Three Brits, Two Olsens & a Ford: The Top Five Fashion Designers of 2011

Kate Middleton wearing the Wedding Dress of the Year designed by Sara Burton of Alexander McQueen

Fashion had a good year in 2011, with lots of new emerging designers, plenty of newsy stories and many beautiful collections that I felt a great connection to. So in looking back over the year, I worked to recall the players in the fashion design world that I feel have had the most impact. Five rose to the top of my list.

There have been a lot of great new people, along with mainstays who I continue to be in awe of, but the news makers are all well-known names (with the exception of one) who I feel have taken their craft and their personal image to a new level.

I am not a fan of “celebrity collections” as a rule, but two of the five on my list are celebrities in other fields who crossed over to the fashion world and did it right. For that, they command our recognition and respect.

Alexander McQueen Silver foil ruffled gown; Sara Burton, night she received the British Designer of Year Award

Sarah Burton for Alexander McQueen

Is there anyone this past year who did not take notice of The Dress worn by Kate Middleton? The wedding gown, along with the simple white bridesmaid dress worn by Kate’s sister, Pippa, thrust Sarah Burton, creative director of Alexander McQueen and the designer of both gowns, into the limelight.

2010 was a year of darkness for the design house, when McQueen died tragically. With his passing, many worried that the label would fold without him. Against all odds it has thrived thanks to Burton, who was McQueen’s longtime assistant. She has done a remarkable job of staying true to the original McQueen while carrying the label forward with a slightly softer, more feminine and perhaps even a more commercial edge. For this accomplishment, she was awarded the British Designer of the Year Award for 2011.

Burton left for New York the day after the wedding for the opening night of the Costume Institute Gala, which heralded a stunning exhibition of McQueen’s work at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Many credit that week as the moment that Burton rebooted the McQueen brand. Middleton continues to wear Burton’s designs, most recently in a stunning black velvet gown at a public appearance in London.

The Row's Mustard Yellow dress w/fur trim; Mary Kate and Ashley Olsen

The Olsen Twins, Mary-Kate and Ashley

Is there anyone any cooler on the fashion scene than these 25-year-old siblings? Known as celebrities all their lives (as infants to teens on the television series Full House from 1987-1995), they have remained driven and focused, with the business savvy to diversify their talents into a billion dollar business. They have become symbols of the young, hip, sophisticate.

Their story is simple, yet powerful. As preteen idols for young girls, they loved and understood fashion so much that they would have Chanel outfits cut down to their size at very young ages because kids clothing was not fashionable enough. They started a fashion business at an early age — they had a line at Walmart at 12 —and remained involved, with strong ideas on how to build a high-fashion luxury brand.

They wanted a collection of basics that could be worn with couture, so they founded The Row built on the idea of  a great T-shirt. Manufactured in New York and Italy, the line is named for London’s Saville Row because of its great attention to detail, fine tailoring and fit. It caught on with high-end sites like Net-a-Porter and specialty stores like Neiman Marcus and Tootsies. The Olsens have been nominated for top awards from the Council of Fashion Designers of America and darlings of the fashion magazines.

They also developed a young bohemian collection with a West Coast vibe for the edgier customer called Elizabeth and James, named for their siblings. Not wanting to neglect their young fans, they worked with JC Penney and developed Olsenboye (their family surname) as a more affordable option. Their newest venture is a cool website,, which is a membership-only T-shirt site with choices that change monthly.

Their future plans include expanding handbags and shoes, sunglasses, and possibly menswear. And they very much want their own stores. When asked in the London Telegraph what they wish to be in 10 years, Mary Kate Olsen answered quickly, “Taller.” They are quite petite, but you know what they say about small packages!

Pink Dress from Victoria Victoria Beckham Dress launching Spring 2012; Victoria Beckham

Victoria Beckham

Launching a fashion label would seem to be the last thing on the mind of the 37-year-old former singer (Posh Spice of Spice Girls fame), celebrity wife (her hubby is David Beckham) and mother of four. But Beckham has a strong sense of style, which came through in her first collection of dresses with fit-like-a-glove silhouettes in 2008. Before long, celebrity stylists like Rachel Zoe were dressing key clients like Cameron Diaz and Demi Moore in Beckham’s dresses. Although I loved them, I wondered how many of us could wear them, though we wanted to?

With a sense of vision, Beckham expanded the collection to include looser, unconstructed styles that more women can wear. She also launched a pricey luxury handbag line on Net-a-Porter in 2010 and these high-end bags were sold out in hours. (Rumor has it that Beckahm put away her vast $1.5 million collection of Hermes Birkin bags so that she could promote her own.)

Wise business decisions like broadening her reach and becoming her own queen of self-promotion by wearing her dresses and bags almost exclusively has paid off. She grossed an estimated $100 million in sales in 2011.

That number is expected to grow as she introduces a new lower-priced collection, called Victoria Victoria Beckham, with prices ranging from $450–$1,250 this spring. (Tootsies and Neiman Marcus will carry them). It’s no wonder that the fashion site, Who What Wear penned her, “a Do-it-All Mogul Mom!”

Most popular Stella Mc Little Black Dress updated with nude sheer & black dots; Stella McCartney

Stella McCartney

McCartney is no newcomer to the fashion scene but this has been her year. More people in the design world are singing her praises than I’ve ever noticed. Her take on the little black dress with a fall collection built around sheer fabric with little black dots has been worn by celebrities and several of Houston’s fashion elite. She has been so successful with this look that she has developed a similar design for her spring/summer 2012 — only with a collection of prints with white mesh.

McCartney appears to be everywhere these days. She has a new fragrance coming out called L.I.L.Y. (Linda I Love You), named for her mom, Linda McCartney) centered around Lily of the Valley, a fave flower of her’s and her mom’s. A firm believer (no pun intended) in proper lingerie on women, she created “invisible lingerie” called Nearly Nude in her intimate apparel line.  She also brings high fashion to the workout world through a partnership with Adidas that can be found at Neiman’s and Luke’s Locker.

On a recent trip to New York, I saw McCartney’s apparel and accessories in much more prominent position at Saks, Bloomies and Barneys — a sure sign of her popularity. With a business that has shown increased profits in the last year, she has taken control of her collection as her confidence in her applauded sexy image has grown.

Tom Ford Beauty launched Fall, 2011; Tom Ford

Tom Ford

One of the most influential designers of our generation, Ford is no newbie to fashion.  Why do I put him, then, in this category of fashion news makers in 2011?

After his hiatus from Gucci in 2004, he focused his attention on other things, directing a movie, A Single Man, before returning to fashion with a menswear collection and a line of the hautest sunglasses to be found in the accessories world. His highly anticipated women’s collection is making its way to stores now.

He also has introduced his first collection of Tom Ford Beauty, with a sensual approach to a woman’s face, featuring products that take their inspiration from a fragrance as the base for each look.  Color is at the core of his beauty collection, creating sensual eyes, bold cheeks and lacquered lips. There is a level of detail and thought behind each product and its effect on making a woman feel more beautiful and sensual.  What else would we expect from the man who brought sexuality to Gucci and Yves St. Laurent in the ’90s?

This story appeared originally on on 1/1/2012.

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