44 Fashion Designers On The Women Who Inspire Their Work

It's ironic that an industry so catered to women would be run mostly by men, isn't it? Though females make up 70% of the fashion workforce, they hold less than 25% of senior-level positions. But like some of the most influential names in style history — from Jeanne Lanvin to Coco Chanel — the 44 women ahead used this disparity as motivation to fight their way to the top, disrupting the status quo by all starting companies with the mission of creating clothing for and by women. Because if the fashion industry isn't going to put women in positions of power, we're going to put ourselves there.

Though we — and the designers featured here — celebrate and champion women every day of the year, for International Women's Day, we asked an array of industry leaders with brands both big and small to share the strong female muse(s) who has most influenced their work. If there's one thing we know for sure, it's that building each other up gets us way farther that knocking each other down. And until fashion agrees with that sentiment, well, we'll just make it happen on our own.

In honor of International Women’s Day, Refinery29 is asking women to pay-it-forward by endorsing a female colleague or expert in their field. Head here to discover inspiring women across all of the categories R29 covers.

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THE DESIGNER: Samantha Pleet
THE MUSE: Miranda July, author, artist, director, and screenwriter

"That's easy: Miranda July, as she embodies everything I find inspiring. She puts a lot of magic into the world. Miraculously, we just connected and I traded her some clothes for a collection of books and artwork. It was the best exchange ever."
THE MUSE: Eileen Fisher, fashion designer

"My muse is Eileen Fisher. She's built a brand based on what women want, and it evolved the concept from something so simple into something so much more meaningful. What amazes me about Eileen is that her culture and ethics are at the forefront of what she puts out in the world. I deeply aspire to not only be smart with my product, but thoughtful and good in how I produce, distribute, and grow the business. She is a true role model for me on my journey."
THE DESIGNER: Michelle Smith, Milly
THE MUSE: Michelle Obama, former First Lady of the United States of America

“Michelle Obama is my ultimate muse. She's such an incredible woman! Fiercely intelligent, warm, spirited, and completely beautiful inside and out. Mrs. Obama has used her platform to break down barriers within gender, race, sexual orientation, and overall equality, and she has done so with a humbling kindness. Not only has she inspired my collections with her confident yet approachable style, but she has motivated me to design with a bigger picture in mind — to spread love and positivity through my creative platform.”
Photo: Vincenzo Lombardo/Getty Images.
THE DESIGNER: Simone Rocha
THE MUSE: Louise Bourgeois, French-American artist

“A muse of mine has always been Louise Bourgeois: her work, her life, and her sense of dress.”
THE DESIGNER: Susan Alexandra
THE MUSE: Frida Kahlo, Mexican artist

"My ULTIMATE muse and patron saint-ess is none other than Frida Kahlo. Her vision of beauty, her strength, and resilience never cease to inspire. Frida's art was a product of her physical and emotional distress, and the notion that beauty can come from very dark places is the driving force behind my work. She incorporated symbolism, lush colors, and mysticism in her paintings, and often shed light onto subjects many others snubbed or feared. Frida's creations and her spirit dance through me as I create. My goal is to make pieces that Frida would love."
Photo: Kirstin Sinclair/Getty Images.
THE DESIGNER: Natasha Zinko
THE MUSES: "Power Women"

"My fall 2018 collection was inspired/dedicated to the Power Women who affect all areas of our lives. Over the past few years, I recognized the wonderful diversity of my clients, from Beyoncé to Amal Clooney to Lorde to Jordan Dunn to Rihanna to Laura Dern. We all wear our daily uniform and underneath there is a brilliant beautiful diversity. I celebrate all women."
THE DESIGNER: Hadas Saar, Naadam
THE MUSE: Her mother

“My mom is my artistic oracle. Her infinite curiosity, passion, and appreciation for craftsmanship is the foundation for my long-lasting fascination with design. Life and love is in the human details.”
THE DESIGNERS: Jill and Sabine, LadyGrey
THE MUSE: Solange Knowles, singer/songwriter

"Our biggest muse is definitely Solange Knowles! She has such an extraordinarily focused vision and unwavering values that she puts into every single thing she touches. It’s fascinating to see how she works, and how determined she is to have her vision come to fruition in everything from her stage sets to her choreography, personal style, and obviously her music — it’s all 100% authentically her. She is an incredibly expansive artist who will not compromise her work or settle for anything less than perfect, and that is truly inspiring as a creator."
THE DESIGNER: Aurora James, Brother Vellies
THE MUSES: The Herero women of Namibia

“I am extremely inspired by the Herero women of Namibia. They survived the genocide and many have managed to retain their culture in an incredibly beautiful way. My love of pink in our collections was originally inspired by this wonderful Herero Woman wearing our Otavi Neon toe caps.”
THE DESIGNER: Stacey Bendet, alice + olivia
THE MUSE: Olivia Wiener, her mother

"My mom is my lifetime muse! A photo of her climbing into my dad’s car in her wedding gown with a big pair of '70s bell-bottom jeans underneath was my first inspiration image for alice + olivia. My mom is a role model as a working woman — she was a teacher for many years, a loving parent, and an amazing grandmother who still has great style!"
THE MUSE: Her mother

“My mom has been my biggest source of inspiration from the beginning. She always told me that clothes shouldn’t outdo one’s character, but should fit the wearer’s personality. This advice has stuck with me ever since I was little. Mae West is another one of my favorite female muses — I’ve looked up to her forever. Her strong persona and outlook on life are aligned with my own personality, and have influenced my brand’s aesthetic.”
THE DESIGNER: Ashley Merrill, Lunya
THE MUSES: Real women

"Our muse is a real women. She's your best friend. Our best friend. She has good days, she has bad days; but she's always striving to be her best self, and that's what we love and admire about her. We celebrate all aspects of her and challenge ourselves to deliver products that make her look and feel comfortable and confident. We love the fact that she's always evolving, giving it her all, and enjoys a good laugh."
Photo: David Livingston/Getty Images.
THE MUSES: Brigitte Bardot, actress and model, and Coco Chanel, designer

"Brigitte Bardot, for her timeless and effortless beauty, and Coco Chanel, for her strength and courage to forever change the way women dress."
THE DESIGNER: Racil Chalhoub, Racil
THE MUSES: Her mother, and Bianca Jagger, actress and human rights activist

"I have two muses: my mother and Bianca Jagger. My mum has always been a big inspiration throughout my life, simply because her generation dressed so much better. Bianca Jagger is always at heart when I'm designing for my brand. Her effortless elegance and powerful force are the qualities I am attracted to the most."
THE DESIGNER: Danica Zhang, Pamplemousse
THE MUSE: Diana Spencer, the late Princess of Wales

"Princess Diana, for her use of fashion and style as a form of self expression to endorse her social and charity involvements."
Photo: Dimitrios Kambouris/Getty Images.
THE DESIGNER: Diane von Furstenberg
THE MUSE: All women

“All women inspire me because of their strength. I can’t ever say one woman. The women who are unknown and do so much are who truly inspires me.”
THE MUSE: Her mother

"I think now is a different time and women are more aware of being supportive of one another. My best girlfriend always says ‘a high tide floats all boats,’ and I truly believe that if you put out good energy it will be what you get back. There is nothing more empowering than being a positive force in your industry. I admire ambitious women who have carved out a path for themselves in their respective industries. Women who have a clear vision, who are driven and hard-working, and who refuse to take 'no' for an answer. My mother is my number one hero."
THE DESIGNER: Molly Howard, La Ligne
THE MUSE: Cleo Wade, poet

“No one speaks the truth quite like Cleo Wade, and her words are a reminder that everyone should be — and will be — held accountable for their actions. As a female-founded brand, especially in this pivotal moment, we are extremely proud to collaborate with Cleo, whose work promises a brighter future for women everywhere."
THE DESIGNER: Maria Gangemi, M.Gemi
THE MUSE: Norina, a local Italian artisan

"My muse is Norina, who is a local Italian artisan and my inspiration for M.Gemi. Norina and I met almost 10 years ago during a trip to one of my favorite villages in Tuscany. While there, I came across a beautiful moccasin in a local boutique and had to know who made it, so I took a trip to visit the artisan at her shop. Upon meeting Norina, I was in awe of her craftsmanship and also of how her family put so much love and pride into creating every shoe. My mission in creating M.Gemi was to translate old world Italian craftsmanship into the new world of technology by creating a beautiful collection of footwear and bringing it to the US market for the first time. Today, my relationship with Norina, her husband Luigi, and her family, along with the local women she works with, continues to help M.Gemi's thrive."
Photo: Jamie McCarthy/WireImage.
THE DESIGNER: Tanya Taylor
THE MUSES: Giovanna Battaglia, stylist, and Lois Shaw, her grandmother

Giovanna Battaglia and Lois Shaw (my grandma). Both enjoy fashion and never stop experimenting."
THE DESIGNER: Kerry O'Brien, commando
THE MUSE: Herself

"To be totally honest, I design for myself. And I think it's so important as a woman to be able to say that! I create garments that I want to wear, that make me feel confident and beautiful and comfortable. And I think that translates really well to all women, because I am — without a doubt — commando's toughest customer."
THE DESIGNERS: Nicole Heim & Chelsea Healy, Cienne
THE MUSES: Mary-Kate & Ashley Olsen, style icons and designers, The Row

“Mary-Kate and Ashley Olsen are women who have inspired us for decades. We grew up watching their friendly faces on TV, and have always respected their entrepreneurial spirit and consistent point-of-view across art, style, and culture. From book interviews with artists like Peter Beard and Lauren Hutton to the impeccable The Row, they’ve proved that their collaborative and influential work only gets stronger with time.”
THE DESIGNER: Maya Brenner
THE MUSE: Kate Moss, model

"I’m a huge fan of Kate Moss’ style. She was a young model when I started my business 20 years ago in New York City, and even though my jewelry has changed so much over the years, I’ve always loved a feminine look with a bit of an edge. Kate's style is effortless, chic, and fun, and I’ve tried to design jewelry that is in the same vein — on trend, easy to wear, but always has a bit of whimsy to it."
THE DESIGNER: Nikki Chasin
THE MUSE: Florine Stettheimer, American painter, designer, Jazz Age saloniste, and poet

"The colors and mood of artist Florine Stettheimer’s work and life are a constant source of inspiration for my textiles!"
THE DESIGNERS: Shilpa Shah and Karla Gallardo, Cuyana
THE MUSES: Each other

Karla: "On this powerful day celebrating all women, I’d like to recognize Shilpa Shah, my co-founder. She’s the most creative person I know and is always up for a new challenge. We built Cuyana together from scratch without ever having made a product or worked in the fashion industry. She can talk numbers and inspire through storytelling, all while being an an amazing mom."

Shilpa: "My muse is Karla Gallardo. She inspires me to bring my most creative, best self to work, and I constantly hear her voice in my head encouraging me to push my own boundaries and to reach places I never expected. It’s a privilege to work alongside her in this fewer, better journey."
THE DESIGNER: Alison Chemla, Alison Lou
THE MUSE: Lori Chemla, her mother

“My muse is my mother, Lori Chemla. Her minimal yet extremely refined taste has shaped me immensely while developing Alison Lou. Her style and attention to detail has forced me to pay close attention to the quality and detail of my product. Not to mention she always helps me reel it in when I want to paint my walls rainbow or dye my hair pink (the list goes on), and reminds me that I can always accessorize!”
THE MUSE: Tilda Swinton, actress

"Tilda Swinton inspires an incredible sense of strength through her clothing. She presents a freedom that is found in the comfort of the clothing itself and in her own skin. Confidence is the linchpin that I work with at AYR to create clothing that is versatile, lasting, and functional. Tilda embodies an energy and elegance, dressing with purpose that exudes power. She stays true to her own sense of self, thus making her a muse to draw from both in clothing and in spirit."
THE MUSE: Phoebe Philo, designer and former creative director, Céline

"I've always admired Phoebe Philo's aesthetic. Her timeless, understated style parallels how I go about designing my jewels — simple and chic to be worn with any style, every day."
THE DESIGNERS: Kelly Urban and Misty Zollars, AMO Denim
THE MUSES: Jane Herman, cofounder, Jean Stories, Garance Doré, photographer and founder, Atelier Doré, and Olivia Wilde, actress

“We are constantly inspired by the women around us, and are especially influenced by strong ladies like Jane Herman Bishop, Garance Doré, and Olivia Wilde, because we feel they embody the spirit of AMO. Our goal with each collection is simply to create jeans and clothing to help women look good and feel good wearing it. We love seeing women try on AMO for the first time. That confidence boost they get when they find the perfect fit is why we do what we do. We want women to know we’ve got their back.”
THE DESIGNER: Joanna Griffiths, knix
THE MUSES: Her customers

"At knix, our muse is, and has always been, our customers — a.k.a. real women everywhere. She's multifaceted; she's a sister, friend, partner, career woman, athlete (the list goes on), and she deserves products that serve her real body and real needs, fom leak proof underwear, wire-free bras that support up to an E cup, to a T-shirt that prevents sweat stains. We are inspired every day by real women to reinvent intimate apparel products that give them the comfort and confidence to do whatever they want."
THE DESIGNER: Ann Mashburn
THE MUSE: Polly Mellen, longtime fashion editor

“Muse is not the word I could ever use for Polly Mellen, my first boss at Vogue in 1984 — but professionally, she continues to be an enormous inspiration to this day. She was 64 to my 23 and I was equal parts terrified and in awe every day as her assistant. The 13th floor of Conde Nast’s Madison Avenue office was full of drama and drive and women who were so powerful and sure of themselves. And the 'fake it 'til you make it' lesson I learned there is worth its weight in gold — in fashion or anywhere!”
THE DESIGNERS: Genevieve Saylak and Corissa Santos, Where Mountains Meet
THE MUSE: Georgia O'Keeffe, artist

"Georgia O'Keeffe for her artistic and sartorial timelessness, and because she's taught us to live thoughtfully and design essentially.”
THE MUSE: Clara, her grandmother

"My grandmother Clara had a profound influence on my work — I often reference her life and the way she wore jewelry as a muse for my process. At a young age I inherited a few of her vintage jewelry pieces. Elegant and exceptionally crafted, they held the charm of a different era. I cherished each piece and regard them today as talismans, filled with meaning. This idea of sentimental value has been imbued into each piece I make today: timeless, heirloom pieces with meaning to be defined by the wearer.”
THE DESIGNER: Erin Sachse, Eriness Jewelry
THE MUSE: Audrey Hepburn, actress, model, dancer, and humanitarian

"When I think of someone who inspires me both as woman and as a fashion icon, I immediately think of Audrey Hepburn. Her beauty, elegance, and simplicity is a big inspiration to the jewelry I create, but as a humanitarian, she inspires me in so many different ways. She inspires me to stand up for what I believe in and to take action in global issues.”
THE DESIGNER: Carly Cushnie
THE MUSE: Michelle Pfeiffer, actress and producer

"Michelle Pfeiffer has always been an ultimate muse of mine, she's inspired so many aspects of the collection over the years. Her sultry air of confidence as Elvira in Scarface was everything — Michelle Pfeiffer has always been timeless, on and off the screen."
Photographed by Arden Wray.
THE DESIGNER: Anna Sheffield
THE MUSE: Her mother

"The one woman who I am most endlessly inspired by, honest and truly, is my mom. I often reflect on her strength, her grace, and the way she has moved through the world, in both confronting obstacles and achieving successes. She has a tenacity and a powerfully feminine ferocity that I have referenced time and again on my journey becoming a woman."
THE DESIGNER: Jennifer Zuccarini, Fleur Du Mal
THE MUSE: Charlotte Rampling, actress and model

“One of my favorite muses is Charlotte Rampling. I especially love a portrait of her sitting on a dining room table by Helmut Newton taken in 1973. She completely epitomizes a super-chic sexiness that I find very inspiring.”
THE DESIGNERS: Anna Bario & Page Neal, Bario Neal
THE MUSES: Eva Hesse, sculptor, and Niki de Saint Phalle, sculptor, painter, and filmmaker.

Page: "When I was a teenager, I discovered Eva Hesse's sculptures and they blew my young adolescent mind away! Her work inspired me to dive head first into material and sculptural explorations that eventually led to designing and making jewelry."

Anna: "Niki de St Phalle — I love to see women artists experimenting with mysticism and exuberance on such a monumental scale! And making such wildly figurative work in the midst of male-dominated minimalism. Jewelry is such a small object, I like to imagine the forms and shapes in jewelry expanded to giant sculptures we can interact with in completely different ways. "
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