Paris, during the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries, was known as the capital of fashion and is most certainly the birthplace and home of Haute Couture. The reputation of Paris as the seat of luxury and culture is one that has been fostered through art and literature as well as fashion. However, by the end of the twentieth century, the dominance of Paris as the leader of fashion was beginning to wane and haute couture was faced with the threat of its decline.
During the mid-1990s, an unprecedented development occurred in the history of French fashion: three young British designers—John Galliano, Alexander McQueen, and Stella McCartney—were appointed as creative directors for the illustrious fashion houses of Christian Dior, Givenchy, and Chloé respectively. The British had not headed a French fashion house since the mid-nineteenth century, when Englishman Charles Frederic Worth established his fashion house in Paris in 1856–1857, according to museum curator Elizabeth Ann Coleman (2018).
The collections presented by Galliano, McQueen, and McCartney were arguably responsible for the revitalization of haute couture at the end of the twentieth century, and the strategy to employ young, up-and-coming, non-French nationals set a precedent for the future appointments of creative directors of Paris fashion houses.
In all cases, the move to employ these designers was an astute tactic, as it seized upon the cultural capital of London during the 1990s. There was a focus on “Cool Britannia” during the last decade of the twentieth century as young British graduates emerging from graduate school revitalized the scenes of music, art, and fashion with their controversial and irreverent form of creativity. Art school bands such as Blur and Pulp produced a quirky, knowing type of nostalgic and cerebral pop, whilst the artists Damian Hirst, Tracy Emin, Sarah Lucas, Mark Quinn, et al., gained notoriety with their confrontational and visceral work, gaining them the moniker of “Young British Artists” or “YBAs.” The cultural forms of popular music and art collided with the subcultural scenes of Rave and Acid House, leading Vanity Fair to claim that “London Swings Again” in 1997.
Consequently, if any nationality was going to create controversy and interest within the hallowed ground of high fashion in Paris, it was going to be the British. Avant-garde graduate fashion designers emerging from the renowned MA Fashion course at Central Saint Martins, as in the case of Galliano, McQueen, and McCartney, were well placed amongst the zeitgeist of “Cool Britannia,” and the Paris ateliers that dared to appoint such innovative individuals would always benefit from their given kudos. When Galliano, McQueen, and McCartney were later appointed to the houses of Christian Dior, Givenchy, and Chloé respectively, it was seen as an invasion of sorts that would prove both controversial but significant for the future of Paris fashion and haute couture. For a brief moment during this decade, Britannia truly did “rule the waves” again.
Based in Paris, haute couture (roughly translated as “high sewing”) produces luxurious, made to measure clothing for individual clients of substantial wealth and status. Garments are made using only the finest fabrics through artisanal methods of decoration and construction, executed by highly skilled craftspeople.
France has been known for centuries as a producer of fine textiles and an arbiter of taste; according to fashion historian Valerie Steele (2017), in the French Courts during the seventeenth century nobility would wear clothing that showcased the latest fashionable styles, made from the finest of fabrics. However, it was not until the late nineteenth century that, somewhat ironically, Englishman Charles Frederick Worth established the foundation for the haute couture system in Paris. Worth emigrated to Paris at age nineteen and soon established his own atelier, where he designed and produced bespoke dresses for the noblest families across the European Courts, in addition to the less noble but equally well-known and no less wealthy actresses, opera singers, and the courtesans of the aristocracy, who were known as demi-mondaines, part of the demi-monde (Coleman 2018). Worth founded La Chambre Syndicale de la confection et de la couture pour dames et filettes in 1868 to ensure the standards of the haute couture industry were protected as well as distinguished from the rest of the fashion system. According to curator Alexandra Palmer (2018), it also made certain that haute couture would only be based in Paris.
During the early twentieth century, haute couture quickly became a vital industry to the economic growth of the French economy. It also became a symbol for the rarefied world of the beau monde (the rich and fashionable people within a particular society), and signified the social and cultural status of the wearer. However, by the 1960s the emergence of youth culture, alongside the counter-cultural revolutions, challenged the hegemony and relevance of haute couture. By the late 1980s economic recession had dramatically reduced the conspicuous consumption of the decade, throwing the haute couture industry into crisis.
It took businessman Bernard Arnault to instigate the revitalization of haute couture and the luxury fashion market. Originally a real-estate developer from Northern France, Arnault entered into the business of fashion during the 1980s and quickly acquired a spate of luxury fashion brands.
Arnault first acquired the house of Christian Dior in 1984 and, in 1988, he further acquired the luxury brand consortium of Louis Vuitton Moët et Hennessey (LVMH), which included the house of Givenchy amongst its portfolio. From there Arnault began to renovate the fashion houses that LVMH owned by appointing young British designers with no previous experience of haute couture. He implemented this strategy in a bid to modernize the industry and broaden its appeal with a more global reach. British designers had already been making an impact in Paris—Vivienne Westwood and Galliano had decamped to show at Paris Fashion Week, and Arnault knew that the publicity they generated would translate into increased sales.
The first fashion label Arnault turned his attention to restructuring was the house of Givenchy. Count Hubert de Givenchy originally established his atelier in 1951, after working and training with some of the great early twentieth-century couturiers, such as Lucien Lelong and Elsa Schiaparelli. Monsieur Givenchy was known for his elegant designs that adorned many well-to-do ladies within French society as well as the leading actresses of the day, including Audrey Hepburn and Grace Kelly. He grew his business and by 1986 was reported to have 180 licenses, imparting the Givenchy allure on perfume and accessories. By the 1980s, however, Givenchy wanted to focus solely on his creative endeavors and so sold the perfume branch of his business to Veuve Cliquot which, in turn, was bought out by the company Louis Vuitton for US$45 million in 1987. Givenchy handed over the reins to Henry Recamier, who headed Louis Vuitton, under the proviso that he remained as creative director.
When Louis Vuitton merged with Moët-Hennessey in 1987, however, and Arnault wrestled control of Louise Vuitton from Recamier to become CEO of LVMH, Givenchy’s position as creative director became unstable. According to fashion business journalist Dana Thomas (2010), Hubert de Givenchy “was pushed” into retirement in 1995. Not long after Givenchy’s retirement was made public, Arnault announced Galliano as Givenchy’s successor. The reaction amongst the fashion world was one of consternation and dismay, not least from Givenchy, who was informed of the decision one hour after his final couture show was presented.
John Galliano, since his graduation in 1984 from the prestigious London art school Central Saint Martins, had developed a reputation as the enfant terrible of fashion due to his hedonistic love of 1980s London club culture as well as his unapologetic creativity and perceived lack of commercial awareness. Originally from far more humble origins, he grew up in the multicultural working-class neighborhood of Peckham, South London, with his Spanish mother and Gibraltan father, who worked as a plumber.
When Galliano’s position at Givenchy was announced in July 1995 many wondered whether he would be able to deliver haute couture that served the needs of the client rather than his own. This was reinforced by the fact that Galliano had not worked for an haute couturier and was unfamiliar with the workings of the Paris atelier, let alone with those of the house of Givenchy.
Givenchy, according to scholar John S. Major (2018), was characterized by, “a sense of romanticism […] bright cheerful colors and a youthful femininity”; Hubert de Givenchy’s last collection epitomized this style along with the sense of conservative modesty that his wealthy clientele had grown to rely on. Galliano, on the other hand, represented the brash tactics of Arnault who was keen to democratize fashion and bring luxury brands to the global masses and aspirational middle classes.
The haute couture stalwart Valentino Garavani was quoted as saying: “He has a wonderful imagination but I am not sure he knows everything about how to make a dress.” Even Galliano admitted, “I’d never been in a couture establishment before, let alone been in charge of one.”
Galliano’s first couture spring/summer 1996 collection for Givenchy was eagerly awaited and presented during Paris Fashion Week in January of the same year. The collection carried the title The Princess and the Pea; the act of naming it as such was in itself an indication of the more radical and theatrical direction that Galliano was to take the house. The collection delved into the archive of Givenchy, an approach that was another characteristic of Galliano’s own way of designing; he referenced signature pieces from the Givenchy archive, such as the “Bettina” blouse (named after Bettina Graziani, the in-house model for Jacques Fath, with whom Hubert de Givenchy apprenticed), a garment made in crisp cotton and characterized by oversized, ruffled, Bishop sleeves, shown alongside wide shouldered, tailored suits and hourglass silhouettes reminiscent of the 1950s. Galliano juxtaposed these historical styles with references to Indian and Japanese dress, including the sari and the kimono, demonstrating his inimitable way of cross-pollinating history with culture that would go on to define his years at Dior.
The reaction to the show was mixed: Suzy Menkes (1996a) of The International Herald Tribune declared the collection, “a fashion moment that missed,” whilst hip, French newspaper, Libération, referred to it as a, “Sex Pistols concert on the lawns of Buckingham Palace” (Bowles 1996). His detractors saw the collection as a clear departure from the staid house style that served the middle-aged doyennes of high society, whilst his supporters thought the debut rather too tame. Either way, Galliano’s approach to the way he designed and presented his clothes was infused with more theatrics, sexuality, and youthful irreverence than the Paris fashion establishment was used to.
For the Givenchy prêt-à-porter collection for autumn/winter 1996, Galliano drew upon his Spanish heritage and, again, from the house archive. He presented matador jackets with neat A-line skirts and high waisted, tuxedo trousers along with another updated version of the “Bettina blouse.” It was, by Galliano’s standards, a rather conservative presentation with none of the drama of couture, but it was better received than his debut six months earlier, with Suzy Menkes this time declaring the collection to be, “fresh, youthful and wearable” (1996b).
Galliano continued at Givenchy for another two seasons before Arnault offered him the role of head designer at Christian Dior. The house of Dior, founded in 1946, was much loved by Parisians. Dior had brought Paris out of a very difficult era following the Second World War and revived the couture industry with his romantic, Belle Époque inspired silhouettes. In the ten short years that he ran his fashion house before his death in 1957, Dior managed not only to instigate a golden age of haute couture but also to democratize the industry. He did so through the many licensing deals that he negotiated in order to stamp the “exclusive” Dior name on thousands of subsidiary products, such as hosiery, scarves, makeup, and bags.
The house continued after Dior’s death, and the role of artistic director fell to Yves Saint Laurent who at the tender age of twenty-one, had already been working for Dior for two years. His appointment marked the first departure of a Paris atelier from tradition, as Saint Laurent identified with a younger customer and drew inspiration from the street as much as from high culture. Saint Laurent left in 1960, to serve in the Algerian War of Independence, but suffered a breakdown and, upon his discharge from the army, would not return to Dior, in part due to a conflict in vision with his bosses as well as his fragile health.
The helm of the house then passed onto March Bohan, who for thirty years as creative director refocused the label on a style more aligned to its origins as well as the needs of the elegant, conservative customers who loyally wore Dior.
In 1989, Italian designer Gianfranco Ferré succeeded Bohan, who left to work at Norman Hartnell. This perhaps preceded the move within Parisian fashion houses toward hiring non-French and in particular British nationals; a similar appointment was made at Chanel, who had hired German designer Karl Lagerfeld as artistic director, earlier in the 1980s, who revived the fortunes of the brand.
During the 1980s the fashion industry was becoming increasingly married with commerce and global expansion, which would continue into the 1990s. It was this same marriage of creativity and commercialism that Arnault wanted to reintroduce in the twenty-first century, to a new and younger audience of Dior consumers through Ferré’s successor, John Galliano, who took over as artistic director in 1996.
Galliano’s move to Dior left a position to fill at Givenchy, and Arnault turned to another young British designer, Alexander McQueen, who was also known as an enfant terrible of the fashion world and shared a similar background to Galliano’s. Lee Alexander McQueen had risen to fame and notoriety as a result of his razor- sharp tailoring skills, visceral fashion shows, and collections inspired by strong female muses and a predilection for the macabre.
McQueen grew up the youngest of six children in the gritty, working-class neighborhood of Stratford, East London. Despite leaving education with just one qualification in art, he trained with the Saville Row tailors Anderson and Shepherd, followed by stints working for Culture Shock, Red or Dead, and Romeo Gigli, before eventually landing a place on the highly competitive master’s program at Central Saint Martins. Upon graduation in 1992 he was spotted and mentored by Isabella Blow, one of the British fashion cognoscente who at the time worked for Vogue magazine, and who renamed him by his middle name, “Alexander.”
Arnault and his team had been monitoring the progression of McQueen, so when Galliano was moved to Dior, the executives at LVMH courted the 27-year-old for the Givenchy job. Arnault knew that publicity of any kind would be invaluable, despite the initial resistance of the French fashion establishment to McQueen’s appointment.
The French beau monde regarded McQueen with disdain as a result of his working-class background and due to the perceived lack of his social refinement and acculturation. He was also alienated from the fashion press, with whom he had an openly fractious and hostile relationship and whom, like Galliano, derided him for his lack of experience working in an haute couture atelier.
McQueen presented his debut spring/summer 1997 couture collection for Givenchy during Paris Fashion Week in January of the same year. The collection, called Search for the Golden Fleece, was inspired by the Greek myth of Jason and the Argonauts. The entire collection was made from white and gold fabric and featured tight, bustier dresses and opera coats styled with animalistic accessories, such as ram’s horn headdresses and bullring nose piercings, all in gold. It was not well received, and many clients on the front row were unsure how wearable the garments were. The press perceived the collection as a deliberate attempt from McQueen to alienate Givenchy’s clients, in what Amy M. Spindler (1997) of The New York Times called, “a pretty hostile collection from a gifted designer who seems in conflict about his role in the Givenchy studio.”
When Galliano presented his debut spring/summer 1997 collection for Dior a day later, he did not fare much better. As with McQueen, many in the audience saw Galliano’s collection as an expression of self-indulgence that neglected the tastes of Dior’s more conservative clientele. The American socialite, Nan Kempner, said:
I was sitting in a row with Madame Chirac and Madame Pompidou and they looked like they had been hit in the face with a cold dead fish … How much was there that Madame Chirac or Madame Pompidou could wear? (Kempner interview with author, Paris, January 1997; Thomas 2015: 396)
Despite the controversy surrounding the appointment of Galliano and McQueen, many could see that Arnault’s strategy was paying off. Both Dior and Givenchy were receiving unprecedented press coverage and publicity that was reflected in the increase in the sales of auxiliary goods of perfume and accessories.
Other conglomerates followed the example of LVMH. It was either a case of remaining in the past or embracing the growing commercialization of the luxury goods market, which appealed to a younger, more global client base. CEOs continued to look toward London and Britain for the next designer to take over the helm of a flagging label.
It was consequently no surprise—and yet no less controversial—when Stella McCartney, the 25-year-old daughter of the former Beatle, Paul McCartney, was announced in April 1997 to succeed Karl Lagerfeld as creative director for the prêt-à-porter, womenswear label, Chloé. Lagerfeld scoffed, “They should have taken a big name … They did—but in music, not fashion.”
Chloé was established in the early 1950s by Gaby Aghion, an affluent, Egyptian born, French housewife, who wanted to create the self-termed “prêt-à-porter de luxe,” that had the feel of couture but could be bought more accessibly as ready-to-wear. Aghion’s designs were focused on providing up-to-date, youth-driven fashion that was equally elegant and luxurious, yet had none of the formality of haute couture. This new style of Paris fashion appealed to a younger generation of women in the 1960s and 1970s, who, althoughy wealthy, felt none of the social and cultural constraints of their mothers from the 1950s. McCartney was well versed with the DNA of the brand, having grown up observing her photographer mother, Linda, wearing Chloé in the 1970s. Stella McCartney’s designs for her own brand were closely aligned with Chloé’s, through her informal yet luxurious take on feminine tailoring, which she had become known for.
Her upbringing was unshowy, despite growing up around rock star royalty. She lived in the countryside, on her family farm until she left to attend art school in London - even there she would shy away from the notoriety of her background by changing her surname.
For the presentation of her graduate collection she recruited her friends—none other than the supermodels Kate Moss and Naomi Campbell—to wear her collection on the catwalk. Her parents, as well as other famous friends such as Ringo Starr and his wife Barbara Bach, attended and drew attention to the launch of her career and helped her to establish her own brand. When McCartney was appointed to succeed Lagerfeld eighteen months after she graduated, the reception amongst the fashion press and industry was politely critical of her credentials to design for such an established brand, and many, including Lagerfeld, presumed she was hired for her celebrity background.
That said, McCartney’s first show for Chloé for spring/summer 1997 was received well, which can be explained by her own close position to the Chloé consumer—that of a young, wealthy, privileged yet creative and bohemian woman. However, it could also be explained by the experience she gained when interning with the couturier Christian Lacroix, making McCartney the only designer out of Galliano and McQueen to have already worked for a Paris atelier.
Although McCartney had used the same approach as Galliano and McQueen by raiding the label’s archives, she managed to marry the aesthetic of the brand with her own thrift-store style, without losing the feeling of luxury that Chloé had become known for.
McCartney combined softly tailored suits (showcasing the skills that she had acquired on Saville Row), alongside more sensuous, lingerie-inspired pieces, such as the ubiquitous slip dress that she had become known for. Her appointment succeeded in creating much needed publicity, if not for the clothes but for the celebrity audience her show attracted, including her parents and other faces from the swinging sixties. Grace Bradberry (1997) from The Times said, “After a show of celebrity force, it scarcely seemed to matter what the clothes were like.” McCartney’s appointment reiterated the dominance of YBAs within fashion, music, and art during the 1990s. In turn, this ensured the economic and cultural capital and, thus, the relevance of the French brands that she, McQueen, and Galliano designed for.
Galliano and McQueen would continue to design for Dior and Givenchy, evolving as couturiers and firmly establishing themselves as legendary designers within fashion history. They grew accustomed to the haute couture system and its standards, working hard to gain the respect of the people they worked with in the ateliers as well as from the fashion press. However, the pressure of designing up to ten collections a year, including for their own labels, would take its toll.
McQueen decided to leave Givenchy to focus on his own label and sold a stake in this company to LVMH’s rival, the Gucci Group, in 2001. For McQueen, his passion was always about the creativity of fashion—not the sales his designs generated. Tragically, McQueen’s career and life came to an abrupt end when, in 2010, he committed suicide the day before his mother’s funeral. His death shocked the fashion establishment and marked a sad end to a glittering career.
Galliano continued to design for Christian Dior but the pressures got the better of him too when, in 2011, he was filmed and reported to police for shouting anti-Semitic slurs at a couple in a café in Paris. The day after the news broke Bernard Arnault fired him from Dior as well as from his own label.
McCartney would design for Chloé until 2001, when she teamed up with the Gucci Group who provided her with the financial backing to start her own label. If the strategy to appoint young Brits initially proved successful for the fortunes of LVMH and the Vendome Group, who owned Chloé, it eventually backfired when they were out-maneuvered by their business rivals, who played them at their own game by poaching their star designers.
That said, the legacy of McQueen, Galliano, and McCartney remains. McQueen and Galliano shook up the Paris fashion establishment with their irreverent approach leaving a lasting impact on fashion. All three designers proved that Brits could create haute couture and high fashion as well as any French man or woman. Their vision and creativity brought haute couture into the twenty-first century as well as the consciousness of a globalized, younger audience.
The success of the British invasion set a precedent amongst other fashion businesses who continued the revival and reinterpretation of many established, fashion houses. The strategy to employ non-French nationals outside of the haute couture system became common practice in the new millennium. Only a decade earlier many in the industry thought that haute couture was dying and would not survive without the namesakes at the helm, but history—and the present—tells us that this would not be the case: certainly not in the case of the Dior, Givenchy, and Chloé.
(1997), “Star-Spangled Turnout for Stella’s Show.” The Times, October 16, 1997: 1. Available online:
(accessed January 27, 2019).
(1995), “Le Grand’s Exit.” The Independent, July 2, 1995. Available online:
(accessed April 25, 2019).
Louis Vuitton Moët Hennessey (LVMH) (1997), “1997 Annual Report.” Available online:
(accessed January 26, 2019).
(1996b), “A Neat, Cool Take on Couture for the Fall.” International Herald Tribune, March 18, 1996. Available online:
(accessed May 31, 2019).
(1989), “Dior Confirms Ferre will Replace Dior.” The New York Times, March 11, 1989. Available online:
(accessed April 25, 2019).
(1997), “Among Couture Debuts, Galliano’s Is the Standout,” The New York Times, January 21, 1997. Available online:
(accessed May 31, 2019).
(2017), “Paris, Capital of Fashion?.” In
Paris Fashion: A Cultural History, xii–17. London: Bloomsbury Visual Arts. Bloomsbury Fashion Central. Web. June 13, 2019. doi:
(2010), “The Looming Battle for Hermès.” Newsweek, December 11, 2010. Available online:
(accessed April 25, 2019).
(1995), “British Designer Dons Mantle of Givenchy Fashion.” The Times, July 12, 1995: 5. Available online:
(accessed January 9, 2019).
, ed. (2018), “The Story of How Givenchy Ended up Under the Umbrella of LVMH.” The Fashion Law, March 20, 2018. Available online:
(accessed April 25, 2019).