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Female Fashion Designers Are Still in the Minority


LONDON, United Kingdom – Gender parity is an elusive goal for many industries and fashion is no exception, with men disproportionately dominating top roles across all areas of business. It is a particularly ironic state of affairs for an industry where women make up the overwhelming majority of the consumer base.

Despite the recent trend for gender neutrality on the catwalk, behind the scenes female designers are still outnumbered. For the Spring/Summer 2017 fashion week season, which kicked off with New York Fashion Week this Thursday, BoF has analysed the womenswear brands showing across New York, London, Milan and Paris fashion weeks. Our findings show that there are more male designers creating clothing for women than there are women.

Of the 371 designers helming the 313 brands surveyed by BoF across the four fashion weeks, only 40.2 percent are female. This gender imbalance is not equally weighted across the different cities either. New York and London, where the fashion week schedule skews to younger, more emerging brands, have the highest proportion of female designers, with women accounting for 47.3 percent and 40.5 percent of designers respectively.

Paris and Milan, often considered the most traditional fashion weeks, where many of the oldest and most prestigious brands show, have the lowest proportion of female designers. At Paris Fashion Week, 37 percent of designers are female, while Milan is the least gender diverse city, with women accounting for just 31 percent of designers.

“Women unfortunately are still seen as a minority,” says Julie de Libran, artistic director of Sonia Rykiel. “Even if certain fashion houses were created by women at their time, today they often have creative leaders that are men.”

Indeed, women are even less well represented amongst the most established fashion houses. Prior to Maria Grazia Chiuri’s appointment as artistic director at Dior this June, just three of LVMH’s 15 fashion and luxury brands were headed by female designers: Phoebe Philo at Céline, Carol Lim at Kenzo and Florence Torrens at Thomas Pink. (Danielle Sherman stepped down from her role as creative director of Edun in May this year.) Amongst ‘s luxury fashion brands, Stella McCartney and Sarah Burton of Alexander McQueen are the only two leading female designers.

Even if certain fashion houses were created by women at their time, today they often have creative leaders that are men.

The lack of female leadership is striking, given that women account for the majority of those entering the workforce, often dominating brands’ entry-level creative positions and fashion schools’ student bodies. (In 2014, 85 percent of students who enrolled at New York’s Fashion Institute of Technology were female.)

“There’s a huge amount of women that all those [fashion] companies are run by, it just seems to be that there’s a smaller amount of them running at the [very] top,” says designer Phoebe English, whose eponymous five-year-old label shows at London Fashion Week. “Women are getting jobs, they just seem to not be in the bigger roles.”

So what is stopping women from rising to the top? Some see a correlation between the lack of female designers leading top brands and men’s dominance of senior executive positions. Last year, a BoF survey of 50 major fashion brands revealed that just 14 percent were run by a woman. “It is an industry mostly directed by men making these choices…and when the choice is between a man and a woman, the man always comes first,” says de Libran. “Men need to give more women a chance to carry these roles.”

As is the case across many industries, the expectations of motherhood and childcare, which even today remain primarily a female responsibility, continue to create barriers to female success in fashion.

“Increasingly careers are requiring long work hours and being available all of the time,” says Dr. Allyson Stokes, assistant professor at the University of Waterloo’s department of Knowledge Integration. “And [these expectations of commitment] seem to be intensified in cultural industries… There is an overwhelming idea of the artist being all-consumed and loving what they do so much that they don’t mind committing 24/7.”

Indeed, the unforgiving schedule of the creative director is well documented, and many designers have spoken about the difficulty of maintaining a work-life balance while helming a major fashion brand. Juggling this commitment with a family adds an extra ball into the mix. “Women take on many roles, and wear many hats. They’re wives, they’re mothers,” says designer . “I raised two daughters and ran my own company and designed and tried to keep people employed… I didn’t feel like there was a lot of time in my life to squeeze everything in.”

Designers are often appointed to the head of a brand around the same age that many women are dedicating increased time to their personal life, adds Moira Benigson, managing partner of specialist executive search firm The MBS Group. “Usually the creative director is between the age of 30 to 45. That’s the time, traditionally, that women are getting married and perhaps want to start a family – and it makes it completely prohibitive to do that if you are doing one of those gruelling jobs.”

When the talent is crucial to a brand’s success, however, companies can go out of their way to meet a designer’s needs. Phoebe Philo relocated Céline’s studio from Paris to London – where she lives with her husband and three children – when she took on the role of creative director, and in 2012, the brand cancelled its Autumn/Winter 2012 runway show to ease pressure off the then-heavily pregnant Philo, a gesture of Céline’s respect for the designer who has helped transform the Parisian house into a star of the LVMH portfolio.

Female designers can also face problems of perception. Stokes argues that there is underlying gendered criteria for what makes a “good” fashion designer. Like most artists, fashion designers are valued for originality, autonomy, creativity and being artistically driven, rather than economically minded, she explains. These characteristics are closely linked to ideas like power, independence and dominance – which have typically been more associated with men than women. As a result, often in the media, “men [are] more represented as artistic and original, and women are represented as being less-artistically oriented…[or] having a feminine touch,” Stokes points out. “I don’t think the people writing for Vogue are…necessarily aware of how these criteria like autonomy and original art and authenticity can be gendered, but they’re falling back on these conventional ideas about gender in order to asses the designs.”

“Women need to continue to impose themselves and keep being very active,” says de Libran. Indeed, research across many industries has shown that “men are more vocal in taking risks, they tend to be more bold in asking for raises… They are more likely to go to the boss and ask for a promotion,” says Stokes.

“In school [Central Saint Martins] there were tons of boys who were definitely more confident than I was when studying, and they tended to go towards the bigger, more popular fashion houses,” remembers Phoebe English. “I think you do have to be very brave and a risk taker to put yourself up to those positions that are the positions of power in big fashion houses.”

Nonetheless, recent announcements, such as the appointments of Bouchra Jarrar at Lanvin and Maria Grazia Chiuri at Christian Dior – the first time a female designer has led the storied French brand – are a sign for optimism. “Even though the industry is still dominated by men, more female designers are slowly taking on key positions within the industry and that is very refreshing,” says designer Mary Katrantzou, whose eponymous brand shows at London Fashion Week.

The talent has always existed; however female designers are getting recognition and visibility.

Additionally, after years of male designers dominating industry awards, an unprecedented number of young female designers have been recognised in recent seasons. Katrantzou won the 2015 BFC/Vogue Fashion Fund, while Aurora James, creative director of Brother Vellies, was joint winner of the 2015 CFDA/Vogue Fashion and Wanda Nylon’s Johanna Senyk won the 2016 ANDAM Prize.

“I feel like already a change is coming. Looking around London at the current set of emerging designers, they are all predominantly designing for their own sex,” says designer Faustine Steinmetz, one of six female designers to receive BFC NEWGEN funding for this season.

“I am wondering if we have not entered a new cycle, where it is not about gender, it is about the talent the makes the most sense for a brand,” says executive search consultant Floriane de Saint Pierre. “The talent has always existed; however female designers are getting recognition and visibility.”

Related Articles: How Can Fashion Develop More Women Leaders?
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