Oh sure, everyone has heard of Chanel, the pinnacle of French designers, and then of course Dior, Hermès, Yves Saint Laurent, Givenchy, Louboutin, Jean Paul Gautier and Louis Vuitton. Even if you are not into buying a brand name, I think most people are at least familiar with the above names.
And yes the above are quite something when I have the luck of finding one of their vintage pieces. However, I have found over time, research and consideration, that there are, to my mind, some far more interesting designers.
Haute Couture =
One should think about couture as synonymous with quality, even if you prefer not to have their name or logo plastered all over it. Haute couture is actually a very defined fashion term. It is not just or all about hand sewn.
Today the concept stretches across a variety of artisan areas. It encompasses specialists in their chosen area, whether it is silk, sewing, embroidery*, beading or, well, carpentry even in the case of some designers, that make up unique individual pieces.
Sure most of us can’t or are truly not even looking to own an haute couture piece, but that doesn’t mean we can’t appreciate quality. Seriously. After all, whether you can afford it or not, appreciating the quality of anything whether it be ingredients for a dish to the quality of silk in a scarf, should come natural to us.
Of course, this delves into the quantity versus quality argument. But as I am not a supporter of fast / throw away fashion, I will air and make mention (and try to persuade you) on the side of quality. To our minds, vintage and antique really is another name for quality. Because after all the item has stood the test of time.
One could argue that French Designers are standing the test of time. Not whether their brand has been reinvigorated, but whether their original creations are still dotted about the world and of interest to people. And I would like to think, even the lesser known designers, are.
So what about these less ‘famous’ French designers?
Many of them in fact started the more well known designers of today on their paths to fame. French designers start to show up in couture history in numbers, and reputation, in the late 1800s.
Haute couture was coined in reference to Charles Worth’s designs. He was an English designer based in Paris who set up the House of Worth. If you have never seen his creations, they are truly a marvel. (The Met Museum has an excellent write up and images.)
Now just because these designers don’t have the same caveat as the likes of Chanel or Dior, does not mean their work isn’t as good. It’s more like they just didn’t have the same social media luck that put them in front of a world wide audience. (Actually some did have a world wide audience, but for various reasons, they fell into a little more obscurity, some even poverty.)
A Selection of 17 French Designers
So without further adieu – here are 17 French Designers I recommend you keep your eye open for.
Of note, I have only included designers and fashion houses where you can still find some vintage or even antique items these days, eg. they are not all in museums. (Where I actively search for and may have an item in my own French Silk Scarf Shop, a link is provided.)
– in order of opening their fashion house
Jeanne-Marie Lanvin (Born in Paris, 1867 – 1946) founded her fashion house in 1889. The third oldest, it is still operating today. It remained in the family until 1996. Now it is owned by a large conglomerate. Known particularly for her perfume.
Paul Poiret (Born in Paris, 1879 – 1944) began his design life selling fashion sketches to couture houses, until he was hired by Jacques Doucet in 1898. In 1901 he moved to the House of Worth, where he was hired to design practical, simple dresses. His preference for modernity led to his opening his own fashion house in 1903. He became famous for breaking fashion rules, eschewing the petticoat and later the corset. He is renowned for his kimono coat, hobble skirt and harem pants. Today we would recognise his designs as synonymous with the art nouveau period. By his death, he had all but been forgotten. The brand was re-introduced in 2010.
Jean Patou (Born in Paris, 1887 – 1936) opened a small dress making salon in 1912, in Paris, but closed during WWI. He re-opened as a couture house in 1919. His many renowned innovations include; the flapper look, the ‘designer’ tie, the cardigan. He is also considered the inventor of knitted swimwear and the tennis skirt. His family took over the fashion house upon his death and many famous designers joined the label; Lagerfeld, Gautier, Lacroix. The house closed in 1987.
Marcel Rochas (Born in Paris, 1902 – 1955) founded his house in 1925. He was considered an innovative designer. The first to design the 2/3 length coats and skirts with pockets. Primarily he is renowned for his signature perfume ‘Femme’. The house is still open today, owned by a conglomerate.
Maggy Rouff (Born in Paris, 1896 – 1971) her parents opened a couture house in Paris which was a branch at the time of the Viennese fashion house Drécoll. Rouff went on to open her own in 1928. She was best known for her sportswear. Her fashion house closed in 1965.
Jacques Heim (Born in Paris, 1899 – 1967) started in the 1920s in his parents fur business. He took over the business and added a couture department, which became a fashion house in 1930. He was one of the first to create a two piece bathing suit. His son took over the business upon his death, but it was sold in 1969.
Madeleine de Rauch (Born in Vill-d’Avray. 1896 – 1985) She founded her fashion house in Paris in 1932. She was also renowned for her sportswear, as well as the elegance, and the fluidity of her clothes. Her fashion house closed in 1974.
Robert Piguet (Born in Switzerland, 1898 – 1953) is particularly remembered for training Dior and Givenchy. Originally trained as a banker, he moved to Paris after WWI to pursue fashion design. He opened his fashion house in 1933. Mainly known for perfumes, it closed in 1951.
Jean Dessès (Born in Egypt, 1904 – 1970) was a world leading French designer, particularly during the 1940s – 1960s. He opened his couture house in 1937. He specialised in draped evening gowns based on Greek and Egyptian robes. As far as we can discern, his fashion house closed when he retired to Greece in the 1960s.
Jacques Fath (Born in Maison-Lafitte, 1912 – 1954) was considered one of the three dominant influences on haut couture after WWII, along with Dior and Balmain (below). A self taught designer, he opened his fashion house in 1937. He hired many young assistants that went on to form their own fashion houses; Givency, Valentino and Laroche (below). Renowned for Parisienne chic, he often used strange materials and unusual designs. His house closed in 1957. It was re-launched by a luxury group in 1992.
Cristóbal Balenciaga Eizaguirre (Born in Spain, 1895 – 1972) was considered a master couture. He moved to Paris when the Spanish civil war forced him to close his shops in Spain. He opened the Balenciaga fashion house in 1937. In the 1950s he particularly became famous for changing the silhouette, moving the waist line or doing away with it all together. These included the tunic dress, the chemise dress and culminating in the empire line or high waisted dress. He closed the house in 1968, but it continues today under a conglomerate.
Opened After WWII
Pierre Alexandre Claudius Balmain (Born in Saint-Jean-de-Maurienne, 1914 – 1982) began his artistic life studying architecture before undertaking drawing for the above fashion designer Piquet. His fashion house was founded in 1945. He was known for his elegance and sophistication of style.
Louis Féraud (Born in Arles, 1921 – 1999) opened his couture house in Paris in 1955. He began by dressing the Parisian elite and designing costumes for movies. He presented his first collection in 1958. Many young designers were hired by him that went on to set up houses of their own, including Scherrer (below), Brandt, Per Spook. Upon his death a conglomerate acquired the fashion house.
Jacques Esterel (Born Charles-Henri Martin in Bourg-Argental, 1917 – 1974) Having started life as an engineer, he was not only a French designer but also a songwriter. He opened his fashion store in 1956. Creating the designs for Brigitte Bardot in La Parisienne, he became synonymous with capturing the Parisian spirit. His family took over upon his death and the fashion house remains open today.
Guy Laroche (Born in La Rochelle, 1921 – 1989) Beginning his career in millinery, he worked for the above designer Jean Desses from 1949. In 1956/7 he founded his own fashion house in Paris. He is known for traditional elegant colour combinations. And he preferred to design more practical clothing for women, even though haut couture.
Jean-Louis Scherrer (Born in Paris, 1935 – 2013) trained as a dancer until an injury changed his focus to fashion design. In 1956 he joined Dior as an assistant designer, along with Yves Saint Laurent. He went on to work for Laurent after Dior’s death and then the above designer Louis Féraud. His own house launched in 1962. Renowned for his lavishly worked luxury. He was famously fired from his own label in 1992.
Antonio Cánovas del Castillo de Rey (Born in Spain, 1908 – 1984) He went to Paris at the start of the Spanish Civil War where he designed for Paquin, the above designer Piguet and even Coco Chanel. In 1950, he joined the House of Lanvin (above). His own house opened in 1964. He was known for elegant clothes with slender lines and long flowing skirts. Later he became renown for film and stage costumes. As far as we can find, his house closed upon his death.
You may have noted the closing dates of fashion houses has been included, as well as if they are now being run by others. Knowing this will help with understanding price differences. Pieces directly attributed to the French designers during their lifespan usually hold much more value, eg are more expensive to buy.
A good place to find authentic and competitively priced French designer items is Verstaire Collective. This is my go to online site to get a sense of availability and price. And they authenticate every designer piece. I can recommend it.
*And to cap this article, if you have never seen what goes into haut couture, particularly the embroidery, this video is well worth a watch.
If you are interested in scarves through the decades, here is a taste of what you will find from my shop:
Simply click on an image to be taken to scarves from that decade.