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Why are there so few women behind the scenes in high fashion?

Kathleen Lee-Joe
Published: February 21, 2013 - 7:39AM

Between Gok Wan and Brad Goreski, we’re used to having men tell us what to wear (and occasionally, how to look good naked). The male dominance of the fashion industry is widely acknowledged yet rather strange, given the fact that dressing up is an overwhelmingly female pursuit.

Though there’s no way to measure the success rate of designers based on their sex, you just need to look at circumstantial evidence to see that things are more than a little skewed. The stage at the last Vogue Fashion Fund/CDFA Awards was a pretty dude-heavy affair. While male designers have taken home the Womenswear Award 13 out of 18 times, a woman has never won the Menswear Award. There are a number of powerful women designers on the scene, but most fast-rising under-30 success stories belong to men; Alexander Wang, Joseph Altuzarra, Jason Wu, Markus Lupfer, Christopher Kane, Jack McCollough and Lazaro Hernandez of Proenza Schouler, just to name a few. The list of creative directors at top luxury brands is also a virtually all-male rollcall, from Karl Lagerfeld at Chanel and Hedi Slimane at Saint Laurent, to Marc Jacobs at Louis Vuitton and Raf Simons at Christian Dior. Where the ladies at?

Though high street has been quick to appoint women into chief design positions - Ann-Sofia Johansson for H&M and Karen Bonser at Topshop, for example - females remain underrepresented in the luxury fashion sector. There are far more women designers at the bottom of the industry, comprising over 70 per cent of fashion graduates; they’re just not rising proportionately to the top.

As well as the strength of their collections, a designer’s success comes down one thing – visibility. We often see young male designers adored by female editors, posing besides models and actresses for photo opps at charity galas and receiving the large majority of industry accolades; a phenomenon that has seen Anna Wintour being accused of favouring “young, gay men”, and which writer Nicole Phelps calls the “editor/designer dating game”. As Phelps muses, “A gorgeous actress, the prevailing logic goes, is put into further relief by a tuxedoed designer.”

The reasons some women don’t have as great visibility, insiders say, comes down to the same issues that effect women in other fields such as law and finance. While superwoman Phoebe Philo pulled off a catwalk show when she was eight-months pregnant, managing to stave off stress-induced premature labour, other prominent female designers have bowed out of the spotlight, putting a cap on weekday parties and client “courting” to make family their priority. Take Daryl Kerrigan, who believes she lost out on the top job at Celine in 1997 to Michael Kors because of her family commitments.

There’s also the widely held (yet rather baseless) perception that women, fashion’s main consumers, feel more comfortable taking advice about how they should look from a man. Tom Ford once famously said,  “I think we are more objective. We don’t come with the baggage of hating certain parts of our bodies.” Designer Michael Vollbracht from Bill Blass went one step further, saying, “Women are confused about who they want to be. I believe that male designers have the fantasy level that women do not.”

To equate male designers with “fantasy” and women designers with “practicality”, however, is problematic. While men are celebrated for creating whimsical couture, regarded with the same interest and reverence as art, ready-to-wear designs by women are often perceived to be lacking that same impact and element of imagination. While male designers turn shows into “limitless” spectacles, women are left to succeed in areas of realism and practicality.

What the success of Stella McCartney, Isabel Marant, Phoebe Philo and “self-effacing” Sarah Burton comes down to, however, is not their practical approach, but the fact that they offer a different point of view. They have lived the life of their consumer, which has, in turn, informed the quality, fit and aesthetic of their wares. As Diane von Furstenberg says, “Women don’t need muses. They are their own muses.”

There are also a number of women designing menswear, challenging perceptions in a push toward true gender equality in fashion. Korean-American designer Chris Lee, who was recently named Parsons’ Menswear Designer of the Year; Rachel Comey, whose late-seventies inspired shirts and trousers won over David Bowie; and sportswear designer Jayne Min, who chronicles her menswear-as-womenswear escapades on her blog Stop It Right Now, are just a few names that come to mind. They’re telling men what to wear and are getting applauded for it, too.

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