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The Real People Behind 10 Fashion Houses

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With all of the hype behind fantastically expensive one-named designers, we sometimes forget that somewhere down the line, one individual person actually opened up a store and probably never dreamed their clothes would sell for thousands of dollars (with a couple of exceptions, as you'll see). Here are the stories behind some of those one-named designers.

1. Gucci

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Guccio Gucci opened a small saddlery shop in 1906 and started selling practical leather bags to his horsemen customers sometime in the '20s. The quality of his work was so outstanding he quickly gained a reputation and started to expand his line. By 1938, he had a second store in Rome; the third store opened in Milan in 1951. By the time the fourth store opened in Manhattan in 1953, Guccio had died and his sons were running the business.

The brand was hot for a while, thanks to famous customers like Jackie O., Grace Kelly and Audrey Hepburn. But the '80s were not good to Gucci—Guccio's grandsons were running the company into the ground. They started to dull the appeal of the high-end brand by agreeing to strange partnerships, like the time they designed the interior of the AMC Hornet station wagon. Knockoffs were everywhere, and the grandsons started fighting—physically. One business meeting ended in blows, and reportedly one of the grandsons bashed the other one in the head with an answering machine and knocked him out cold.

But when Rodolfo Gucci, one of Guccio's sons, died in 1983 and left his share to his son Maurizio, Maurizio pushed out his uncle Aldo and eventually sold the company, which went public. Non-Gucci-family-members were brought in as designers, presidents and CEOs, and the brand has flourished since. 

2. Prada

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Prada has a story similar to Gucci's, but the line is younger and the Italian city it started in is 155 miles north. Prada, founded by Mario Prada, dates back to Milan, Italy, 1913. Mario sold steamer trunks and imported handbags.

When Mario passed away in the '50s, his son wasn't really interested in taking over the leather goods store, and a woman running the store would have been out of the question. Prior to Mario's death; a female family member even working in the store wasn't possible as Mario didn't believe women belonged in the workplace. So he probably rolled over in his grave when his daughter-in-law took control of the business, but she maintained the store for 20 years. It wasn't until her daughter, Miuccia, took over in the late '70s that the brand really exploded. Miuccia started designing leather backpacks and totes, and she opened a second store—this one a boutique—in an upscale shopping district in Milan. Clothes were added to the line in 1989 and the name has been cemented in the high fashion market ever since.

3. Versace

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Versace is the newest brand on the list—it was founded just 31 years ago. Gianni Versace grew up helping his mother, a dressmaker, embroider dresses and do tailoring. He studied architecture and moved to Milan when he was 26 to work in fashion. After working for a couple of designers, he was ready to start his own line and opened his first store in Milan in 1978. The line was successful right away, exploding with boutiques around the world.

When Gianni was killed in 1997, his sister Donatella stepped in to run the company. The biggest share of the company belongs to Donatella's daughter, however: Gianni left 50 percent of the company to Allegra to inherit when she turned 18 (which happened in 2004). Donatella owns 20 percent and Santo, the oldest Versace brother, owns 30 percent.

4. Burberry

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By contrast, Burberry is the second oldest house on the list. In 1856, Thomas Burberry opened a store in Hampshire, England, focusing on practical outdoor wear. After some experimentation, Burberry invented gabardine in 1880, a fabric made from yarn that is waterproofed before the garment is woven. Based on this and on his growing reputation, Thomas was asked by the War Office to make a better coat for its officers; the result was the trench coat. The famous "Burberry Check" was first used as a mere lining for a trench coat in 1924. In 1967, the pattern was expanded to scarves, umbrellas, boots and just about everything else, which is part of the reason the brand is so ubiquitous today.

5. Chanel

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Chanel was founded, of course, by Gabrielle Chanel, better known as Coco. She was only 12 when her mother died, and to make matters worse, her father then abandoned the family. Coco and her siblings were sent to an orphanage, which is where she learned how to sew.

The moment she turned 18, she fled the orphanage and went to work for a tailor. There she met millionaire Etienne Balsan, where she no doubt found the money to open up her own hat shop in 1910. They weren't dating at that time, however. The shop quickly failed, but after starting an affair with Balsan's former best friend, Arthur Capel (also, conveniently, a millionaire), she opened another shop. This one was successful, and soon her hats were all the rage among French actresses. She introduced her women's sportswear next, and after that she never looked back. (Well, Coco did close all of her stores during WWII, saying that it wasn't an appropriate time to focus on fashion.)

She was briefly arrested after France was liberated because of her attempt to gain access to Winston Churchill—it was widely believed that she was helping the Axis side. Indeed, she did live in the same hotel that the Germans used as their headquarters while they were in France, the Hotel Ritz Paris. Churchill himself intervened on her behalf, but she was worried about the French retaliating against her and made her home in Switzerland instead.

During her self-imposed exile, her business partner, Pierre Wertheimer, took over the business and things were never quite the same for Coco after that. Coco died in 1971, and generations of Wertheimers have owned Chanel ever since. Alain Wertheimer took over in 1974 and is the one who convinced head designer Karl Lagerfeld to leave Chloe and come to Chanel.

6. Dior

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Dior was founded by Christian Dior, whose parents desperately wanted him to attend school to study politics. He appeased them at the Ecole des Sciences Politiques from 1920 to 1925, but he didn't give up his fashion dream: He sold his sketches for 10 cents each on the street.

A couple of years after he graduated, though, his family lost their fortune and he was free to pursue whatever he wanted—which was, of course, clothing. After putting in time at a couple of fashion houses in France, Christian opened his own line in 1946 and originally named it Corolle. He died in at age 52 of a heart attack, but the cause has been disputed. Some say he choked on a fish bone, which induced the heart attack; those close to him say it was brought on by a particularly vigorous sexual encounter.

7. Givenchy

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Givenchy was the brainchild of Hubert de Givenchy, who certainly didn't have a hardscrabble childhood like Coco Chanel did, and definitely didn't start small like Gucci and Prada. Hubert was born into French aristocracy—his father was Lucien Taffin de Givenchy, Marquis de Givenchy. And creative genes ran in his family: His great-grandfather and his great-great-grandfather were both designers, creating for the Elysee Palace and the Paris Opera, respectively.

After seeing the 1937 World's Fair in Paris, Hubert (then 10) decided that he wanted to go into the field of fashion. He was just 18 when he started designing for family friend Jacques Fath, and after spending some time with designer Elsa Schiaparelli, he opened up his own House of Givenchy in 1952. He was only 25, but because of his connections and his innovative designs, age didn't matter. He met Audrey Hepburn in 1953 and they hit it off so well that he designed almost all of her movie wardrobe from then on. Givenchy retired from fashion in 1995.

8. Yves Saint Laurent

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Yves Saint Laurent (we know—more than one name) came to fashion by way of the theater, sort of. He was severely bullied at school as a kid and would come home and try to escape his troubles by acting out plays for his parents. He loved reading the theater reviews in the French Vogue and ended up being fascinated by the clothes as well. He began formal fashion study at the Chambre Syndicale and entered a design competition that led to him designing for Christian Dior. (Incidentally, he beat out Karl Lagerfeld to win that competition.) Dior liked him so much that he named young Yves as his successor, and as mentioned above, Dior died at a fairly young age, leaving Yves in charge of the House of Dior at the age of 21.

Despite his new status, he ended up having to serve in the French Army during the Algerian War of Independence in 1960 (there's rumor that some of the powers-that-be in fashion didn't want him heading up Dior and pulled some strings with the government), and when he came back, he found he had been fired from the company. After suing Dior for breach of contract (and winning), Yves decided to start his own company in 1962. It did very well, attracting the likes of Catherine Deneuve. Gucci bought YSL (the brand, not the guy) in 1999, and Yves himself died in 2008.

9. Armani

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Armani is another young fashion house compared to most on this list. From 1961 to 1970, Giorgio Armani was an assistant designer for Nino Cerruti. By 1974, he had decided that he wanted his own line, and with just $10,000, he launched one. He quickly became a Hollywood favorite, and when word got around that Richard Gere had worn an Armani suit in 1980's American Gigolo, he and his clean-lined designs immediately achieved icon status. And he's still outfitting movie stars today—he was responsible for Christian Bale's suits in The Dark Knight.

10. Hermès

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We started with a saddle shop and we'll end with a saddle shop. In 1837, Thierry Hermès opened a harness workshop for fine equestrians and European noblemen, and became very popular. After his son took over the business, the shop was relocated to a more citizen-friendly area, where they began selling saddlery as well as harnesses. The business became so renowned that the name was familiar as a purveyor of luxury goods internationally.

When Thierry's grandsons inherited the business sometime around 1910, they obtained the rights to use the zipper and started making clothes. They didn't start at the bottom—their first zippered golf jacket, made out of leather, was commissioned for the Prince of Wales. Handbags were added to the blossoming line in 1922 after one of the grandsons' wives complained she couldn't find a purse to her liking, and by 1924 they had two shops in the U.S. The famous (or infamous, if you're a Devil Wears Prada fan) Hermès scarf was introduced in 1937 and achieved instant cult status. When Grace Kelly appeared in Life magazine carrying an Hermès Haut a Courroie bag, they instantly renamed it the Kelly and it became one of the best-selling bags in fashion history. It's still a hot item. They're also the ones who make the always in-demand Birkin bag, named for actress and style icon Jane Birkin (though she recently asked for her name to be removed from the crocodile skin version).

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When the FBI Investigated the 'Murder' of Nine Inch Nails's Trent Reznor
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Karl Walter, Getty Images

The two people standing over the body, Michigan State Police detective Paul Wood told the Hard Copy cameras, “had a distinctive-type uniform on. As I recall: black pants, some type of leather jacket with a design on it, and one was wearing combat boots. The other was wearing what looked like patent leather shoes. So if it was a homicide, I was thinking it was possibly a gang-type homicide.”

Wood was describing a puzzling case local police, state police, and eventually the FBI had worked hard to solve for over a year. The mystery began in 1989, when farmer Robert Reed spotted a circular group of objects floating over his farm just outside of rural Burr Oak, Michigan; it turned out to be a cluster of weather balloons attached to a Super 8 camera.

When the camera landed on his property, the surprised farmer didn't develop the footage—he turned it over to the police. Some local farmers had recently gotten into trouble for letting wild marijuana grow on the edges of their properties, and Reed thought the balloons and camera were a possible surveillance technique. But no state or local jurisdictions used such rudimentary methods, so the state police in East Lansing decided to develop the film. What they saw shocked them.

A city street at night; a lifeless male body with a mysterious substance strewn across his face; two black-clad men standing over the body as the camera swirled away up into the sky, with a third individual seen at the edge of the frame running away, seemingly as fast as possible. Michigan police immediately began analyzing the footage for clues, and noticed the lights of Chicago’s elevated train system, which was over 100 miles away.

It was the first clue in what would become a year-long investigation into what they believed was either a cult killing or gang murder. When they solved the “crime” of what they believed was a real-life snuff film, they were more shocked than when the investigation began: The footage was from the music video for “Down In It,” the debut single from industrial rock band Nine Inch Nails, and the supposed dead body was the group's very-much-alive lead singer, Trent Reznor.

 
 

In 1989, Nine Inch Nails was about to release their debut album, Pretty Hate Machine, which would go on to be certified triple platinum in the United States. The record would define the emerging industrial rock sound that Reznor and his rotating cast of bandmates would experiment with throughout the 1990s and even today on albums like The Downward Spiral and The Slip.

The band chose the song “Down In It”—a track with piercing vocals, pulsing electronic drums, sampled sound effects, and twisted nursery rhyme-inspired lyrics—as Pretty Hate Machine's first single. They began working with H-Gun, a Chicago-based multimedia team led by filmmakers Eric Zimmerman and Benjamin Stokes (who had created videos for such bands as Ministry and Revolting Cocks), and sketched out a rough idea for the music video.

Filmed on location among warehouses and parking garages in Chicago, the video was supposed to culminate in a shot with a leather-jacketed Reznor running to the top of a building, while two then-members of the band followed him wearing studded jumpsuits; the video would fade out with an epic floating zoom shot to imply that Reznor's cornstarch-for-blood-covered character had fallen off the building and died in the street. Because the cash-strapped upstarts didn’t have enough money for a fancy crane to achieve the shot for their video, they opted to tie weather balloons to the camera and let it float up from Reznor, who was lying in the street surrounded by his bandmates. They eventually hoped to play the footage backward to get the shot in the final video.

Instead, the Windy City lived up to its name and quickly whisked the balloons and camera away. With Reznor playing dead and his bandmates looking down at him, only one of the filmmakers noticed. He tried to chase down the runaway camera—which captured his pursuit—but it was lost, forcing them to finish shooting the rest of the video and release it without the planned shot from the missing footage in September of 1989.

Meanwhile, unbeknownst to the band, a drama involving their lost camera was unfolding in southwest Michigan. Police there eventually involved the Chicago police, whose detectives determined that the footage had been filmed in an alley in the city's Fulton River District. After Chicago authorities found no homicide reports matching the footage for the neighborhood and that particular time frame, they handed the video over to the FBI, whose pathologists reportedly said that, based on the substance on the individual, the body in the video was rotting.

 
 

The "substance" in question was actually the result of the low-quality film and the color of the cornstarch on the singer’s face, which had also been incorporated into the press photos for Pretty Hate Machine. It was a nod to the band's early live shows, in which Reznor would spew cornstarch and chocolate syrup on his band members and the audience. “It looks really great under the lights, grungey, a sort of anti-Bon Jovi and the whole glamour thing,” Reznor said in a 1991 interview.

With no other easy options, and in order to generate any leads that might help them identify the victim seen in the video, the authorities distributed flyers to Chicago schools asking if anyone knew any details behind the strange “killing.”

The tactic worked. A local art student was watching MTV in 1991 and saw the distinctive video for “Down In It,” which reminded him of one of the flyers he had seen at school. He contacted the Chicago police to tip them off to who their supposed "murder victim" really was. Nine Inch Nails’s manager was notified, and he told Reznor and the filmmakers what had really happened to their lost footage.

“It’s interesting that our top federal agency, the Federal Bureau of [Investigation], couldn’t crack the Super 8 code,” co-director Zimmerman said in an interview. As for Wood and any embarrassment law enforcement had after the investigation: “I thought it was our duty, one way or the other, to determine what was on that film,” he said.

“My initial reaction was that it was really funny that something could be that blown out of proportion with this many people worked up about it,” Reznor said, and later told an interviewer, “There was talk that I would have to appear and talk to prove that I was alive.” Even though—in the eyes of state, local, and federal authorities—he was reportedly dead for over a year, Reznor didn’t seem to be bothered by it: “Somebody at the FBI had been watching too much Hitchcock or David Lynch or something,” he reasoned.

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5 Fascinating Facts About Koko the Gorilla
ZUMA Press, Inc., Alamy
ZUMA Press, Inc., Alamy

After 46 years of learning, making new friends, and challenging ideas about language, Koko the gorilla died in her sleep at her home at the Gorilla Foundation in Woodside, California on June 21, 2018. Koko first gained recognition in the late 1970s for her ability to use sign language, but it was her friendly personality that made her a beloved icon. Here are five facts you should know about the history-making ape.

1. SHE KNEW OVER 1000 SIGNS.

Francine "Penny" Patterson, then a graduate student at Stanford University, was looking for an animal subject for her inter-species animal communication experiment in the early 1970s when she found a baby gorilla at the San Francisco Zoo. Originally named Hanabiko (Japanese for "fireworks child," a reference to her Fourth of July birthdate), Koko took to signing quickly. Some of the first words Koko learned in "Gorilla Sign Language," Patterson's modified version of American Sign Language, were "food," "drink," and "more." She followed a similar trajectory as a human toddler, learning the bulk of her words between ages 2.5 and 4.5. Eventually Koko would come to know over 1000 signs and understand about 2000 words spoken to her in English. Though she never got a grasp on grammar or syntax, she was able to express complex ideas, like sadness when watching a sad movie and her desire to have a baby.

2. SHE CHANGED WHAT WE KNEW ABOUT LANGUAGE.

Not only did Koko use language to communicate—she also used it in a way that was once only thought possible in humans. Her caretakers have reported her signing about objects that weren't in the room, recalling memories, and even commenting on language itself. Her vocabulary was on par with that of a 3-year-old child.

3. SHE WASN'T THE ONLY APE WHO SIGNED.

Koko was the most famous great ape who knew sign language, but she wasn't alone. Michael, a male gorilla who lived with Koko at the Gorilla Foundation from 1976 until his death in 2000, learned over 500 signs with help from Koko and Patterson. He was even able to express the memory of his mother being killed by poachers when he was a baby. Other non-human primates have also shown they're capable of learning sign language, like Washoe the chimpanzee and Chantek the orangutan.

4. SHE HAD FAMOUS FRIENDS.

Koko received many visitors during her lifetime, including some celebrities. When Robin Williams came to her home in Woodside, California in 2001, the two bonded right away, with Williams tickling the gorilla and Koko trying on his glasses. But perhaps her most famous celebrity encounter came when Mr. Rogers paid her a visit in 1999. She immediately recognized him as the star of one of her favorite shows, Mister Rogers' Neighborhood, and greeted him by helping him take off his shoes like he did at the start of every episode.

5. SHE WAS A LOVING CAT MOM.

Koko was never able to have offspring of her own, but she did adopt several cats. After asking for a kitten, she was allowed to pick one from a litter for her birthday in 1985. She named the gray-and-white cat "All Ball" and handled it gently as if it were her real baby, even trying to nurse it. She had recently received two new kittens for her 44th birthday named Ms. Gray and Ms. Black.

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