Women Love Fashion, So Why Aren't There More Female Fashion Designers?

A very long, but insightful and interesting story in today's WWD attempts to tackle the issue of women in fashion. More and more females are heading big-name fashion houses or are gaining prominence with their own labels. "In the early Nineties," says Floriane de Saint Pierre, head of a consulting firm in Paris, "the creative directors of fashion houses were nearly all men." For example: Michael Kors at Celine and Tom Ford at Gucci, who were succeeded by Ivana Omazic and Frida Giannini, respectively. Could it be part of a larger context, considering Hillary Clinton is running for president, and prominent politicians include German Chancellor Angela Merkel and China's vice premier, Wu Yi?

Pamela Golbin, curator of 20th-century fashion at the Museum of Fashion and Textiles in Paris, notes that Coco Chanel, Madeleine Vionnet, Jeanne Lanvin, Elsa Schiaparelli and Madame Grès were the queens of Paris fashion in the early part of the century. After World War II, women "went back to the home," and the post-war names in design were men like Christian Dior, Pierre Balmain and Cristobal Balenciaga.



Men still dominate high fashion, but women seem to be gaining. "I sincerely hope we are witnessing a major and permanent change, not only in the fashion industry, but also in society in general," says Marni's Consuelo Castiglioni. Donatella Versace adds, "The worlds of banking and management are opening up to women at long last. But in fashion, specifically, I think it points to an understanding that women are instinctively in tune with the female customer." Versace also says Italy is leading the way in appointing female designers and that this fits in with the nation's culture, "as we have long been a matriarchy!" (See: Gucci designer Frida Giannini, Miuccia Prada, Angela Missoni and new hires Alessandra Facchinetti at Valentino and Christina Ortiz at Salvatore Ferragamo.)

Could it be that women are actually better at designing clothes for women? "When seeing the Milan fashion shows and then immediately going to Paris, one sometimes has the sense of going from real clothes to fantasy-made-for-the-catwalk clothes," said Mary Gallagher, a Europe-based associate at Martens & Heads, a New York executive search firm. "Maybe that's why there are so many prominent women designers in Italy. They are the ones wearing the clothes, so they know what feels and looks good on them and what works in a woman's busy life."

The argument is that men tend to be more "conceptual" but less concerned with the practical. And since the fashion world is becoming less and less focused on couture, women who design with "practical" aspects in mind will succeed. The problem there is the underlying prejudice: If couture is art, for which men are celebrated, then a woman's ready-to-wear becomes mass market seamstress patternmaking, and the respect and impact are sucked out.

The truth is, if the fashion world had any kind of equality in it, women and men would design for women — and men.

"I would like to think that a good design speaks for itself," added Linda Fargo, senior vice president and fashion director of Bergdorf Goodman. "When we use our senses, whether it's taste, sight or hearing, for example, we don't first think, hmm, was this chef a woman? Or, was this music performed by a man? Hopefully, we have evolved enough not to judge these things first through a sexist or ageist prism, but through the strength and merit of design."
But in the billion dollar fashion industry, women have yet to "evolve" enough to dominate. And though there are a growing number of female creative directors, the worst result would be if this were just a trend, or a cycle. Because trends fade quickly. Cycles end. In this story, Vera Wang says, "It's a good time to be a woman designer again." Hopefully it will never be a bad time. Because if women around the world are spending billions on clothing, female designers should be able to reap those rewards. And even when a man does design for women, he usually has a muse, a woman who inspires him. Says Diane von Furstenberg, "Women do not need muses... they are their own muses."

Standing Toe to Toe: More Female Designers Take Control in Fashion [WWD]