The LGBTQ community has had a profound effect on fashion since the beginning. Some of the masters of fashion as we know it were men who had to hide their sexuality due to societal pressures of the era they lived in.
Today, the LGBTQ community is widely accepted and recognized for their contributions to fashion. Today designers have the option to be out and proud with the fear of any prosecution or discrimination.
In celebration of Pride Month, we salute a select group of gay designers whose work ignited social movements and sparked revolutionary changes to the way we dress and look. This group of six moved the dial forward in fashion to the extent where the average person on the street still feels their influence today.
YVES SAINT LAURENT
The YSL illustrious career includes many trailblazing moments in fashion. A visionary, he saw the inevitable democratization of fashion and became one of the first French couturiers back in the 1960s to start a ready-to-wear label. He was also one of the first designers in Paris to feature a multi-cultural cast of models in his runway shows back in his 1970s couture shows. Some of his trendsetting looks from the 60s and 70s — Bohemia, safari, unorthodox colour pairings — continue to inspire fashion today.
However, his most iconic and provocative design, which proved shocking at the time, was the Le Smoking. A tuxedo that revolutionized the way women dressed but also signalled a sweeping social change. It would pave the way for his pantsuits just as women entered the corporate culture and were ready for power dressing.
The 86-year-old designer oversees nearly every aspect of the vast empire he created over four decades ago, including hotels, restaurants, and home furnishings. Today, his net worth is more than US$8 billion. Not bad for someone who started his fashion career as a window dresser for an Italian department store. The Armani label got a huge boost in North America when Richard Gere wore his clothes in the 1980 movie American Gigolo. The brand has been featured in over 100 films and television shows, including Miami Vice, The Untouchables, to name a few. During the 80s, the Armani label was a favourite of Hollywood power brokers and would become a symbol of success.
He re-invented men’s suiting, which resonated beyond the silver screen and the red carpets and infiltrated the wardrobes of the Everyday Man with something called the Unstructured Suit. He was the first designer to take the stuffiness and stiffness of men’s jackets to remove the lining and introduce innovative fabrics. Rather than an imposing rigid jacket, he made the garment drape softly along the body. He did the same thing for female suitings, making it fluid and softening the shoulders, essentially taking away the sharp edges of power dressing. Thanks to Giorgio Armani, suits today can be languid yet evoke power.
The designer Calvin Klein created a brand that epitomized stark minimalism and distinct modern lines. However, its jeans, fragrance, and underwear division gained maximum mainstream success with some very controversial advertisements for the brand.
Klein’s underwear campaign in 1982, featuring Olympian pole vaulter Tom Hintnaus. Shot by Bruce Weber on the Greek isle of Santorini, the iconic photo showed the bronzed athlete leaning against a whitewashed chimney outdoors in nothing but a pair of white briefs. The ad appeared in the magazines and was also featured on a giant billboard in Times Square. It heralded the first time men were viewed as sex objects in ads — women and both straight and gay men loved it — and unleashed a stampede for Calvin Klein underwear. The designer indeed did wonders for men’s underwear — a category that lacked glamour and designer prestige and was a bare purchase by girlfriends and moms. He made men pay attention to what they wore when they undressed.
JEAN PAUL GAULTIER
Famous for his androgynous style in his work, whether putting men in skirts or using androgynous model Andrej Pejic in a fashion show to model male and female outfits, he has been a champion of breaking down gender stereotypes consistently. While critics would sometimes dismiss it as runway hijinks, today, some young designers are now pushing gender-fluid collections exclusively.
Gaultier also broke another gender barrier when it came to cosmetics. In 2008, he launched a men’s makeup line, and the ad featured an executive type male in a pinstriped suit, applying some concealer. The makeup line is no longer around, and the marketing of makeup to men remains tricky. But Gaultier was way ahead of the pack in his vision of fashion and beauty, not divided solely by male or female.
Fast forward and now you have major beauty companies such as Cover Girl, who made headlines by announcing their first Cover Boy in 2017, and L’Oréal featured a male model amongst the female faces, in one of their Infallible foundation ads. And none other than Chanel, the most prestigious beauty brand, launched a makeup line, Boy de Chanel.
When he committed suicide in 2010, the world lost one of the greatest designers of the 20th century. To paint a broad description of his legacy, he was fearless, provocative and found beauty in the dark and macabre. His clothing featured exquisite tailoring, honed from his years learning his craft on Savile Row. His runway shows were thought-provoking, spectacular and theatrical productions.
Alexander McQueen’s influence can be seen on city streets today, thanks to those ubiquitous scarves with skull prints — which are most likely a knock-off from a fast fashion chain. But skulls were merely a motif of the designer.
One of the ways the designer truly changed fashion with seismic repercussions can be traced back to 1996. One of his collections featured bumster trousers — pants cut so low, they skimmed the pubis and exposed the top of the bum cheeks. Naturally they were controversial, but they sparked a revolution with low-slung trousers. McQueen had literally lowered women’s waistlines. It influenced denim manufacturers trying to outdo each other with low-slung jeans, which sparked many a debate on how low is too low. Only in the last few years have jeans and trousers started inching back to a natural waistline.
The German designer founded her company at age 24 in 1968 and sold it to Prada in 1999, but it has since changed owners a few times. The designer herself had a stop-go relationship with the brand, finally departing in 2013.
British Vogue calls her fashion’s first feminist. She made influential contributions to the modern business woman’s wardrobe by showing there was an alternative to simply putting women in a men’s suit. She sculpted a clean, spare yet luxurious look based on principles of the Bauhaus movement — functional, rational and practical for everyday life. She would refer to her signature as quiet beauty and serenity. Even the fragrance she launched was simply called Pure.
She developed a cult-like following of jet-setting executive women who adored the understated elegance and austere hues of her clothes. She showed powerful women how to make an impact in quiet clothes.