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Standing Toe to Toe: More Female Designers Take Control in Fashion

Could fashion design, long dominated by men, be entering a golden age for women?

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Could fashion design, long dominated by men, be entering a golden age for women?

Absolutely, say designers, headhunters, retailers and historians, who point to the fact that two more women just landed top jobs at major Italian fashion houses — Alessandra Facchinetti at Valentino and Christina Ortiz at Salvatore Ferragamo — not to mention the impressive number of prominent female-led brands on the Milan calendar this week, from Miuccia Prada to Alberta Ferretti and Donatella Versace.

“I think it reflects a big change,” said Floriane de Saint Pierre, who runs Floriane de Saint Pierre and Associés, an executive search and consulting firm, in Paris. “In the early Nineties, the creative directors of fashion houses were nearly all men,” she said, mentioning the likes of Michael Kors at Celine and Tom Ford at Gucci, who were succeeded by Ivana Omazic and Frida Giannini, respectively.

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“It is partly a result of the fact that in many fields now, women are being recognized as being up to the top jobs,” Donatella Versace said, “and 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.”

Observers say an intense focus on wearable, figure-flattering clothes is among the reasons female designers have recently made enormous strides — even if they have a long way to go in such male-dominated fashion capitals as New York or Paris, not to mention the executive suite.

They also posit the advancement of women in fashion in a broader context of social advancement, considering America could next year elect its first woman president, who would join a growing list of prominent female politicians that includes German Chancellor Angela Merkel; China’s vice premier, Wu Yi, and a slate of prominent female cabinet ministers in French president Nicolas Sarkozy’s new government. Sarkozy beat out Segolene Royale, France’s first female candidate for president.

“It’s a sign of changing generations. Today there is more room for female designers, who, aside from creative skills, also boast managerial competencies,” said Anna Molinari, the designer of Blumarine.

“Women are becoming more confident, and they want to take advantage of the fact that there are all these new luxury consumers,” agreed Paris-based industry consultant Concetta Lanciaux. “It’s part of a general sociological change that is occurring. I think you’re going to see more and more [women] emerge. They’ve been hidden and repressed.”

Giannini, who had big shoes to fill at Gucci following Ford’s exit, said women today are more determined and self-assured, especially in fashion, “a field that should innovate and set the pace in terms of female presence, especially when compared to more conservative areas.”

“We live in a social moment where women can affirm themselves much more than in the past,” she stressed.

That female-led brands and labels are particularly dominant on the Milan fashion calendar versus Paris, New York or London is described as coincidental by some observers.

“We’re talking about creativity, design and inspiration, all elements that are apart from one’s sex and geographic origin,” said Giannini. “Rather, they are tied to one’s personality.”

Still, many point to the fact that Italy hosts a slew of strong family-run companies, many of them founded by women or taken over by daughters or sisters: among them Genny, Alberta Ferretti, Prada, Versace, Fendi, Trussardi, Missoni, Etro and Emilio Pucci.

Miuccia Prada, who showed a standout collection Tuesday, has certainly been a trailblazer, catapulting the Prada company into the billionaire-boys club and becoming one of the industry’s most influential designers.

“Italy’s tradition of family ownership for fashion companies gives women a great chance to emerge, whereas France, by contrast, is dominated by luxury groups,” Lanciaux said. “It’s more corporate.”

According to Angela Missoni, leading women designers in Italy are “completely at ease and trustworthy in what they are doing. They are lighter, more versatile, sensitive, receptive and open to changes or transformations. In my opinion, the majority of Italian women-led labels mirrors an historical and social evolution.” (The James Brown soundtrack at Missoni’s show on Tuesday seemed to say it all: “This is a man’s world. But it wouldn’t be nothing, nothing without a woman or a girl.”)

Versace said 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!”

To be sure, women have played an important and visible role in fashion design throughout history.

Pamela Golbin, curator of 20th-century fashion at the Museum of Fashion and Textiles in Paris, recalled 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.

“The reversal only came after World War II,” she explained. “Socially, women went back to the home. They became mothers again. It’s not by accident that it was a man, Christian Dior, who catapulted fashion back after the Second World War….After that, the new generation of designers were men: Dior, Pierre Balmain, Cristobal Balenciaga….”

Waves of prominent female designers have emerged since then, including Rosita Missoni, Sonia Rykiel, Mary Quant and Betsey Johnson in the Sixties and Seventies, Golbin noted.

But today, male designers dominate the upper echelons of designer fashion, with Omazic the only female head designer at luxury giant LVMH Moët Hennessy Louis Vuitton and Gucci’s Giannini and Stella McCartney bearing the torch for women designers at Gucci Group.

“[Women] definitely don’t have the power that the male designers have,” Golbin said, noting a particular dearth of women designing men’s wear.

“I sincerely hope we are witnessing a major and permanent change, not only in the fashion industry, but also in society in general,” said Marni designer Consuelo Castiglioni. “Looking at the evolution of fashion trends in different countries, we notice that everywhere there have been periods dominated by female creativity.”

De Saint Pierre linked the rise in female designers today to the fact that fashion “is less couture driven. It doesn’t mean less creative. It’s become more real.”

She also cited the importance of accessories in today’s market and pointed to the fact that women have won several important creative director roles at brands whose heritage is in leather goods, among them Gucci, Ferragamo, Celine and Mulberry, which last month named Katie Grand its new creative director.

Observers agreed female designers — apart from such phantasmagorical iconoclasts as Rei Kawakubo or Vivienne Westwood — generally turn out designs that are more wearable, realistic and in touch with the customer’s needs.

“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.”

Castiglioni agreed that designs by men tend to be “more conceptual and often inspired by idealized images, but maybe less concerned with the comfort and practicality of wearing clothes.”

Not that she’s against it. “These differences make both sides interesting,” she added.

Missoni concurred that female designers take a different approach. “Men design what they would wear if they were women and women are flattered by the idea of wearing something a man would like them to wear,” she explained. “When I design, I always take into consideration the practical aspects of wearing, for instance, a sheer dress or a very deep neckline. So I always think what I would miss or need. I figure out new solutions, linings, finishings.

“Women seem to know better what other women need, want to buy, like to wear,” she continued.

Versace said she has taken what her late brother, Gianni, created for the brand and moved it forward. “I have taken the essential DNA of Versace — glamorous, sexy, great-quality, Italian luxury — and evolved it for the 21st century” she said. “In doing so, I have also brought a woman’s touch to it.”

Golbin noted that prominent female designers in the Twenties and Thirties also dressed themselves “first and foremost, Chanel being the most emphatic. They designed clothing, and not fashion.”

As Diane von Furstenberg noted, “I think women designers have had a huge influence on fashion — Madeleine Vionnet, Madame Grès, Elsa Schiaparelli, Coco Chanel, Norma Kamali, Donna Karan, DVF — all superinfluential. Women do not need muses…they are their own muses.”

And women are likely to only increase their power in fashion, particularly on the design front, observers believe.

De Saint Pierre pointed to the emergence of several prominent fashion brands founded by women in the past few years, a diverse group that includes the likes of Tory Burch, Juicy Couture, Vanessa Bruno, Paul & Joe, Catherine Malandrino and Kate Spade. “All are significant in the market today,” she noted.

Lanciaux also listed Isabel Marant and Ann Valerie Hash among Paris-based designers who are behind fast-growing businesses, while Luella Bartley is among London talents who “is really emerging now,” she said.

In the U.S., while Karan, von Furstenberg, Herrera, Johnson and Anna Sui have been mainstays for years, a flock of other female designers is gaining commercial muscle. In addition to Burch and Malandrino, they include Vera Wang, Doo-Ri Chung, Behnaz Sarafpour and Isabel Toledo for Anne Klein.

“If a female designer is talented, tenacious, press-worthy and knows how to make clothes that sell, then she’ll have opportunities at the helm of fashion houses,” said Gallagher at Martens & Heads.

Molinari couldn’t agree more. “I don’t think this is a fleeting trend, because women are more attentive and sensitive to change and are versatile enough to adapt to market circumstances and seize market opportunities,” she said.

Echoing other observers, Castiglioni cited the advances women are making on the political stage, particularly in France and America, as evidence of a context of wider progress.

“I don’t like stereotypes, and maybe the fact that so many women are leading one of the most important industries in the Italian economy shows that we are not so behind,” she said. “Obviously, there is still a long way to go.”

Indeed, Lanciaux said the moment of true equality will arrive only when it is no longer an issue if a designer is male or female. “When you are a great artist, everybody forgets your sex,” she said.

“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.” ?

“In the end, I think it is a cycle,” de Saint Pierre said. “There were many prominent women in the first part of the 20th century…and maybe, after one century, the balance is coming back.”

As Wang suggested, “Maybe there is an element of a new definition of sensuality, femininity, charm or invention. A lot of women bring their own intuition and their own particular take, and some of it is very interesting. It is perhaps [because of] the intimate personal relationship with clothes and this innate desire to redefine femininity. It’s a good time to be a woman designer again.”

— With contributions from Marc Karimzadeh

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