I used to work for a glossy magazine supplement that came out weekly with a national newspaper. I’ll never forget the time when this very much female-orientated magazine was undergoing a redesign/rebranding. Six middle-aged men sat round a boardroom table deciding what it was women wanted from the publication. They didn’t see the irony. In the world of fashion, like most others, men have always dominated, but in the past few years there has been a discernible shift. More women have taken the helm of big-name fashion houses, while there has been a real surge in success stories around independent female designers; Simone Rocha and Victoria Beckham are now two of the most critically and commercially acclaimed designers in the world.
Last year, Maria Grazia Chiuri was appointed creative director at Christian Dior (its very first female creative director). Natacha Ramsay-Levi is tipped to take over from Clare Weight Keller at Chloe at the end of this month and Bouchra Jarrar debuted her first collection for French fashion house Lanvin this season. Of course Sarah Burton has had enormous success at Alexander McQueen since 2010 and Nadege Vanhee-Cybulski at Hermes since 2015. Meanwhile the iconic Rei Kawakubo has spent the past 40 years transforming the left-field Comme des Garcons into a global, multi-million euro success story. Muccia Prada and Diane von Furstenberg are simply legends. Despite these empowering examples, female creative directors are still the exception rather than the rule.
There are many industries that have an absence of female leadership at the top. But what’s interesting about this industry is not just that the majority of its consumers are female, but that women account for the majority of those taking up entry-level positions. So the presence of women outweighs that of men, just not at senior level. Is the possibility of pregnancy, maternity leave and motherhood still off-putting to employers? Interestingly, when Phoebe Philo, creative director of Celine, agreed to take on the role, not only was she allowed to live in London, where her husband and children were based, rather than Paris, but the fashion house actually cancelled its AW12 catwalk show in favour of a small presentation in order to take the pressure off Philo who was then pregnant with her third child. Did this flexibility damage the brand? Absolutely not. If anything it helped transform Celine into a label that resonated with women for reasons other than just the fabulous, female-friendly clothes.
Do women design better womenswear than men? Not necessarily and that’s not really the point. The point is that the fashion industry, along with every other, will benefit from having the influence of and contributions from both men and women. A variety of points of view make for richer content surely.