fashioning a new feminist movement
The fashion world is embracing a new feminist spirit, but how far have we come? One of the industry’s most astute critics for thirty years, Sarah Mower MBE, feels the winds of change.
I have been asked to write about fashion and feminism. A huge responsibility. The obvious place to start is with the Chanel spring/summer 16 ready-to-wear show; Karl Lagerfeld's enactment of a French street 'manifestation' at the Grand Palais. I don't want to begin by mulling over the reactions, which streamed out in its aftermath - I will drown in those arguments before we even get going. What I'd like to do is stand back and look at it from a long perspective. Whatever was said in the heat of that moment, this one thing we should all agree: Mr Lagerfeld has pointed his leather-gloved finger unerringly in the right cultural direction.
At long last, feminism is being talked about again. It is the vast subject which is in our minds, inspiring us, stirring us up, making us feel strong, and inadequate, and conflicted and… despite all of that, hopeful that we might actually be getting somewhere. Where is that somewhere? Whatever else, I am glad I live in a world where FEMEN and Pussy Riot rage against sexism, capitalism and corruption at the risk of brute force and imprisonment, where Beyoncé dances in front of a giant 'FEMINISM' sign, where Emma Watson stands up at the UN and speaks about gender equality as a human right, where Angelina Jolie militates relentlessly against rape as a war crime, and where Jennifer Lawrence attacks her hackers and names them as perpetrators of sexual violence.
I love it that there are Slutwalks. I'm in awe of the new movement of girls who have been raped, who choose to skip victim anonymity and blatantly state, all over social media, what happened to them. I'm not glad we live in a world where it's necessary that any of that has to be said and done. I'm horrified that we live in a world in which women and girls are used as slaves. In a country where children are systematically sexually exploited by men and no one is prosecuted for it. That FGM is practiced anywhere, let alone in Britain. And once I start thinking about that, I am overwhelmed, and I start self-attacking. Call myself a feminist? What am I doing about it? I can't do anything about it. I begin denigrating myself as a not good-enough feminist. And then I turn and argue with myself: why is there something in my brain which still thinks 'feminism' is a club with a jury of other women, which judges and excludes?
I'm big enough now to know that's rubbish. As a feminist, my battlefront can only be what I can change myself: the way I think and act towards the women I know. I can only try to show kindness, understanding, be sisterly, motherly, in my own ways. And that is bloody hard, because we are all working against an internalised enemy.
One of the absolute worst aspects of being conscious today is the ceaseless criticism aimed at women - our looks, our fat, our ageing, our behaviour, our—god knows—breathing next. It contaminates. It drags you in, until you are doing the same thing to others. And in the next second, to yourself. It takes a massive emotional effort, every moment of the day, to kill off that internet-spread virus in our brains.
That is my very long preface to explaining the positive things I see every day in my travels through fashion. I've been in this game long enough to be able to see that a victory has been won by a generation of women in this industry. No one questions a young woman's place in control of a brand or as an independent entrepreneur anymore - in fact, their points of view are sought out, prized, celebrated. Wait a minute - women's ideas used to be questioned, I hear you scream? Oh yes, indeed-y. If you are in your twenties, it was still going on when you were born.
When I started as the Fashion Editor of The Guardian back in the late 80s and early 90s, just a handful of significant women figured: Donna Karan in New York, Miuccia Prada and Jil Sander in Milan, Rei Kawakubo in Tokyo (and Paris) and Vivienne Westwood in London. That was it. I worshipped at the hems of all their garments. As a young fashion reporter, I could scarcely believe my ears when I overheard casually sexist put-downs about them being batted around in the studios of male designers. It honked straight out of the mouth of one particular senior male critic who tried to tell me what was what: "Oh my dear," he opined, stroking his beard. "The difference between women and men as designers is that women only really design for themselves." Only male designers could be 'visionary'. What?
Besides that - and this was explained sotto voce by managers in business-suits - women have babies, you see. It was just too dicey to employ them. They'd really never stand the course. What dicks, I thought. Do they really feel that threatened? Well, see how things have turned now! In 2015, not only are Miuccia, Rei, Donna and Vivienne still up there - goddesses of our times - but the landscape of fashion is now fully populated by female achievers. Creative directors, entrepreneurs and up-and-coming names of fearless girls with nascent businesses are all over the place. More and more and more. Let's hear the roll-call: Phoebe Philo, Stella McCartney, Sarah Burton, Clare Waight Keller, Roksanda Ilincic, Mary Katrantzou, Simone Rocha, Victoria Beckham, the Olsens at The Row, and Luella Bartley and Katie Hillier at Marc by Marc Jacobs.
In London, where I observe the changing nature of talent rising as chair of the NEWGEN committee, the latest cohort of designers with ideas and the will to push them is, as it happens, one hundred percent female: Faustine Steinmetz, Ashley Williams, Claire Barrow, Sadie Williams, Molly Goddard, Marta Jakubowski, Caitlin Price, Sophia Webster. Add in the ambitious leaders of their own brands: Hannah Weiland of Shrimps, Samantha McCoach of Le Kilt and Charlie May, girls who are maybe fired up by the business path beaten by the brilliant Anya Hindmarch. Ha! Women designing for themselves - ourselves - hasn't turned out to be such a bad thing, no? Fear of females, and our instincts, and our humour, and our annoying habit of having children, has melted clean away in the fashion industry now. Not without a behind-the-lines fight. Credit for that gain - a historical turning-point lies at the feet of one woman, a girl who started as a Central Saint Martins intern, became an assistant, was picked as a brand director, made a massive success of it, and then, effectively, went on strike to be a mother.
I refer, of course, to Phoebe Philo, the quiet revolutionary, who reset the agenda by making the management powers-that-be understand that she could only be creative by taking her personal life, and her privacy, into consideration. I love the way she did that: bringing a whole generation with her, with her knack for the girl-thing at Chloé in the 00s, walking away from fame to make her family, then taking her own good time and to choose to come back at Céline as a fully-fledged woman with a woman's point of view. Which the world of women really was waiting for.
Phoebe and her cohort of women designers really did change the employment atmosphere behind the lines in the fashion industry, and they're pulling young women up behind them. Dick-thinking up there in corporate management is truly obsolete now. Talent is talent, and only idiots can regard it as apportioned along gender lines.
Where fashion companies fail - be it high street or high luxury - it's where they're institutionally deaf to women and how we're living: teenagers, young women, middle-aged women. Obvs, you'd think? Bad luck to those who haven't promoted executives who are sensitive to instinct, to management boards and financial people who underestimate anything about how we all carry on, talking to ourselves, to each other, and privately, in our heads. Where things are getting better for women on the fashion front, it's being achieved by increments, quietly, stubbornly, practically, humorously, imaginatively. That is all I have to say about what I know from long experience, and watching, with delight, how new generations of girls are rising in fashion with a confidence none of us had in the 80s. That's progress. It has nothing to do with marching in streets with feminist placards. But all the same, ladies: job done.
Sarah Mower MBE is Contributing Editor at American Vogue, Ambassador for Emerging Talent at the British Fashion Council, and chair of London Fashion Week's NEWGEN committee.
Text Sarah Mower