Earlier this month, Marigay McKee was fired from Saks Fifth Avenue after a brief, high-profile tenure as president during which she was flamboyantly (and, in this day of hyper control, refreshingly) outspoken in numerous press interviews. I have zero inside insight into what went wrong, but from the outside looking in, it feels acute; perhaps a defining event hastened mutual acknowledgment of the proverbial “wrong fit.”
Two weeks ago Time released its list of “The 100 Most Influential People in the World.” Two from our world made the cut: Alexander Wang and Diane von Furstenberg. Whether either merits most influential in the world status can be debated; such lists are designed for provocation and entertainment. Few would argue against DVF’s place as one of the great powers of the fashion industry.
These two events — Marigay’s ouster and Diane’s Time distinction — have nothing to do with each other per se. But they juxtapose well in the conversation on gender and success. The Marigay news unleashed a torrent of speculation/gossip from the admonishments of many who “knew it wouldn’t last” to the defense (albeit rarer) offered by those who suggested the ax wouldn’t have fallen “had she been a man.”
There’s no question that, as with every other industry on Earth, fashion’s senior-most ranks on both the business and creative sides are dominated by men. Unlike every other industry on Earth, fashion’s male domination extends to numbers but not to rank.
Imagine an eight-columned temple on Fashion Olympus, each pillar the seat of a top power god. Though not synonymous, power and influence are inextricably linked in fashion, now more than ever. As with Time’s list, compilations of “Most” anything — Influential/Powerful/Beautiful/Annoying — bubble subjectivity and no pat Pythagorean equation. My Olympic formula considers but doesn’t overvalue of-the-moment influence à la Riccardo Tisci and Phoebe Philo, whose work for Givenchy and Céline resonates with their peers as strongly as with consumers. Rather, “most powerful and influential” involves a petrie-dish concoction of commercial clout, creativity, personality and that indomitable X factor that inspires something in others — awe, admiration, fascination, fear.
On this Olympus, women occupy half of the pillars. Alongside Bernard Arnault, Karl Lagerfeld, Ralph Lauren and Giorgio Armani stand fashion’s four great she-gods: Anna Wintour, Miuccia Prada, Rei Kawakubo and the aforementioned Diane.
Apart from the men noted, who comes close to these women in power? Who commands the same reverence, deference, respect, in some cases, here’s that word again, fear? One could argue Alain Wertheimer, but he willingly shares, secedes even, a chunk of his power to Karl in an arrangement that has worked out delightfully for both of them. François-Henri Pinault? Not yet at the pinnacle, though ascendant and surely atop the forward-looking peak of chic sustainability. Tom Ford? Also on the extreme power ascent, with Hollywood in his corner and on his résumé. Yet none has the power of the she-gods, no other designer, fashion house or retail ceo, nor any emergent star from the tech world, at least not yet.
And nary a young darling. For all its fascination with the young and the new, fashion is an industry of longevity at the top. At the brand level, it can take years, decades even, to achieve mere solvency, to grow a business to the point of long-term security. And in this era of brand domination, a designer’s power quotient is linked to his or her commercial strength, whether actual or projected. Twenty years ago, Helmut Lang’s incredible creative influence, though not backed by equal commercial muscle, elevated him to a power status that doesn’t exist today.
But I digress to age and tenure when my topic is gender. Must a woman be softer, gentler, more coy, more fill-in-the-feminine-modifier than men to achieve and retain power and influence? The great sage Michael Kors once said that fashion isn’t for sissies — nor, one might paraphrase, is it for softies or those would feign such status in the interests of moving up via ingratiation. (Post-IPO Michael is another contender for near-future most powerful consideration.)
Of the she-gods, none projects demure nor ever has. Only one has an effervescent personality (guess which one?). DVF even deserves the handle “people person,” but not in any ordinary sense. Outgoing, insightful, interested, yes; ordinary, no. Diane’s is as big as a personality gets, one armed with charm and cheekbones so extravagant that she can make you feel comfortable and inadequate in the same sitting. She rose to fame on strength of will and a smart dress; as president of the CFDA, she helped orchestrate the explosion of American fashion over the last 10 years.
And speaking of the fashion explosion, who is involved in more aspects globally than Anna Wintour? The titles “editor in chief” and “artistic director” don’t do justice to the clout; these days, Anna directs more and more of Condé Nast editorial while suggesting (some would say installing) designers for major-brand jobs and commanding up to 25 grand a head to benefit an already rich charity — and then controlling the guest list down to the last seat. In a not particularly clever pun on her surname, Anna has been likened to a nuclear event, her pop-culture persona resonating in cheesy chick lit and on celluloid as Satan in a skirt.
Said skirt was designed (at least in the script) by sister she-god Miuccia Prada, who in turn, though not a personal publicity hound, dared to engage in heady conversation with a dead person for Anna’s Costume Institute. The core of Miuccia’s power is rooted in her day job. Decades in, her brilliant work remains a dazzling gold standard recognized virtually universally in a highly opinionated, often fractious industry. As for her quirks, they swing a tad contrary. For instance, Miuccia once acknowledged finding perverse amusement when, during a show, treacherous shoes caused numerous models to tremble — and one to tumble — in discomfort and woe. “I liked it,” Miuccia said. “It made the show more interesting.”
Rei Kawakubo — intimidating? Ya think? She, too, sources power from creativity, hers fascinating in its ability to still shock, thrill, confound and incite after all these years. Her position of hallowed, avant-garde genius creator so overwhelms that acolytes often dare not acknowledge her cleverness. Iconoclast and icon, Kawakubo pushes the artistic boundaries on her runway even as she peddles a parallel world of approachable merch (a heart-with-eyes T-shirt; fab men’s shirts) and develops her daring Dover Street Market retail network. Asked if she considers herself more artist or businesswoman, as she was when WWD did a story on the opening of Dover Street Market New York, she-deity Rei doesn’t miss a beat or waste a word: “I am a businesswoman.” Direct yet mysterious.
An aura of mystery — each of fashion’s she-gods wears one, likely borne of innate preference but cultivated for the commercial good. Extremely private and not out, about and chronicled constantly in the media, Miuccia and Rei assume theirs easily. For Anna and Diane, both so publicly present, retaining that veil of intrigue can be no easy feat, yet they manage. Anna is one of the most wondered-about celebrities of our time, general public and industry types alike intrigued by what might lie beneath the cool, perfectly bobbed exterior. Diane has a reality show and has written a my-life-is-an-open-book tome, yet still her fabulousness fascinates — we want to know more.
Something else these women have in common: They’re obsequity-immune. Fake deference? Come on. Must a woman be softer, gentler, more coy than a man to attain and retain power? Not in the gloves-off world of fashion. Not the she-gods.