10 Gay Fashion Designers Who Changed the Industry

With fingers on the pulse of what’s fabulous, gay designers have moved the fashion dial for centuries
Grindr
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Editorial team
November 3, 2023
February 29, 2024
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“Elegance is not standing out, but being remembered.” So said Giorgio Armani, an edict observed by gay men all over the world for centuries. It’s certainly true that so many of us end up in the world of fashion, from the days of Parisian couture in the early 20th century to queer designers making waves today.

Here we pay tribute to 10 of the most influential gay designers in history, some of whom were forced to hide their sexuality but nevertheless were game-changing style leaders.

Gay Fashion Designers

1. Karl Lagerfeld

“Sweatpants are a sign of defeat,” once declared the Hamburg-born designer who was at the helm of Chanel for 30 years until his death in 2019. Campy, controversial, and the owner of a fluffy white cat called Choupette (to whom he willed a paltry $1.5 million after his death), Lagerfeld’s designs are so iconic that the theme of this year’s Met Gala was entirely dedicated to him.

Lagerfeld lived a life of impossible glamour, from chic summers in Saint-Tropez to dressing like an 18th-century aristocrat complete with gloves, high-collared shirts and his signature ponytail. Aside from his many eccentricities, he was a genuine trailblazer, reimagining Coco Chanel’s classic designs and perpetually presenting a black-and-white aesthetic. He managed to simultaneously lead Chanel, his own eponymous label, and Fendi throughout his six-decade-long career, which is no mean feat.

2. Yves Saint-Laurent

Saint-Laurent was a friend and rival of Karl Lagerfeld, both of them arriving in Paris at the same time and cutting their teeth in the rarefied world of haute-couture before proceeding to redefine the then-new world of ready-to-wear.

Algeria-born Saint-Laurent was a creative prodigy who became head designer for Christian Dior at 21, after Dior died suddenly in 1957. After an acclaimed debut collection, Saint-Laurent was expelled just a few years later for meandering too far from the traditional Dior customer.

Bouncing back in 1961 with his own eponymous label and a daring women’s collection of safari jackets and men’s suits, Saint-Laurent cemented his place in fashion history.

3. Tom Ford

Acclaimed for his razor-sharp tailoring and sleek, sexy aesthetic, American gay fashion designer Tom Ford hit the headlines in 2000 when he was announced he would succeed Alber Elbaz as chief designer of the Yves Saint-Laurent ready-to-wear line Rive Gauche.

The Texas-born designer had been hailed for reviving the ailing house of Gucci after taking the helm in 1995, ensuring the label became a firm favorite among the most prominent actresses at the time. Ford has even branched out into the world of film-making, and his directorial debut starring Colin Firth, A Single Man, was released in 2009 to critical acclaim.

4. Roland Mouret

The son of a butcher, Mouret was born in Lourdes, France, and despite never being formally trained in design, eventually became renowned for his intuitive understanding of the female form.

After moving to Paris in the 1980s, he became an Act Up activist and was scouted in a bar by Jean-Paul Gaultier. Then, after relocating to London and opening the iconic Soho bar Freedom, he launched his own fashion label at 36, eventually gaining fame for the iconic Galaxy dress, a figure-hugging silhouette that recalled 1950s elegance and celebrated hourglass figures. A true “it” dress that took the fashion world by storm, the Galaxy made Mouret a favorite of everyone from Kate Middleton and Meghan Markle to Scarlet Johannsen and Dita Von Teese.

5. Christian Dior

Widely regarded as one of the most significant couturiers of the 20th century, Dior became an overnight sensation with his first collection in 1947, which was hailed as the “new look” following the drab wartime aesthetic of the 1920s and 1930s. Featuring rounded shoulders, a cinched waist, a voluminous skirt, the New Look presented a forward-thinking femininity that was to change society, not simply the fashion industry.

Dior eventually went on to be the first fashion designer to grace the cover of Time Magazine in 1957, and his label remains one of the most prominent luxury brands in the world. Was Christian Dior gay? Yes, although not openly—he never publicly disclosed his sexuality.

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6. Alexander McQueen

The story of Lee Alexander McQueen is the stuff of a fashion legend. The son of a taxi driver from London’s East End, McQueen burst onto the scene with his controversial graduate collection entitled “Highland Rape,” which set the tone for work that often reckoned with sexuality, violence, and beauty all in the same breath. His runway shows were always memorable — from the 2001 show “Voss,” where models roamed around a glass-walled padded box that mimicked a mental asylum, to robotic arms spray-painting the dress of a spinning Shalom Harlow.

McQueen’s work exhibited a darkness that perhaps was symptomatic of his personal demons. Tragically in 2009, following the death of his beloved mother, McQueen died by suicide. His label lives on with Sarah Burton at the helm, while the Sarabande Foundation—established by McQueen himself—continues to support emerging creative talent.

7. Marc Jacobs

Born in New York in 1963, American designer Marc Jacobs was raised by his grandmother, who he cites as a constant creative inspiration. After graduating from the prestigious Parsons School for Design, he became the youngest ever recipient of the CFDA’s Perry Ellis Award for New Fashion Talent. He went on to work for Perry Ellis and made his name by introducing grunge fashion to the catwalk.

Later establishing an avant-garde aesthetic combined with streetwise styling, Jacobs took his magic touch to Louis Vuitton and became arguably the most talked-about name in the industry.

8. Jeremy Scott

Once a farm boy in rural Kansas, Scott dreamed of moving to Paris or Tokyo and learning French and Japanese—such was his ambition. He went on to become the creative director of Moschino, along with his own namesake label, amassing a fervent following of celebrity fans like Lady Gaga and Miley Cyrus. Now a judge on the Amazon series Making the Cut, Scott has become as much known for his OTT designs and personal style as his hairy eyeballs and withering critiques of contestants’ work.

9. Giorgio Armani

While Armani is notoriously private about his personal life, he admitted in an interview with Vanity Fair in 2000, “I have had women in my life. And sometimes men.” He later managed to later rile up the LGBTQ community with his comments about gay men: “A homosexual man is a man 100%. He does not need to dress homosexual,” the designer told The Sunday Times Magazine.

“When homosexuality is exhibited to the extreme—to say, ‘Ah, you know I’m homosexual,’—that has nothing to do with me,” he said. “A man has to be a man.”

Armani has notably dated Cher, which ironically is about the gayest thing someone can do.

10. Jean-Paul Gaultier

Across a 50-year-career, self-taught French designer Gaultier launched his label in 1976 and four years later became known as an enfant terrible of the industry, thanks to a collection that placed male models in mini skirts and short leather shorts. Much clutching of pearls ensued, and subsequent collections continued to be sensational: from “hooligan” style and trash fashion to gender-bending catwalks featuring men in dresses and corsets.

In the noughties, Gaultier had some truly iconic moments, including Madonna’s conical bra, hunky sailors in striped tops, and the costume design for sci-fi classic The Fifth Element.

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