The first models in Chanel’s spring show strode out confidently in pantsuits. Those in the finale group brandished picket signs that exclaimed, “History Is Her Story,” “Ladies First” and “Women’s Rights Are More Than Alright!”
The scene punctuated a fashion season that went way beyond hemlines to put women—their rights, issues, roles and pivotal position in fashion—in the spotlight.
“I have always taken into consideration all the above [concerns] in my work,” says Miuccia Prada, one of fashion’s preeminent female power players—and someone who has never shied from making politically charged statements. “At the beginning, maybe it wasn’t so evident, but in the past few shows for both Miu Miu and Prada, I think you could appreciate it more.”
Indeed. Female Trouble, a wink to the 1974 John Waters movie, informed the feminist convictions behind the designer’s frisky Miu Miu show in Paris, while her tour de force Prada display in Milan exalted women with handsome, A-line coats and intricate brocades glinting with metallic threads.
She also cited a feminist agenda behind her spring 2014 show in which portraits of active, strong women—inspired by Diego Rivera and other Mexican muralists—by contemporary artists appeared as part of the show’s backdrop as well as on the clothes and leather goods.
“I was definitely wanting to represent women who are fighting for their role and rights and who become icons of a certain idea,” Prada says. “I think that women have made themselves more relevant, in general, in every field and, therefore, also in fashion. I do still think that there are still a lot of things to be done in this direction and cherish all women who achieve success and power in being themselves.”
The sisterhood airing women-centered ideas during fashion month proved to be an extensive network, with Veronique Branquinho and Phoebe Philo of Céline choosing Kate Bush’s anthem “This Woman’s Work” for their runway soundtrack and Julie de Libran scoring a winning debut at Sonia Rykiel.
“I feel very confident about it, being a woman designing for women, which is what Sonia did in her time,” de Libran says, just ahead of her show, a breezy parade of feminine style that nodded, as do so many shows, to the Seventies, an era of fervent social upheaval.
De Libran is one of a trio of women recently named to lead fashion houses founded or long helmed by men. The others are Nadège Vanhee-Cybulski, slated to make her debut at Hermès in the spring, and Katayone Adeli, tipped to soon take the creative helm of Helmut Lang.
Designers applaud the advances made by women in a field still dominated by the opposite sex.
“I think that, historically, women have always had less of a place in the top jobs in fashion, and right now there is a handful of strong women having success in the industry,” says Stella McCartney. “Being a woman right now is incredibly interesting. We are at a time [when] we are aware of the changes the generation that came before us went through and the possible changes that will happen in the generation still to come. We are able to have a better understanding that we are a team, that we love men and we embrace them, but at the same time we have to support ourselves and stick together as women, and that is very empowering.”
“The real picture is that women have never been more important to fashion than now: They are the consumer, and they have the freedom to choose,” agrees Clare Waight Keller, the creative director of Chloé, whose founder, Gaby Aghion, died during Paris Fashion Week at age 93. Aghion is remembered as a pioneer who paved the way for female designers and empowered women as they entered the workforce in the Fifties.
“Fashion has, in recent history, been about a fantasy or concept and not about the reality of how women dress,” Waight Keller says. “Women are more independent, well-traveled and knowledgeable than ever before and want to make their own choices about fashion. It’s no longer about a single trend or voice.”
Donna Karan, whose 1992 advertising campaign was prescient in depicting a woman as a head of state, argues that female designers have made major strides and notes that female students from all over the world now far outnumber their male counterparts—85 percent versus 15 percent, respectively—in the classes at Parsons The New School for Design’s School of Fashion.
The New York-based designer reckons male designers have a harder time imagining fashions for the opposite sex. “I understand what it’s like to be a woman,” she says. “I’m going through the same problems she’s going through. For one, I’m never satisfied with my body. That’s why I invented the cold shoulder [cutouts] because no one ever gains weight on her shoulders.”
Women designers, she adds, “wear the clothes, and so it’s a very personal point of view about fashion.” (See sidebar, page 44.)
Retailers and curators concur that fashion, which reflects and occasionally anticipates the times, is increasingly tuning in to female causes.
“Designers are no longer viewing themselves as mere trend gurus but as individuals who can exert their worldly influence and take a stance on political issues,” says Marigay McKee, president of Saks Fifth Avenue. “During Paris Fashion Week, feminism was especially prevalent,” she notes, citing collections referencing the Seventies and the women’s liberation movement of that era.
Chanel’s street protest was the most overt signal, which Karl Lagerfeld characterizes as a tribute to women’s causes, which, he says, “I’m 100 percent behind,” suggesting that feminism’s roots are in Germany. “It’s not aggressive in an unpleasant or left-wing way, you see what I mean?” he says of the demonstration. “But, you see, with the business I’m in, I can’t help it.”
McKee applauds the gesture, saying, “Fashion is a direct, albeit creative, reflection of the world. It is only natural that designers want to showcase their perspectives via their trade.”
McKee adds that the advocacy of women’s rights is on the rise “not only in fashion but in politics, finance, business, technology, philanthropy and much, much more. It is due to the strong and ever-growing presence of women leadership. First lady Michelle Obama, Chancellor Angela Merkel, Melinda Gates, Sheryl Sandberg and so many more have breached the career strongholds of men and proven that women can lead.”
Floriane de Saint Pierre, who runs a namesake executive search and consulting firm in Paris, notes that art—like fashion—is a “catalyst of the political and sociological zeitgeist” and that female artists are getting unprecedented attention from major institutions.
De Saint Pierre cites Niki de Saint Phalle’s major retrospective at the Grand Palais in Paris, Marlene Dumas at the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam and Bharti Kher at the Rockbund Art Museum in Shanghai as a few examples.
And fashion is “the first creative discipline where women got public recognition,” says de Saint Pierre, crediting Rose Bertin, dressmaker to Queen Marie-Antoinette, for bringing fashion to the forefront of popular culture.
Pamela Golbin, chief curator of fashion and textiles at Les Arts Décoratifs in Paris, agrees that the stature of women designers has waxed and waned over the past few centuries. In France, for example, well-to-do women were long their own stylists, choosing fabrics for their tailor or dressmaker.
Enter Charles Frederick Worth, who reputedly founded and, in one generation, revolutionized haute couture in the mid-1800s to become the fashion leader for the next 50 years. “All of a sudden, he said, ‘You will wear what I tell you to wear, and I’m signing that with my label. It’s my name that will override your sensibility.’ And so things really did change with that,” Golbin says. “What Worth did was to bring the added value of creativity. He placed himself as an artist that signs his creations, giving the client his artistic vision to each design.”
Fortunes changed after World War I, when a host of powerful figures—Gabrielle Chanel, Elsa Schiaparelli, Jeanne Lanvin, Madeleine Vionnet and Madame Grès—brought female designers to the fore.
By the Twenties, France’s then couture association boasted as many women as men. “At a time when women in France were not allowed to vote, designers were probably the first women entrepreneurs with large-scale businesses,” de Saint Pierre marvels.
The end of World War II sent women back into the home, and the fashion industry shifted back to being male-dominated. The next resurgence of female designers wouldn’t come until the Sixties, headlined by Mary Quant and Jean Muir in England and Rykiel, Emmanuelle Khanh, Michèle Rosier and Christiane Bailly in Paris, according to Golbin.
“We’ve had to wait quite a long time since the Sixties to see women really come back to the forefront of fashion,” she says.
And come back they have.
“When I started out, you felt [that being a woman] was a handicap almost in a male-led industry,” confesses Mary Katrantzou, who founded her London-based label in 2009. But she cites a shift within the past five years, thanks partly to the encouragement and advice of a range of women in powerful positions in fashion, including the likes of McKee and Net-a-Porter’s Natalie Massenet. These women—plus strong role models in fashion, including Diane von Furstenberg and Karan—embolden a “new generation” of young women to start up their own brands.
“It’s important to see around [examples] that women are successful. It makes you feel it’s possible,” Katrantzou says. “You feel that motivation and drive. It’s good to have those role models.”
Barbara Atkin, vice president of design direction at Canadian luxury retailer Holt Renfrew, says the spring collections reinforced the pursuit of individualism that’s dominant in fashion and glanced back to the Seventies, “when women were burning their bras and marching in the street.”
“The word feminism is becoming cool, and the fashion world is taking notice,” Atkin says, pointing to 17-year-old Pakistani activist Malala Yousafzai, who won the Nobel Peace Prize for her efforts to support education for girls. “It’s a sisterhood of self-expression. That’s the era we’re in.”
Agnès Barret, principal of Agent Secret, a Paris-based search firm specializing in creative talent, notes that even if the majority of creative directors at big houses are men, a host of women are leading their own brands; she mentions Iris van Herpen, Roksanda Ilincic, Calla Haynes, Yiqing Yin, Myriam Schaefer, Aurélie Bidermann, Bouchra Jarrar, Charlotte Olympia, Olympia Le-Tan and Vanessa Seward, the latter launching her own signature brand next year in partnership with A.P.C.
In addition, fashion houses are “starting to give more credit” to student talents, many of them women, as demonstrated by the recent appointments of de Libran and Vanhee-Cybulski, previously at Louis Vuitton and The Row, respectively.
In Barret’s view, women designers are sensitive to the products they design—after all, they wear and carry them—and can strongly identify with their customers.
“The other different element can be found in the teamwork approach: Women love to surround themselves without cutting themselves off from reality and welcome the exchange with colleagues [from] the perspective of synergy and teamwork,” Barret says.
“I have always believed that it’s just not the people who are the face of the house that do all of the work, and I have always believed that behind each of the designers there are many important people, and, for me, personally, most of those people are [the] women I have in my team,” McCartney says.
Karan couldn’t agree more, saying, “I love partners in crime.”
While data on women in design roles are scarce, de Saint Pierre’s Ethics & Boards, an online venture that parses analytics on corporate governance, charts how women are making progress, albeit spottily.
Women represent 22.5 percent of board members and 21 percent of executive committee members or senior management across 32 listed companies in fashion, beauty, watches and jewelry—roughly double the companies on the CAC 40.
Yet, the results are varied. More than 40 percent of board directors at Hermès, Estée Lauder and Michael Kors are women, while Coty Inc. and Tod’s Group have none.
“Fashion and luxury is a sector that is overperforming, even during economic downturns. And women have a significant presence in leadership roles,” de Saint Pierre says, pointing to such recent ceo appointments as Caroline Brown at Donna Karan, Sarah Crook at Christopher Kane and Luisa Delgado at Safilo.
Not that de Saint Pierre believes that either women or men are necessarily better leaders, stressing that key qualities—intuition, impeccable execution and courage—“have no gender. However, they are often qualified as feminine values that any leader, male or female, must have.”