweight garments. Now known as the Trompe L’Oeil collection, these designs lobbed a grenade at the sacred cows of the industry: craftsmanship, originality and authenticity. It was as if the designer, who has never spoken to the press, were asking: “What is a sweater? What makes a sequined gown more real than a picture of one?” It confirmed Margiela’s reputation as one of fashion’s foremost philosophers as well as its most impish prankster. With their faded black-and-white prints, the garments have an almost Proustian quality, embodying the lasting impression left by an incredible garment — as well as the fleeting nature of memory itself. — M.B.
Owens: As far as I’m concerned, designers create their legacies early in their careers. That’s when they make us sit up and pay attention to what they’re doing, and that’s what Margiela did. I bet Carla was at the show.
Sozzani: I was, yeah. It was very interesting: The women had their faces covered, which made the clothes seem very important. Often when you’re watching a fashion show, you’re either looking at the models or listening to the music. He made sure you were paying attention to his designs.
Golbin: At a time when fashion was all about supermodels, to erase the face and let the clothes speak for themselves was quite a radical act.
Li: Margiela’s a god.
Sozzani: I wish we could include all his collections.
20. Seditionaries by Vivienne Westwood, 1976
If the sound of the nascent punk scene in 1970s London was the snarl of the Sex Pistols, the movement’s unofficial headquarters were in Chelsea at No. 430 Kings Road. That was where Vivienne Westwood, a former schoolteacher, along with her then-boyfriend, the music producer Malcolm McLaren, and his friend Patrick Casey, opened a shop called Let it Rock in 1971. It became a laboratory of ideas, and its name and décor changed an additional four times to reflect the clothes as they evolved. It wasn’t until 1976, when the shop was reincarnated as Seditionaries, that the ideas Westwood had been experimenting with for the previous five years — bondage trousers, unraveling mohair sweaters — really caught fire. T-shirts printed with pornographic images and slogans, ripped-up dresses and tops decorated with chains and safety pins captured the rebellious mood of the moment, and Westwood and McLaren became its unofficial first couple. “I did not see myself as a fashion designer but as someone who wished to confront the rotten status quo through the way I dressed and dressed others,” said Westwood in her 2014 memoir, “Vivienne Westwood,” co-written with Ian Kelly. “Eventually this sequence of ideas culminated in punk.” — K.W.