Laura Ashley

11 Late 20th Century Fashion Designers

Here are eleven more of the late 20th Century fashion designers that had their heydays in the 1960s, 1970s, and later on toward the century’s end.

Laura Ashley

A favourite British company, founded by Bernard Ashley and his wife, Laura, after World War II, Laura Ashley was created after Laura was inspired to make her own printed fabric for Victorian style head scarves after she had seen a display at London’s Victoria & Albert Museum. When actress Audrey Hepburn wore one of the head scarves in her 1953 film, Roman Holiday, the company’s future was set.

Late 20th Century Fashion Designers - Laura Ashley
1970s printed cotton dresses by Laura Ashley exhibited at the Fashion Museum, Bath in 2013
By Mabalu – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=34160071

It was not until the 1970s, however, that Laura Ashley became known for its signature dresses and dress shops. Laura Ashley is credited with popularizing the decade’s classic Edwardian style dresses, which featured frilled or scoop neck collars and puff or leg of mutton sleeves. The dresses were typically made from fabric that had been printed by company. In keeping with the trend for nostalgic designs, the textiles were printed with modern reinterpretations of antique British prints, many of which included floral and other nature based motifs.

Printed fabric remained a focal point for Laura Ashley designs, many of which included small floral motifs that were derived from 18th and 19th century patterns. Many designs, however, featured more abstract, geometric designs, such as stripes, spots or other shapes instead of flowers or nature-based prints.

Dresses and other garments were frequently accented with trendy details, such as macramé lace add-ons and flounced skirts. Laura Ashley dresses were made for both women and girls during the 1970s, and customers who were interested could coordinate mother and daughter outfits.

In 1970, the company opened a store on Fulham road in London and sold 4,000 dresses, which led to a new factory in Newtown, Montgomeryshire. In 1974, Laura Ashley opened its first shop in Paris, followed by one in San Francisco during that same year.

In 1977, Laura Ashley opened its New York City shop. As the company’s reputation grew over time, it also entered into agreements to have the brand’s designs sold in department stores in its native U.K. and abroad in Japan, the U.S., and other countries. In England, Laura Ashley clothing was sold in John Lewis, Heal’s and Liberty’s.

Later in the 1970s, Laura returned to her roots in fabric design, leading to the company’s launch of a home furnishings collection, many of which were inspired by her second home, in France. Despite the growth throughout the decade, Laura Ashley’s designs remained consistently romantic, tasteful and were invariably described as “quintessentially English.”

Stephen Burrows

Bacall, Hendrix, Streisand, Cher, the Supremes, Aretha Franklin, all names to conjure with: all bodies that have been draped and displayed with a Stephen Burrows design. Stephen started young, making dresses for a friend’s dolls, and then when he grew up and went to school for fashion, he knew he wanted to break the rules. His trademarks are light, fluid fabrics, visible seams, and contrasting thread to make the seams stand out even more.

One of the very first African American designers to hit the world stage, Stephen won awards year after year in the 1970’s. He showed his collection at Versailles, and his shop in New York City was an instant sensation in the opening year of the decade. Influenced by his love of music and dance, Stephen’s dresses are so light and fluid you could actually step onto stage and perform comfortably in them… and many performers of the 1970’s did just that.

Stephen’s designs epitomize the disco era. His signature lettuce hems, and flowing chiffons went against the trend of heavy fabrics much lined and blocked to create a trim, sexy silhouette for the wearer. The messy, dishevelled look and Burrow’s party hard lifestyle with the likes of Warhol led to comments that his clothes looked like they were made to party all night in and then leave on the floor.

His use of bold, saturated colour made his dresses appeal to the young women who were coming of age in the heyday of disco dancing and free love. Meant to cling to every curve, and meant not to wear anything under, Stephen’s designs were hotly sexy.

His success led to his winning three of New York fashion’s top award, the Coty. He opened his shop, “Stephen Burrow’s World” to critical acclaim, and until the end of the decade was recognized as one of the top five American designers. During the 80’s he dropped out of sight, and it wasn’t until 30 years after his heyday that he reappeared in the fashion world, taking up his success almost where he left off, even the current First Lady having appeared in a Burrows.

Ossie Clark

No discussion of Ossie Clark is complete without his partner, Celia Birtwell. Ossie’s humble beginnings, from his birth during an air-raid, to his scholarship at the Royal College of Art, were enhanced and launched to fame with Celia’s textiles. Ossie won the attention of Alice Pollack with his original designs the very year he graduated, but it was Celia’s textiles, her unique, organic designs, that won them both a place in the spotlight.

Ossie’s first collection in Quorum, Alice Pollack’s shop, was simple, coloured mostly cream and white. Alice, wanting to add something to his work, commissioned Celia Birtwell, his former classmate. Ossie’s love of dance and movement was reflected it the free-flowing designs of his dresses, intended to allow freedom of movement.

The 1970’s fashion world would be deeply influenced by this. Celia’s textiles feature leaves, flowers, and Art Deco Influence in their designs. Unlike some other designers of the era, the pair were known for their muted colour selections. They were unafraid to mix patterns in their designs, creating richly elaborate colour schemes on simple dresses layered with long coats.

During the 1970’s the couple, married by then, collaborated and produced designs ranging from softly flowing floor length gowns to a snakeskin jumpsuit worn by Mick Jagger. Mick and Bianca Jagger were frequent clients, along with other well-known fashion lovers such as Twiggy, Jean Shimpton and Penelope Tree. Ossie’s style expanded to incorporate snakeskin, eel skin, and leather, but he remained best known for his use of chiffon and handkerchief hems.

Unfortunately, although he and Alice Pollack had started an immensely popular design house, they were not the best businesspeople, and they became bankrupt. Ossie was approached by Radley, who bought out Alice, and Ossie began to design a collection called “Ossie Clark for Radley”. These designs were much more affordable than the haute couture and brought his work to the masses.

In the later part of the 70’s Ossie’s drug use and lifestyle led to his divorce, and to his decline as a designer through diminished capacity. As the punk look came into style, his softly romantic look faded out of fashion and Ossie himself left the fashion scene in London. Tragically, in the late 1990’s, Ossie Clark was murdered.

Diane von Furstenberg

Diane von Furstenberg
Diane von Furstenberg at the 2009 premiere of the Metropolitan Opera in New York City.
By David Shankbone – David Shankbone, CC BY 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=7867005

Diane von Furstenberg started on her career as a designer to keep herself from becoming subsumed into her husband’s identity as a European prince. She didn’t want to be a useless princess, so she launched a new business and through that, she became an icon of the design world with the simple design of one dress.

The stunning popularity of her collection was in large part due to the rise of women in power, and of their self-awareness of that power in the workplace. Diane’s designs spoke to that feminine freedom.

The jersey sport wrap dress Diane launched into the fashion world was not strictly an original design; certainly, there had been wrap dresses, and sport dresses before. What made hers rocket to the sale of more than five million dresses in a matter of a few years was the sexy appeal of wearing a dress to women who had been trying to dress more masculine thinking it would get them ahead in the workplace.

Diane’s design brought beauty to the souls of working women everywhere, and the jersey material it was made of was washable as well. It was a winning combination of fashion and practicality.

That dress became such an icon that one now is on display at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and it has come back into styles. By the end of the decade, Diane had sold her business and moved on to other interests, although she would return to the industry twenty years later.

In the later 70’s, she wrote a self-help book based on her life and like her designs, it exhorted women to” become a more attractive, confident, and sensual woman”. Like Diane herself, her designs gave millions of women the freedom to not only be smart and strong, but sexy and practical.

She had started the business on an impulse as a young girl who refused to disappear into the woodwork, and dressed in her designs, a legion of young women entered the workforce following that sentiment. She gave women everywhere the way to feel like exactly what they were, and to dress like a woman at the same time.

Bill Gibb

Late 1970s gown by Bill Gibb
Late 1970s gown by Bill Gibb
By Mabalu(photograph), Bill Gibb (dress). – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=42760147

Bill Gibb sprang into and out of the fashion scene in 1970’s London with all the verve and flair of the clothes he designed. Unlike many high fashion designers, Bill came out of a remote farming community to pursue a career in couture. Right out of art school, he opened a design business, and within a year had wowed the design community with his unique blend of haute couture and street wear. Enterprising, inventive, and ingenious, his meteoric rise to fame could well serve as an inspiration to young designers.

Bill’s clothes flow, billow, and are smashingly coloured. His revival of sweeping skirts and the blend of knitted fabrics and leathers led to the ultimate hippie look. He blended high fantasy and romanticism with bold fabrics and tartan in his designs for a look that distilled a very British sense of fashion. His dress of the year in 1970 featured bell sleeves, a floor length skirt, and his signature blends of checks, tartan, floral, and knitted patterns. The world’s first supermodel, Twiggy, wore his dresses and was a close friend.

Another one of his throwback designs, in 1975, was the flowing, hooded cape. His romantic style appealed to a London caught up in the panic of an oil crisis, where the modern harshness and punk styles were burgeoning into fashion. Bill Gibb presented a softer, almost historic appeal with his dresses and capes and knitwear. He exhibited across Europe, in the Louvre and the Vitoria and Albert museum, among others. But his artistic side was no match for the demands of a business world.

In 1976, his business was forced into liquidation and he was unable to recover from the demands and restrictions placed upon him during that process. His fashions slipped out of the market, and although he briefly revived in the mid-1980s, that revival was cut tragically short by his early death, at age forty-four. Few others had such an impact during such a brief career, and although his name may not be well known, his designs are recognizable as being iconic of the equally short hippie era.

Barbara Hulanicki – Biba

It was in the 1970s when high fashion was defined by wearing uncomfortable smocks of “Auntie Colours,” consisting of rusts, blueberries, plum and blackish mulberries, and miniskirts that get shorter every week. It was also in this era when teenagers or twenty-year-old women had bright faces, round dolly eyes and long legs with fresh little foals. This was called “The Biba Look.”

In 1964, Barbara Hulanicki, the creative genius behind Biba, started her legendary label with an inexpensive line of sheer blouses, micro minis and lithe smocks available through mail order. Her first store was characterized by an Art Nouveau lounge scene and blacked out windows.

It all started when her very first shop became flooded with girls who were all trying on the same brown pinstripe dress. Barbara remembered that none of the girls even asked for any other style or size. She later described that her customers were “post-war babies,” lacking protein nourishment in their childhood resulting in a skinny body when they grew up. It appealed to them because of the clothes’ affordability – for less than 10% of the weekly earnings of an average London girl, she could share the look of famous icons she saw on TV. This made them feel special.

After five years, Dennis Day and Dorothy Perkins bought most of the stake in the company, paving way for the creation of Biba Ltd. The brand expanded into cosmetics, home goods and children’s clothing. It moved to Derry & Toms seven-story department store in 1974. The building because a tourist attraction because of the way each department – men’s, children’s the food market, the bookstore and the home department – had its own logo based on the famous Biba logo.

Shortly after in 1975, Barbara left the empire after disagreements over creative control. Her spirit broken, she and her husband went to Brazil. The British Land Company closed Biba. The building along with the brand’s trademark was bought by a group without any relations to Barbara.

In 2006, designer Bella Freud tried to relaunch the label but after two collections it ceased to exist. In 2010, House of Fraser put the iconic fashion back in the limelight when its in-house designers brought life back to the beloved label.

After the demise of her husband, Barbara Hulanicki moved to Miami and set out a new career for herself – renovating prestigious hotels.

Perry Ellis

Born in 1940, Perry Ellis enjoyed a comfortable middle-class lifestyle with his parents courtesy of his father’s Coal & Oil company, and living comfortably afforded him the luxury of the best education. After graduating from Woodrow Wilson High School, Perry attended college at William and Mary in Williamsburg, Virginia, studying business administration and graduating in 1961. He furthered his education shortly thereafter and attended New York University to receive his master’s in retailing.

With extensive knowledge of business and retailing, it did not take Ellis long to find a job as a fashion buyer and merchandiser for Miller & Rhoads. He knew what was fashionable and he knew how to sell it. From there, he teamed up with a business partner and opened A Sunny Day, a retail shop in Richmond. While working for John Meyer, a sportswear company out of New York, Ellis attracted the attention of The Vera Companies and was commissioned to design an exclusive collection for them, and in 1976, Ellis introduced Portfolio, a line of women’s sportswear.

Women who wore Ellis’s clothing praised him for the clothing’s clean lines, sophisticated air, and casual feel. Unlike many designers, he understood that high fashion had a place in comfortable clothing, making his eye for combining the two very valuable. In 1978, Ellis opened a showroom on Seventh Avenue in New York City, and by the 1980s, he had established a name for himself as a revolutionary designer and the founder of his very own fashion house, Perry Ellis International.

Ellis did not stop at women’s sportswear. Shortly after establishing Perry Ellis International, he began adding new items to his lines including fragrances, shoes, accessories, and even furs. During the 80s, he expanded his fashion house further to include different labels targeting different demographics. Items of clothing from the Perry Ellis Portfolio line, for instance, was priced lower than items in the Perry Ellis Collection. His modern designs paired with classic silhouettes earned him multiple Coty awards in the early 80s, making his name a household one.

Ellis passed away in 1986, but he left behind a legacy. He appreciated casual, functional clothing and incorporated the needs of his consumers into every aspect of his lines. Although he could not sketch, Ellis had a knack for conveying exactly what he wanted, and he would accept no less than perfection. His contribution to 1980s fashion begins and ends with simplicity, a timeless ideal that has lasted through the decades.

Thea Porter

When you think of fashion designers of the 1960s, who comes to mind? There’s Rudi Gernreich with his avant-garde ideas, Givenchy, who dressed Audrey Hepburn in classy styles, or Mary Quant and her mini dresses. Another name to keep in mind is that of Thea Porter. Known as the queen of flower power, Thea Porter created fantastic, graceful clothes based on memories of her childhood in Damascus and her own otherworldly imagination.

Born Dorothea Seale, a minister’s daughter, in Jerusalem on Christmas Eve 1924, she moved to Beirut to attend university and there married Bob Porter of the British Embassy. When they separated a few years later, she took her daughter Vanessa and moved to London to become an interior decorator. Fired from a prestigious shop for recommending satin drapery to a client, she started her own business making floor cushions. When a shipment of beautiful caftans arrived, she added a few stylish trimmings and began her signature line of Arab-inspired clothing.

Thea Porter had a knack for discovering gorgeous fabrics hidden away in forgotten warehouses. She made them into gowns, skirts, cloaks, scarves and jackets, clothing men as well as women in garb of mythic fantasy. Rock musicians of the period, with their romantic hippie sensibilities, loved her clothes. Guitarist Andy Summers wore a red and green Porter coat with bell sleeves and gold thread. He called it his wizard’s coat, associating the style with the fairy stories of J.R.R. Tolkien. Syd Barrett and his girlfriend Lindsay both wore Porter ensembles. Christine McVie was often photographed wearing Porter-designed gypsy dresses and head scarves.

Her clothes were often featured in elite fashion magazines during the 1960s and 1970s, and people of fame and wealth came from all over the world to sample her wares. She was known as an honest, friendly and generous woman. Even in her elder years, when Alzheimer’s disease had stolen her memory, she was still giving away gemstones at parties and relating fantasies about her beloved grandchildren.

Unfortunately, the one quality Ms. Porter lacked was business sense. She did not know how to market herself and was not particularly interested in publicity. This is probably why her name is so little remembered today, although her styles are still deeply associated with the dreamy idealism of the 1960s. She was truly the queen of the flower children.

If you want to adopt a Thea Porter-type look, visit antique clothing stores and seek out velvet, satin and silk in rich colours. Look for long lines, elegant drapery, a “gypsy” or Bohemian look, an air of mysterious fascination. Make yourself a few caftans. Some of her patterns were even published by Simplicity and Butterick. Romance is always in style.

Zandra Rhodes

Zandra Rhodes
Zandra Rhodes by Phil Konstantin
By Philkon – Own work, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=3997905

Zandra Rhodes grew up in the fashion community of the 1940’s. In the late 60’s, when she debuted her textiles, they were deemed unsuitable for designs created by that community, so she began to make her own clothes especially for those fabrics. During the 70’s she rose to fame and by the end of the decade, had been named Designer of the year, and featured in a fashion retrospective at the Victoria and Albert museum. Her bold, organic designs are quintessentially of the 1970’s, and although they have come back into vogue in the new millennia, they were original to the era and personality that created them.

Zandra’s trademark shocking pink hair suits her persona, which bursts forth in her creations, the designs she creates are as outrageous as the prints she uses in them. Kaftan coats whose pleats remind you of origami, dresses slashed and completely asymmetrical all sprang from her imagination. Details such as exposed seams, slashes, holes, and safety pins were all her innovation, and she blended past fashion into her own, reviving the crinoline in the early 1970’s. Most of her designs are surprisingly feminine for the era but given Zandra’s own zaftig figure and penchant for brightly coloured hair and bold makeup, not at all surprising.

Her designs weren’t all created for women, she designed for Freddie Mercury of Queen, who wanted something flamboyant. Her white satin creation, with pleats to allow him the freedom of movement his performing style demanded, would become infamous. Later in the decade, her pink and black jersey collection, accented with slashes and safety pins, would earn her the nickname “Princess of Punk.” During the 70’s, as British rock swept the world stage, her designs would travel with them into international fame.

Her designs follow her personality. Theatrical, dramatic, but graceful and feminine, her clothing was worn by Jackie O and Elizabeth Taylor. Many of her textiles were influenced by African or Native American themes, and her bright colours and chunky jewellery follow that influence as well. In the 1970’s she was one of the most influential designers, creating a look that following generations would immediately recognize as stemming from that era.

Jean Varon (John Bates)

Jean Varon (John Bates)
Group of 1960s minidresses designed by John Bates for Jean Varon, including a 1966 fluorescent green micro-mini worn by Marit Allen
 Exhibited at the Fashion Museum, Bath, 2006
By Dani Lurle – Flickr: https://www.flickr.com/photos/slushpup/224738337/, CC BY 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=46386737

Working under the name of Jean Varon, a name that he chose based on its implication of a French background, John Bates began his apprenticeship with Gerard Pipart at Herbert Sidon of Sloane Street in 1957. Only two years afterward, he began designing fashion freelance and while he contributed some important pieces to the 1960s fashion movement, namely the bikini dress and the striped tube dress, his truly memorable pieces came about in the 1970s.

By the time he had started his own label in 1972, Bates had become a member of the elite group of designers making up the core of British fashion along with Bill Gibb, Zandra Rhodes, and Jean Muir. Much like Halston, another popular designer of that decade, Bates wanted to produce quality fashion worthy of magazines and members of the social elite, but at a price that an office secretary could afford to pay. Under his John Bates label, he pushed the envelope and created more avant-garde designs, using expensive material like fur, leather, and pure silk, while under his Jean Varon label, he designed softer, gentler garments meant to play on a woman’s natural, subtle beauty by accenting her femininity.

Perhaps the most important contribution that Bates made to the fashion world came about in 1973 when he designed a famous evening dress with a backless design, heightening the wearer’s natural sensuality while refusing to completely draw an onlooker’s attention away from the garment itself. With the garment’s success, Bates continued experimenting with eveningwear and met with considerable success. He implemented the Empire silhouette quite frequently in his evening dresses, giving his collections an old-world charm infused with bold, current colours. His use of Op art print fabrics is especially notable and relevant to fashion in that decade.

Eventually, the John Bates label fell into bankruptcy and with that loss of success, Bates opted to leave the world of mainstream fashion. Fashion designer Tom Bowker continued the Jean Varon label while Bates retired to Wales, where he took up work as an artist. While his name is no longer household, leaving only the most well-learned of fashion gurus to reminisce on his undeniable talent, Bates left his mark in the fashion world and garments from his self-titled clothing label remain valuable collectibles for those who appreciate his designs.

Vivienne Westwood

Vivienne Westwood
Vivienne Westwood at Life Ball 2011, Rathaus (Town Hall) of Vienna, Austria.
By Manfred Werner/Tsui – CC by-sa 3.0, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=48051869

Bell-bottoms, platform shoes, hot pants – all of these fashion crazes came to prominence and have become icons of the 1970s. With the influence of the glam and punk rock music styles still fresh in the public eye, capturing the attention of the world with their innovative, radical ideals, the 1970s was a decade obsessed with the newest, hottest fashion trends. At the top of the heap in a punk rocker’s world was a woman who went against the grain and brought edgy looks to the mainstream: Vivienne Westwood.

Westwood got her beginnings as a primary schoolteacher when she sold her jewellery at a Portobello Road stall, but her career as a designer only continued to bloom after she met Malcolm McLaren. The two lived together in Clapham and in 1971, while she continued teaching, Westwood and McLaren opened Let It Rock, a boutique that both he and Westwood operated collaboratively. They drew their inspiration from fetish fashions and bikers, creating a style heavily inspired by the punk rock music style and bringing it to the attention of mainstream audiences.

A fan of the punk genre, Westwood continued to push the envelope, implementing BDSM fashion, razor blades, chains, and spikes into her clothing and jewellery lines. Westwood’s fashion sense drew a great deal of inspiration from the punk rock style, so while her fashions eventually went on to be considered high fashion, her original lines embraced the do-it-yourself feel. Her joint collaboration with McLaren left a deep impression in the 1970s fashion movement, emphasizing radical ideals and implementing the infamous tartan fabric that went on to be associated with punk fashions from the 70s.

McLaren, a fairly prominent figure in the music world, went on to manage the popular punk rock band, the Sex Pistols, and when the band began wearing Let It Rock’s designs, Westwood’s fashions exploded with popularity, setting off a chain of events that made the punk rock fashion an international phenomenon. Westwood’s ground-breaking designs only continued to gain followers, making her one of the most prominent fashion designers of the decade and immortalizing her as an innovative fashion icon of the 20th century.

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