O, Female Fashion Designers, Where Art Thou?

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Last week, Raf Simons was named as the new creative director of Calvin Klein. The announcement ended months of speculation as to where Simons, who walked out of Dior last October, might wind up next. While the press release wasn’t exactly a shock- WWD dedicated an entire cover story to “Raf at Calvin” weeks before the news was official- confirmation of Simons’s new gig was met with eager applause from all corners of the industry. I, too, joined in the revelry internally, if not also on the outside by radiating happiness for the rest of the day. That last bit is not an exaggeration: I swooned over Simons’s work at Dior, and the thought of him decamping to the Big Apple to revitalize on the States’s most iconic brands is enough to make me buzz with excitement. Impeding my celebration, however, was a nagging question that, as time went on, I simply couldn’t ignore.

If you pay attention to the fashion newsreel (and, let’s face it, even if you don’t), you’ve no doubt heard all about the “musical chairs” that’s been consuming the industry. Over the past couple years, designer after designer has either left or been ousted from major labels. All those vacancies make for a constant stream of new appointments, and it seems one can’t open WWD or Business of Fashion nowadays without a headline that reads “so-and-so set to replace what’s-their-name at ‘x’ brand,” or something of that nature. Although the nature of these new hires ranges widely, from the all-but-known situation with Raf x Calvin to the speculative surprise of Alessandro Michele’s rise at Gucci, one factor almost always remains the same:

The chosen designer is a man.

Now, I know what you’re probably thinking: Wasn’t it just weeks ago that we heard Maria Grazia Chiuri, the female half of the Valentino dream team, is replacing Raf Simons at Dior? And the answer obviously is yes, we did. After twenty years with creative partner Pierpaolo Piccioli, Chiuri is headed to Paris as the first female creative director in the House of Dior’s seventy-year history. I was thrilled by the news, not only because of Chiuri’s penchant for stunning design but also because of the important milestone signaled by her appointment.

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To be clear, the fashion world is far from lacking female talent. Just this week I read PORTER magazine’s profile of Stella McCartney, who is just one example of the many women spearheading a bona-fide fashion empire. The common thread between McCartney and many of her peers, however, is that most if not all of them built their reputation with their own lines rather than under the tutelage of a decades-old mega-brand. When one scans the ranks of the industry’s top luxury heritage labels, the number of women creatives is despairingly low. Correct me if I’m wrong, but only a handful- including Gazia Chiuri, Hermès’s Nadège Vanhee-Cybulski, and Tiffany & Co.’s Francesca Amfitheatrof- stand out as exceptions.

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At first glance, this might not seem like a major issue. A long history of enterprising women, after all, is perhaps one of the industry’s greatest legacies. Couturiers like Madeleine Vionnet, Coco Chanel, and Elsa Schiaparelli built reputations that made female designers a force to be reckoned with, a pattern that continued into the second half of the 20th century in the form of Rei Kawakubo, Miuccia Prada, Vivienne Westwood, and countless others. The last twenty years signaled the rise of a new generation that includes McCartney, Sacai’s Chitose Abe, and Mary Kate and Ashley Olsen, as well as countless others. And that’s not to that pre-established brands are totally wanting for double-x chromosomes; far from it, actually, as some of today’s key labels are indeed heritage or even niche brands that received new life at the hands of female creative directors (Phoebe Philo, anyone?).

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At the end of the day, however, power is not awarded for creativity, but for dollar signs. In the fashion world, this means that the influence pendulum swings in the direction of seven to ten major brands whose annual revenues exceed $1 billion. With a few exceptions noted above, the fact remains that most of these labels are lead by male designers. A “problem”? At the surface, no. These men are in their position for a reason, that being their talent for creating clothes, shoes, and accessories that look great on the runway and fly off the shelves in stores. There is no reason they should be removed simply to make way for a female designer who may or may not achieve the same feat. But fashion is nothing if not a conversation, and the fact remains that the biggest microphones are monopolized by male voices. It’s time more female designers were heard at that level, with theirs shout stretching beyond the Left Bank and echoing across the world on the streets of Los Angeles, Beijing, Dubai, Sydney, and more. I like to think that Maria Grazia Chiuri’s appointment at Dior is the start of a new era for luxury fashion and, with the experts already drafting positive reviews of her as-yet-unseen debut, something tells me I might just get my wish. Until then? Keep your eyes peeled- the next female fashion powerhouse is probably just around the corner.


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