5 Most Influential Fashion Designers of the 21st Century

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In the fashion world, there are stars, and then there are superstars. These five style icons, in the latter category, have not only built wildly successful businesses, but their personalities and philosophies resonate in our minds. Some initially pursued other professions, some had humble beginnings from rags to riches—and some still are making waves beyond the grave.

5 Kenneth Cole

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New Yorker Kenneth Cole’s influence transcends the fashion industry and tackles pressing social issues. Almost law-school-bound, Cole followed in his father’s “shoe-steps” because “there weren’t any rules” in fashion, as he told Harvard Business Review. Cole has fused both fashion and philanthropy; he’s chairman of amfAR, the American Foundation for AIDS Research, and has helped raise millions of dollars for this organization, in addition to supporting HELP USA, which provides jobs and services for the homeless.

4 Yves Saint Laurent

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Yves Saint Laurent, who hailed from Paris, led a revolution in both women’s and men’s style in the mid- to late 1900s that still prevails today. Saint Laurent revamped traditional looks into unorthodox creations by incorporating youth and street style, redefining femininity and masculinity (such as with the “Le Smoking” trouser-suit for women), and infusing his clothes with exotic, global inspiration that was new, fresh, and groundbreaking.

3 Giorgio Armani

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Giorgio Armani left med school to enter a career in style. Shortly after his 41st birthday in 1975, he and Sergio Galeotti co-founded Giorgio Armani S.p.A., in which he is the president, CEO and sole shareholder of the privately owned company that sells everything from fashion and home decor to real estate. This entrepreneur is recognized beyond the fashion world with distinctive honors in his native Italy and other countries (for one, he’s a Goodwill Ambassador for the United Nations High Commission for Refugees).

2 Louis Vuitton

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While Louis Vuitton hasn’t been around in the flesh for the past 120+ years, this French trunk designer’s name literally still is internationally known. As the world’s most valuable luxury brand for seven straight years as of 2012, and now under the creative direction of Marc Jacobs since 1997, Louis Vuitton is known for its classic canvas monogram bags, as well as men’s and women’s fashion and footwear.

1 Coco Chanel

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To this very day, the late and great Gabrielle “Coco” Chanel still leads a fashion legacy that spans across the 20th century into this one. This former singer and WWII nurse who defied the odds of poverty and climbed the couture ladder, debuted jersey, a material that previously was more common for men’s undergarments, as a fabric for women’s apparel—redefining notions and blurring lines of masculinity and femininity in fashion. Chanel is also famous for her tweed suits, signature “Chanel No. 5” fragrance and quilt-stitched leather handbags.

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