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The Legacy of Claude Montana, the Power Dressing King of the 80s

Claude Montana runway

Claude Montana: The Legendary 80s Master of Power Dressing, Passes Away at 76

Claude Montana, the French fashion designer who ruled the 1980s with his signature broad-shouldered silhouettes and body-conscious leather creations, has passed away at the age of 76. Often credited with pioneering the concept of power dressing, Montana left behind a legacy of bold, structured pieces that oozed confidence and continue to inspire designers today.

From Punk-inspired leather to the king of shoulder pads

Born in 1947 to a German mother and Spanish father, Claude Montana bucked their bourgeois expectations from an early age by leaving home as a teenager to pursue his creative passions. After finding success selling his handmade jewelry in London, he pivoted to fashion design when his avant-garde pieces failed to woo the French market.

Montana cut his teeth at the Parisian leather company Mac Douglas before quickly rising up the ranks to become chief designer within a year. By 1974, he was freelancing for several fashion houses, soaking up knowledge about leather and fabrics. When he launched his eponymous label in 1976, his early punk-inspired collections featured leather jackets, caps and pants adorned with chains and military touches.

While some balked at the severe, almost fascist aesthetic, Claude Montana’s innovative designs attracted buzz. He expanded into bold colors while exponentially enlarging the shoulders and sleeves each season. Critics grouped him with rival Thierry Mugler as forward-thinking innovators leading the “Star Wars” fashion era of angular, space-age garments.

By the peak of his popularity in the mid ’80s, Montana was synonymous with the decade’s style. “He is to big shoulders what Alexander Graham Bell is to the telephone,” quipped The New York Times in 1985 when Montana declared, “Shoulders forever!” His trademark football player shoulders, often extending a foot beyond the body’s natural slope, turned heads and took up space. Claude Montana dressed women for entrance-making, his overtly sexy garments belying his shy demeanor.

Claude Montana Legend
CREDIT: Guy Marineau/Penske Media via Getty Images

beyond his signature shoulders

While Claude Montana’s jacked-up shoulders may be his most iconic contribution to fashion, he experimented widely with fabrics, colors and silhouettes throughout his career. His background in leather, particularly in electric shades, was a constant. But he also produced refined cashmere and silk pieces in vibrant hues, always pushing boundaries.

Bucking tradition yet again by assuming the presidency of his company despite lacking business experience, Montana ruled The House of Montana like a glamorous but disorganized court. As retailers clamored for his designs, he spent lavishly on his own creations instead of profiting and building the business.

By the late ’80s, Montana had tapered the shoulders while still attracting celebrity fans like Jerry Hall and Madonna with curve-accentuating gowns and mini skirts. Seeking new creative challenges, he assumed the helm of couture house Lanvin in 1990. Typically, he stirred controversy by incorporating casual touches like embroidered leather and beaded t-shirts into traditional silk confections. As ever, the criticism stung Montana deeply.

Claude Montana runway

The Fall of the ‘King of Shoulders’

To the public, Claude Montana appeared invincible in the early 90s, helming a fashion empire of boutiques, fragrances and relentless innovation. But privately, he grappled with substance abuse, strained relationships and his surprise marriage to Wallis Franken, rumored to be one of convenience. When Franken died by suicide in 1996, Montana continued working but without the fire of earlier years.

With avant-garde minimalism sweeping the runways, retailers steadily dropped Montana’s collections. In 1997, The House of Montana dissolved into bankruptcy. Unlike mentor Yves Saint Laurent’s phoenix-like rise from the ashes, Claude Montana disappeared fully from public view rather than mount a comeback. For years afterward, the once ubiquitous designer lived reclusively in central Paris, occasionally sighted in seeming mental distress.

Claude Montana Paris show

A bittersweet legacy

Without question, Claude Montana altered the arc of fashion history. The sleek, strong silhouettes he ushered in radically shifted perceptions around dressing the female form. His innovations granted women power, permission to take up space and move through the world boldly. MTV, Dynasty and Wall Street all bore his influence in their brash, broad-shouldered glory.

Montana also profoundly shaped future generations of designers. Fashion luminaries like Alexander McQueen, Olivier Theyskens and Riccardo Tisci have all paid homage to his impact, particularly his leather entwinement with the female form. Current taste-making labels like Saint Laurent and Willy Chavarria similarly echo Montana’s taste for exaggerated shoulders and military touches.

At the other end of Montana’s legacy lies deep sadness and unfulfilled potential. For all his earlier talk of comebacks, the devastated designer never fully emerged from the shadows of his later defeats. Perhaps with sobriety and mental health support, he might have adapted his aesthetic for changing times as Saint Laurent once did so brilliantly. 

If Claude Montana’s closing act can teach today’s creative community anything, may it be the cost of not reaching out across isolation’s cold gulf for a saving hand.

Claude Montana Archives

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