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Fashion Says No Women on Top

By Jackie Mallon


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Fashion |OPINION

“It’s not women’s work” is something females historically might have heard when they attempted to leave the domestic tranquility of the hearth, and go in for the more manual labors usually reserved for menfolk. However during World War II Rosie the Riveter symbolized how women could turn their delicate porcelain hands to anything if given the opportunity: shipbuilding, welding, manufacturing munitions. Smiling and flexing her muscles, dressed in overalls with her sleeves rolled up and her hair tied back in a scarf, Rosie embodied the positive, morale boosting vastness of female capability and aspiration. Fast forward seventy years, and forget ships, we don’t even get tasked with creating fancy frocks.

The two thrones of Paris fashion, Lanvin and Dior, so abruptly vacated last month and currently being dusted off for the next occupants, will almost certainly not host female derrieres. I discuss this with a class of 15 opinionated fashion students from Kent State of whom only 1 is male. The girls get quite riled up. I jokingly tell them to go and do something about it–– but in the meantime not to forget their projects are due next week. I think of it again later: only 2 of my Associates level class of 12 are male. I spend an afternoon reviewing the thesis collections of a group of 10 Parsons’ seniors; only 2 of them are male.

It’s a man’s world

However since the early days of Galliano and McQueen in Paris, through the same revolving doors have marched Michael Kors, Olivier Theyskens, Marc Jacobs, Roberto Menichetti, Lars Nilsson, Tom Ford, Stefano Pilati, Alber Elbaz, Peter Copping, Hedi Slimane, Riccardo Tisci, Alexander Wang, Marco Zanini, Olivier Rousteing, JW Anderson, Jeremy Scott, Alessandro Michele, Christopher Kane, Arthur Arbesser, Demna Gvasalia,... There have only been male designers’ names in the hat for the top jobs. When it comes to the serious business of relaunching historic womenswear houses, it is clearly not women’s work. The money’s on the men.

There’s Phoebe Philo, of course. The Kathryn Bigelow of the situation, she is the equivalent of the only female film director ever to win an Academy Award, in charge at Celine and previously Chloe, she has sealed her position as one of the leading directors of our industry. But there’s not a second Philo to be seen. No one even comes close. She’s the token female.

Rosie symbolized women who were called upon when men went to battle, now women battle simply to be called upon. It is the glass ceiling scenario that frustrates those working in law and finance and so many other professions. But somehow it wouldn’t be quite so egregious if we were talking about something that historically flew in the face of what might have been considered “women’s work.” But we’re referring to creating clothes, clothes for women to wear; essentially, dressing ourselves.

Tom Ford, too busy casting his next Hollywood screenplay perhaps to intellectualize it, explained the predominance of male designers thus: “I think we are more objective. We don’t come with the baggage of hating certain parts of our bodies.”

Oh Tom. The Botox means I can’t tell if you’re joking or not.

I daren’t count how many fittings conducted by male designers I’ve been in where the designer has desperately tried to avoid the merest suggestion of the female form lurking beneath his plucking fingers and that sliver of crepe de chîne. New previously uncharted territories of the female body are discovered to scrutinize and disparage; areas we never knew were up for discussion. The backs of knees?

My career experience alone makes clear to me that if we put more females in charge of how women look, it would inspire in womankind a more positive body image. Simple as that.

Elsewhere in the fashion industry, women wield almighty power. There are the editors whose personal recommendations and advertising budgets can make or break a designer’s future: the Alpha of them all, Anna Wintour of U.S. Vogue, Carla Sozzani of Vogue Italia, Alexandra Shulman of British Vogue and Emmanuelle Alt of Vogue Paris. Shelley Fox and Fiona Dieffenbacher are respectively directors of the MFA and BFA fashion design programs at Parsons, and the late Louise Wilson of Central St Martins was a conduit conveying the crème de la crème of British graduates into the major international houses.

women still fare better as sidekicks and muses

However, history repeats itself when it comes to the plum creative roles; women still fare better as sidekicks and muses. Just as Picasso had Marie Therese Walter, Nicholas Ghesquière has Marie Amelié Sauvé; Auguste Rodin had Camille Claudel as Alexander McQueen had Annabelle Neilson; Man Ray had Kiki de Montparnasse as John Galliano has Vanessa Bellanger... Jeff Koons had La Cicciolina as Riccardo Tisci has Kim Kardashian.

Sarah Burton successfully heads the house of McQueen without its namesake but there seems to be silent acknowledgement that she had paid her dues. Visible at the designer’s right hand in every photo ever taken of McQueen at work, she was tried and tested, therefore a shoo-in to take over after his death. Similarly, Maria Grazia Chiuri is doing an impressive job as Creative Director of Valentino, that most feminine of maisons, a step up in responsibility from her previous role of Accessory designer for the house, but she is partnered with Pierpaolo Piccioli so the ubiquitous Y chromosome is in place all the same.

The ‘How can I make a woman more beautiful?’ statement

Women worldwide were sorry to see Alber Elbaz leave Lanvin because his vision struck a chord with so many of us. Yet when he spoke recently at the 32nd annual Night of Stars in New York, just a few days before his announced departure, he said this: “We designers, we started as couturiers, with dreams, with intuition, with feeling, with thought. What do women want? What do women need? What can I do for a woman to make her life better and easier? How can I make a woman more beautiful?”

While the sentiment is noble at first, it’s bothersome too. He sounds a little like an artisanal dollmaker. Women are well-equipped, contrary to what Mr Ford, Mr Elbaz and the suited elect at Kering and LVMH might believe, to beautify themselves. Oh, granted, we can beat ourselves up too but we pour that into the creative process. We can be our own brand ambassadors. We’re sensitive to that magic that’s built into the cut of clothing that can make our legs longer, our line graceful, our butts perkier, our necks swan-like, our eyes sparkle, our beauty more alluring. We come already programmed “with dreams, with intuition, with feeling, with thought.” We have a long relationship with clothing the female form. We can create our own fantasies. Furthermore I believe we’d make a damn sight better job of it than some of the men currently celebrated for tricking us out.

The student population in the nation’s fashion schools is over 70 percent female. Of the 54 CFDA+ 2015 Design Graduates, an exclusive list released two weeks ago which highlights the year’s top graduates in over 20 countries, two thirds are female.

Fallen women

Yet fallen on the sword of the modern industry are Jil Sander, Ann Demeulemeester, Martine Sitbon, Donna Karan, designers that female students could look up to and identify with. They were designers with unique visions who understood how to dress women and carved their niche in a tough industry. They were pioneers in their own individual ways.

As the speculation grows about who will fill the Dior and Lanvin posts, there is some mention, although scant, of Simone Rocha and Iris Van Herpen. But they are lost in the whirl of the same male names that circulate, blowing the girls further and further out of the running. We will no doubt see more swapping out of one good fellow for another in the old boys club of luxury womenswear. At Lanvin, there is even talk of putting the current menswear designer, Lucas Ossendrijver in charge of womenswear.

Anything rather than hire a woman.

By contributing guest editor Jackie Mallon, who is on the teaching faculty of several NYC fashion programmes and is the author of Silk for the Feed Dogs, a novel set in the international fashion industry.

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