Feminism was most definitely one of 2015’s ‘buzz’ words. From Emma Watson’s heforshe campaign, to the tabloid frenzy that surrounded Charlotte Proudman, to the release of Suffragette in October, everyone’s been talking about the fight for gender equality and the status of women today.
One particular area of concern for a lot of people is the inequality right at the top of our society. The equal pay portal notes how at the top-level of earners, the gender pay gap is 54.95%! But it’s not just in pay that disproportion is clear… there are, quite simply, far less women in top jobs than there are men. From the House of Commons (think the rise of the Women’s Equality Party) to the hills of Hollywood (only 7% of the top 250 films of 2014 were directed by women), the lack of women in high powered positions has taken centre stage in the public conversation on gender equality. The shockingly low number of women working in STEM (link) in the UK has, amongst other things, been attributed to a kind of gender bias in that Science, Technology and Engineering etc. are simply not ‘girly’ subjects. Yet, when considering the underrepresentation of women it is also worth remembering that this phenomenon is not confined to more traditionally masculine industries.
As we embark upon a new year I want to consider the lack of women in top jobs in arguably one of the most ‘feminine’ industries of all, fashion. People might well assume that women rule the world of fashion. Thanks to the media, it’s easy to assume that most senior fashion jobs are filled with terrifying Meryl-Streep-in-The-Devil-Wears-Prada-eque ladies. And yet, if you take a look back at the goings on at the top end of the fashion industry over the previous year, a picture starts to form. And one thing’s for sure, there ain’t many women in it.
There were 91 brands showing at Paris Fashion week last year and less than 20% of those had female creative directors. A quick glance at all the major fashion houses will tell you how few women are actually making the executive decisions about what trends the women of the world will pour over online and in magazines, follow, buy into, recreate. These big fashion houses make a sizable majority of their profits from their women’s wear and yet by and large, they have men at the helm.
2015 saw three of the biggest names in fashion depart from their positions; Alexander Wang announced his resignation from the helm of Balenciaga in July and in October Raf Simmons left Dior’s Women’s Collection and Alber Ebaz left Lanvin after fourteen years.
This exodus of creative directors has left space at the top, but whether women will fill these roles is another matter all together. The established, old-school couture houses are run predominantly by men, there has never even been a woman designing at Dior. Interestingly, some of fashion’s most successful female designers have chosen to work under their own names- Vivienne Westwood, Stella McCartney- rather than at one of the top luxury brands.
The common perception is that women design clothes they would want to wear whereas men design clothes they would want their fantasy woman to wear; herein lies a telltale sign into the success of certain brands. The modern woman wants to look exceedingly stylish, but they also want comfort and practicality. Phoebe Philo’s work at Celine has been a huge success both critically and commercially for precisely this reason. Philo’s designs are beautiful and chic but also useful. Her understated pieces are especially popular with the ‘workingwoman’- a savvy business move when you consider which type of modern women generally have the money to spend on high end designer goods- because they have a utilitarian feel. Celine offers clothes that are wearable and translate from catwalk to everyday life seamlessly (see Celine SS2015 on the right).
That’s not to say that Philo operates in a vacuum, hugely successful female creative directors include Sarah Burton at Alexander McQueen, Rei Kawakubo at Comme des Garçons and Carol Lim at Kenzo. However the success of these women are a rarity rather than a norm in the industry and all things considered, to readdress the gender imbalance could only be a good thing. As I previously mentioned, there’s a surplus of women in lower industry jobs, from the vast number of seamstresses working in the ateliers to the women working in ‘in-house’ marketing positions.
Yet it is only the creative director who can truly shape a brand’s aesthetic, and if there were more women designing clothes for women, then logic would have it that that there would be even more on the market that genuinely responds to female needs and desires. Designers that do exceptionally well are often credited with truly understanding women (think Roland Mouret’s Galaxy dress) in a way that other fashion houses do not. Yet I am not trying to suggest that there should only be women designing women’s wear, on the contrary, I want to suggest that the egalitarian nature of fashion should be embraced by those who ultimately decide which creative directors to instate.
Fashion has always been one of the most fundamental ways in which society expresses its most revolutionary aspects, from the mini skirts of the sixties to the sexy excesses of 90’s Versace, the fashion industry revels in zeitgeist. In an increasingly varied, melange, integrated and open world, would it not be best to have as many different influences as possible? Women and minorities are finally being embraced in every aspect of Western life and yet it is becoming increasingly apparent that the fashion industry needs to catch up if it wants to maintain its innovative reputation.
Fashion has always been a forward thinking, liberal industry that refuses restriction of every kind and yet this lack of female creative direction itself imposes limitations upon what is conceivably possible. Creative genius knows no bounds and if more women were given the chance to shape the future of a giant historical fashion house then who knows what other doors could be opened. The more varied the ‘type’ of person making executive decisions are, the more diverse the results will become. The boundaries the fashion industry always revelled in testing can be re-imagined, pushed even further, and results beyond our wildest dreams subsequently come into fruition. The clothes of the millennium have become increasingly androgynous; fashion today explodes gender norms and is constantly in the process of ‘re-writing’ the rules. Having a more equal balance of input from both genders makes for a multifarious industry all together.
Jaden Smith has become the poster boy for a new, genderless kind of fashion and just this month he has been announced as the brand new face of Louis Vuitton’s women’s wear campaign- shot by creative director Nicholas Ghesquiere- where he is pictured wearing a skirt and posing with female models (see left).
Whilst one might rejoice in this this apparent industry move even further towards an androgynous conception of fashion, such public declarations need to have affect on the inside of the fashion business too. Fashion is all about smashing up conventions and in 2016 it’s now time to throw the tradition of appointing predominantly male creative directors out with the old, so that we might make way for the new.