With Fashion Week starting Thursday, we take a closer look at 10 great arbiters of style

There are archetypes everywhere in fashion. The diva model; the high-powered PR executive; the ahead-of-the-trends magazine editor; the muse. Here, we turn the lens on designers (and one longtime editor), each of whom are responsible for altering the course of fashion history in ways both small and large.  

Miuccia Prada

Not many designers have a university degree, let alone a doctorate. Then there’s Miuccia Prada, who has a Ph.D in political science. Bored with academia, she then enrolled at Milan’s Piccolo Teatro, home of Italy’s avant-garde, and studied mime. Not surprisingly, there’s an intellectual bent to her creations. Culture critic Guy Trebay has called her “by miles the smartest designer now working.” From those ubiquitous black nylon backpacks to the transparent raincoats that turned opaque when wet, hers are notions that scientists as well as fashionistas can appreciate. Yet she never takes herself too seriously. Describing a recent collection, she deadpanned, “Uniforms for the slightly disenfranchised.” She has started a foundation that hosts artists, produces films, and organizes conferences, all the while leveraging a modest family business into a $2 billion juggernaut (Fendi, Helmut Lang, Jil Sander, etc.). Some trick.

Photo: Redux

Karl Lagerfeld

By definition, every designer is creative. Some, however, are more creative than others. And one stands alone: Lagerfeld. Fairly accurately, he calls himself a “professional dilettante.” For instance, when he became frustrated with the photography for Chanel’s campaigns, he decided to shoot them himself. He’s also an illustrator (The Emperor’s New Clothes), linguist (five languages, fluently), diet guru (The Karl Lagerfeld Diet), costume designer, art historian, and TV commercial director. While he probably could have made a career out of any of these sidelines, what he does best, of course, is design clothes. As the former creative director of Chloé and current creative director of Fendi, and Chanel, as well as his own label, he has defined the way wealthy women dress. The most prolific designer of his generation, Lagerfeld been known to churn out 200 sketches in a day. But he gets restless. “I like to reinvent myself,” he explains. “It’s part of my job.”

Photo: Trunk Archive

Vera Wang

Before she began designing $25,000 wedding dresses, Vera Wang was a serious jock who won the North Atlantic Figure Skating Championship while still at Sarah Lawrence College. When she failed to make the Olympic team, however, she moved to Paris with a French boyfriend and discovered warm brioches and haute couture. As it turned out, the leap from rink to runway wasn’t much of a stretch. Indeed, the elements are strikingly similar: beauty; line and movement; tapping into an audience’s emotions; pleasing the judges. Today, while Vera Wang rules a $700 million fashion empire that ranges from women’s ready-to-wear to Wedgwood dinnerware, she’s still the first designer consulted by skaters—Nancy Kerrigan, Evan Lysacek, and Michelle Kwan among them—when they need a killer costume. In 2009 she was inducted into the Figure Skating Hall of Fame.

Vera Wang
Tuesday, February 12, 11 a.m., 
Stage at Lincoln Center

Photo: Trunk Archive

Jeremy Scott

In the late ’90s the “anti-fashion” brat pack invaded the couture scene. Youthful provocateurs, they delighted in making out-there clothes and using unconventional models. Jeremy Scott, whose outré designs continue to thrill editors and art students alike. They include Adidas trainers with detachable wings, chainmail tank dresses embellished with AK-47 charms, and an entire collection based on car crashes. Scott has been embraced by the music industry: Katy Perry wore a custom JS bustier on the cover of Rolling Stone, and he’s done costumes for Beyoncé, Lady Gaga, Rihanna, and Nicki Minaj. The designer’s most daring creations, however, are his quotes. “Red-carpet gowns don’t float my boat,” he once sniped. “There’s enough boring clothes in the world.”

Jeremy Scott 
Wednesday, February 13, 1 p.m., Milk Studios

Photo: Imaxtree

John Bartlett

Talk to enough fashion insiders and one thing becomes evident: nobody does more good than John Bartlett. He’s a one-man benevolent society—HIV/AIDS advocate; LGBT activist; anti-fur, pro-vegan spokesperson; rescue-dog hero. In 1986 (the year President Reagan first mentioned the word “AIDS” in public), Bartlett, then 22, arrived in New York to attend FIT. A friend was dying from the mysterious disease and Bartlett couldn’t stand by and watch, so he helped care for him. Today his focus is on animals, supporting the Tiny Tim Rescue Fund, which helps save dogs and cats from kill shelters and subsists on proceeds from his Tiny Tim Petwear designs (buy them here). Bartlett’s show this week is also a Tiny Tim fundraiser. The logo, a three-legged dog, pays homage to a deceased pet. To quote the two-time CFDA award winner: “A three-legged dog just inspires you.”

Photo: Redux

Marc Jacobs

Marc Jacobs doesn’t just design clothes. He launches cultural trends, like the ’90s grunge/heroin-chic look. This native New Yorker has always been the coolest kid in the room. His graduation project consisted of oversize hand-knit sweaters when everyone else was obsessed with shoulder pads and miniskirts; the cutting-edge boutique Charivari bought the entire collection. As creative director of Louis Vuitton, Jacobs rescued Stephen Sprouse from irrelevance to collaborate with him on the popular Graffiti Speedy handbag line. A decade later, Lady Gaga was photographed carrying an Hermès Birkin bag defaced with graffiti. That’s ahead of the curve. Jacobs doesn’t have a house style. When he debuts his collection this week, nobody will know what to expect. Every Marc show is an event, because, as journalist Cathy Horyn says, “Even when he is bad, he is often better than most.”

Marc Jacobs 
Monday, February 11, 8 p.m., Lexington Armory

Photo: Redux

Diane von Furstenberg

DVF isn’t actually a queen. She is, however, a full-fledged princess. Her German title is Diane Prinzessin zu Furstenberg. Backstory: she married into the house of Furstenberg as the wife of Prince Egon of that ilk. When they split, in 1972, she wisely kept the family name—her original one, Diane Halfin, doesn’t have quite the same gravitas. According to the divorce settlement, though, Ms. von Furstenberg is prohibited from using the title “Princess.” Not that it matters. During Fashion Week, everyone seated in the first row will bow to her royal badness. In addition to being a top designer, DVF knows her way around an executive suite. How she got there—starting the company with $30,000; 12 years later, selling $1.2 million worth of wrap dresses on QVC in two hours—is the stuff of Seventh Avenue legend.

Diane von Furstenberg 
Sunday, February 10, 4 p.m., Theater at Lincoln Center

Photo: Trunk Archive

Donna Karan

There’s nothing calculated about Donna Karan’s spirituality. Coming of age in the ’60s, she was an early adopter of meditation, alternative medicine, and yoga, and still does asanas every morning “to balance the outer craziness with the inner calming world.” In fact it was yoga that inspired Karan, a practicing Buddhist, to become a designer. Her early Essentials line—stretchy jersey dresses, Lycra bodysuits, opaque tights—was all about clothes she could “sleep in, do yoga in, and go out in.” Her latest project is the Urban Zen Foundation, raising funds for impoverished Haitians; she has also given the Beth Israel Medical Center in New York $850,000 to launch a program integrating yoga, meditation, and aromatherapy into conventional treatments. 

Donna Karan New York 
Monday, February 11, 2 p.m. 

DKNY
Sunday, February 10, 1 p.m., 547 W. 26th St.

Photo: Redux

Tom Ford

According to Tom Ford, the first lesson in “how to be a modern gentleman” is as follows: “Put on the best version of yourself when you go out in the world, because that is a show of respect to the other people around you.” In other words, always look fabulous; never dress down. In fact, that’s lesson 5: “Shorts should only be worn on the tennis court or the beach.” (AnOther magazine, spring-summer 2011). Ford, a former model, takes his runway bows wearing custom suits, an orchid in his lapel. To him, style dictates not just his wardrobe, but the food he eats, the car he drives, and even where he lives: Italy. “My own culture was inhibiting me. Too much style in America is tacky. It’s looked down on to be too stylish. Europeans, however, appreciate style.”

Photo: Redex

Anna Wintour

Yes, the woman known as “nuclear Wintour,” she of the laser-cut pageboy, Jackie O. sunglasses and $200,000 wardrobe allowance, is the fashion industry’s earth mother. When a young photographer or stylist needs a break, she’s there to provide it. Designers receive special consideration. She singlehandedly made Marc Jacobs’s career. More recently, she persuaded Brooks Brothers to take on the relatively unknown Thom Browne. Alexander Wang getting hired at Balenciaga? That was Anna, too. She has also raised millions for AIDS research, coming up with the idea for Seventh on Sale and making it happen, not to mention fundraising for both of Obama’s presidential campaigns; last year she cohosted a $40K-a-plate dinner to that end. The Human Rights Campaign gave Wintour an award in 2012 for her efforts for LGBT equality. The devil may wear Prada, but she also wears a halo when nobody’s looking.

Photo: Redux