Is fashion entering a new Golden Age for women designers?
On Thursday, Givenchy confirmed that Clare Waight Keller would become its first female couturier, thrusting the former Chloé designer into the haute spotlight.
The appointment echoes Dior’s last year of its first female couturier, Maria Grazia Chiuri, and Lanvin’s decision to put Bouchra Jarrar at the creative helm. What’s more, Jil Sander plans to soon name Lucie Meier, an alum of Dior, the head of its women’s studio, according to market sources.
Waight Keller staged her swan song for Chloé on March 2, with Nicolas Ghesquière’s longtime deputy Natacha Ramsay-Levi succeeding her at a brand that has in the recent past been overseen by a series of prominent female designers, including Phoebe Philo and Stella McCartney.
Givenchy chief executive officer Philippe Fortunato said Waight Keller would show her first collection for the house during Paris Fashion Week in October and that her mission is to propel the legacy of the 65-year-old brand even further into the modern era.
The British designer joined Chloé in 2011 after a six-year stint designing Pringle of Scotland. A calm, soft-spoken woman with a ready smile, Waight Keller brought a sure and steady hand to the house, rejuvenating its ready-to-wear and accessories business and winning largely positive reviews for her collections.
Boasting a strong background in knitwear and men’s wear, Waight Keller served as senior women’s designer at Gucci during the Tom Ford era, and had also worked at Ralph Lauren and Calvin Klein. At Givenchy she succeeded Riccardo Tisci, who exited following the expiration of his latest contract and a stellar 12-year tenure.
At Lanvin, Jarrar took over from Alber Elbaz while Meier is expected to succeed Rodolfo Paglialunga at Jil Sander, which sheltered a series of male designers, including Raf Simons, in between the comings and goings of the founding designer.
Multiple observers agreed it is a fecund period for designing women.
“The nominations of women designers at the creative helm of fashion houses is not new, but has a strong impact today, much stronger than a few years ago,” said Floriane de Saint Pierre, who runs a namesake consulting and executive search firm in Paris. “However, there is still a huge gender imbalance when it comes to fashion and beauty image making, even if some initiatives are surfacing.”
De Saint Pierre also pointed to a “new wave of very talented women designer entrepreneurs. Let’s think about Simone Rocha, Koché’s Christelle Kocher, Wanda Nylon’s Johanna Senyk, Olympia Le-Tan, Molly Goddard and Angela Luna, to name a few. We can notice that most of the major fashion awards winners have been women.”
“I think we’re going back to a period of women taking back control of their power in brands,” agreed Mary Gallagher, European associate for New York-based search firm Martens & Heads. “It’s telling that people were surprised about a woman as creative director of Dior. Why be any more surprised that a woman was appointed at Dior than a man designing Chanel? Thanks to designers like Jil Sander and Miuccia Prada, gone are the days that people assume a woman can’t possibly design men’s wear, yet a man can design women’s wear. It seems that in recent appointments, brand heads are realizing this and rectifying the balance.”
Pamela Golbin, chief curator of fashion and textiles at Les Arts Décoratifs in Paris, noted that fashion is cyclical, and female designers seem to have their moment about every 30 years or so.
“When you look back at the 20th century, obviously the golden age of couture and women designers is the Twenties and Thirties, when you have the pillars of contemporary fashion — Gabrielle Chanel, Madeleine Vionnet and Jeanne Lanvin — who invented the modern vocabulary of fashion,” she said, noting a significant clutch of female rtw designers emerged in France in the Sixties and early Seventies, including Sonia Rykiel, Emmanuelle Khanh and Christiane Bailly.
Rei Kawakubo, Vivienne Westwood, Donna Karan and Miuccia Prada were among those who flourished in the Eighties and Nineties.
Oriole Cullen, curator of modern textiles and fashion at the Victoria & Albert Museum in London, believes the resurgence of female designers at the helm of big brands could well have to do with bigger social changes. “LGBTQ (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Trans and Queer) issues have come to the fore over the last five years, and fashion has addressed them. With regard to feminism, fashion certainly has the currency to do the same,” she said.
Asked if female designers approach fashion differently than their male counterparts, observers had mixed views.
“I think every single person has a different approach, let alone whether it be gender-based or not, so it’s difficult to generalize and say, ‘Oh, women do only this’ and ‘Men only do that,” Golbin said.
By contrast, Gallagher argued that women “tend to have a very personal and emotional relationship to clothes. As we pass through various stages of life, our bodies change much more radically than men’s do and so we grow up hyper aware of body shapes, our own and other women’s. Silhouette and modernity are at the forefront for many female designers. I see enhancing a woman’s confidence rather than her allure as their primary goal.”
Ruth Chapman, cofounder and co-executive chairman at Matchesfashion.com, would agree. She said women designers “think about what women want to wear, and create items that help us get from A to B, items with a feel-good factor that can fit into our lifestyles.”
Chapman said women tend to be more “ergonomic” in their approach to construction, and are quick to understand what works for the different moments of a woman’s life, from travel and holidays to the boardroom.
Cullen noted these female designers are able to speak to a new audience of working women. “They have a more casual, practical approach to dressing than men, who are more visual. These female designers and their friends are wearing the garments. They have jobs and young families and are dealing with everyday realities. They know what their clients’ needs are,” she said.
Interviewed in Paris, where she watched Vera Wang receive a Legion of Honor medal, Donna Karan said she “never separated men from women.”
Still, she allowed that, “Yeah, we’ve got the advantage, because we’re dressing ourselves….I certainly thank God that women do understand the body, and understand what women need, which I think is the most important thing. What is fashion? It is something that’s a dream, and a reality — a balance of the two. So the artistic-ness is always there, and then there’s the reality aspect that I think women bring into it, as Chanel did. You know, I mean who made comfortable clothes more than Chanel? And I think she will be my icon forever.”
So is fashion due for another batch of prominent female creators?
“I don’t have a crystal ball,” Golbin demurred. “I think it’s very important to note that talent doesn’t have a gender or a nationality. It’s first and foremost about talent. Then obviously, when you start looking, it is interesting to note that there are periods where women are much more present than others.”
While women represent the majority of employees at large fashion conglomerates like LVMH Moët Hennessy Louis Vuitton and Kering, only a fraction of them occupy senior management roles.
De Saint Pierre, who devised an Ethics and Boards Fashion and Luxury Index, ranks 36 listed international companies from fashion, beauty and jewelry.
The average number of women board members is 26.7 percent, below the CAC40 average that reached almost 40 percent last month.
When it comes to ceo roles, the index of 36 listed groups or companies counts only one female — Luisa Delgado of Safilo — and one as co-ceo, Miuccia Prada of Prada Group.
While the management ceiling may be proving hard to crack, Chapman said she expects to see more female designers rise up in the coming years. “As women are becoming increasingly confident in the workplace, you’re seeing more female designers pushing themselves into that space. I think we will see more women – and that’s a good thing,” she said.