Kanye West, CEO, Yeezy
For most of the past decade, the Grammy-winning rapper struggled to prove himself as a clothing designer, promising a debut line, Pastelle, that never materialized, and getting critically eviscerated for one that did: 2011’s womenswear collection DW Kanye West. It wasn’t until his 2013 deal with Adidas (worth a reported $10 million) that the man who often compares himself to God finally elbowed his way into fashion’s promised land, via his Yeezy label. The collaboration has yielded the hugely successful Yeezy Boost sneakers and boots, which launched in 2015 and have consistently sold out within minutes (and often turn up on eBay for thousands of dollars). Despite receiving frosty reviews, the first two Yeezy ready-to-wear clothing lines have boasted high sell-through rates at Barneys and other premium retailers. But West’s real ingenuity is being able to rattle the system from within. Last February, he unveiled Yeezy Season 3 with a presentation at Madison Square Garden that doubled as a preview of his latest album, The Life of Pablo. It was live-streamed into 700 movie theaters globally and later viewed by 20 million people on Jay Z’s Tidal platform. There were jumbotrons and merchandise booths, and for the first time in New York Fashion Week history, the general public could purchase tickets to a show. In its outsize Kanye-ness, its ambition and unabashed commercialism, the event upended the elitist nature of 70 years of runway shows. And still, the industry’s gatekeepers attended, as if tacitly acknowledging that this may be where fashion is headed. Vogue editor Anna Wintour indicated her approval by sitting not with her colleagues but with West’s wife, Kim Kardashian.
Alexa Chung, Creative director, Alexachung
British model and TV host Alexa Chung has been a global trendsetter for a decade, her unique look—clean lines, layers, feminine riffs on menswear—setting off such recent crazes as Peter Pan collars and brogue shoes. Her style savvy has attracted 2.4 million Instagram followers, and last year she helped relaunch the networking and shopping app Villoid. So, when Chung announced in July that she was starting her own high-end ready-to-wear brand called Alexachung (backed by an anonymous British entity), the industry took note, and probably groaned with envy. After all, fashion companies worldwide assign entire divisions to cultivating the kind of passionate social media followings Chung has built organically—and can mobilize instantly. The $1,000 Alexa handbag that she inspired Mulberry to create in 2009, for example, was so in-demand that the company reported an earnings surge of 79%. The following year, her collaboration with the J.Crew spin-off Madewell sold out in just days; she returned for an encore. Two 2015 denim forays with AG Jeans were equally successful, as was a vintage-themed womenswear line for Marks & Spencer. If her fans respond to the debut of Alexachung next May with even half their traditional enthusiasm, it will cement Chung’s status as a leading force in millennial-driven fashion.
Tom Ford, President and CEO, Tom Ford
Even for Tom Ford, the move was bold. In February, less than two weeks before he was scheduled to unveil his fall men’s and women’s collections at New York Fashion Week, he canceled. The designer and CEO of a privately held luxury empire with $1 billion in sales announced that he was breaking with the tradition of showing new lines five months before they go on sale. Instead, he would adopt a "see now/buy now" model and present those fall collections in September, as the garments hit stores. The news came just hours after Burberry declared similar plans and soon other influential labels, including Vetements followed, sending shock waves through the fashion world. With this customer-first approach, Ford capitalizes on today’s social-media-driven reality, where influential consumers can Snapchat their hot new Tom Ford stilettos and directly boost sales. It’s the latest move in a forward-thinking career: In the ’90s he transformed a fusty, nearly bankrupt Gucci into a vital brand now valued at $12 billion, and last fall he debuted his new collection not with a runway show but a music video starring Lady Gaga. "I can do what I want," he said recently. Including test the boundaries of an entire industry.
Demna and Guram Gvasalia, Head designer, CEO, Vetements
In January, the Paris-based design collective Vetements, known for its cheeky, luxe streetwear, made viral tidal waves with a hot-selling $330 yellow T-shirt emblazoned with the logo of the courier company DHL. Warholian stunt? Inspired antifashion commentary? Even critics weren’t sure. What was certain was that Georgia-born head designer Demna Gvasalia and his CEO brother, Guram, had become trendsetters even within the trendsetting business. (Demna, a Louis Vuitton vet, is also the creative director at Balenciaga.) During couture week last June, Vetements, which simply means "clothing" in French, debuted its spring 2017 collection—an audacious collaboration with 18 different brands, from workwear staple Carhartt to Comme des Garçons—that exploded the very notion of a difference between high and low fashion. On the retail side, the brothers recently joined the incipient movement to make collections available for sale within days of a runway show, hoping not only to reach more customers more quickly, but to put a dent in fast-fashion knockoffs.
Women from the oil-rich Gulf states buy more haute couture than anyone in the world—a reality that the fashion industry is taking seriously to ensure its next phase of growth, particularly as questions arise about the possible softening of the luxury market in China. Last January, Dolce & Gabbana debuted a year-round line of hijabs and abayas, and Vogue Arabia is launching this fall. Amid this boom, Doha—the capital of the monarchical country of Qatar, which is the world’s richest nation per capita—has emerged as the region’s fashion epicenter. It is home to deep pocketed companies like Mayhoola for Investments, which bought Valentino in 2012 and Balmain last June, for a reported $548 million. Mayhoola is linked to the Qatari royal family, whose chic matriarch, Sheikha Moza bint Nasser al-Missned, chairs the Qatar Luxury Group, which is dedicated to fostering homegrown designers who might prove to be the next Christian Dior or Miuccia Prada. Meanwhile, local trendsetters are already making their mark: Buzzy Instagram feeds from Anum Bashir, Eileen, as well as Husnaa Malik have turned them into style stars around the world.
Iris van Herpen, Designer
Since her student days, Dutch designer Iris van Herpen has embraced cutting-edge technology to invent bold new materials that blow past existing notions of "fabric." She pioneered the use of 3-D printing in fashion, and, in 2015, employed it to create a ready-to-wear collection made from materials including metal powder, rubber, and magnets. At her Paris show this past July, she debuted an ethereal dress made of thousands of hand blown glass balls. Drawing inspiration from art, philosophy, and science, van Herpen operates at the height of high concept (that 2015 line was influenced by the Large Hadron Collider in Switzerland), which keeps the industry enthralled. Clients include Lady Gaga, Tilda Swinton, and kindred spirit Björk, for whom van Herpen fashioned a "snake dress" made from shiny acrylic tubes. As the fashion world tries to figure out the future, van Herpen is already there: She can’t wait to get her hands on a material being developed by the U.S. military that uses mirrors to simulate invisibility.
A version of this article appeared in the October 2016 issue of Fast Company magazine.