why london is the best city to be a female designer in 2016

London has the highest number of female designers in fashion, with women leading the charge at some of the most successful and forward-thinking fashion houses in the world. We teamed with Sarah Mower, MBE, ambassador for emerging talent at the British...

by Sarah Mower
16 September 2016, 2:20pm

Let's call it the year of women in power. You know how it is: you can wait a whole lifetime — if you were born in 1990 or later — and never see a woman leading your country, and then, boom overnight it happens. Suddenly, there's British Prime Minister Theresa May shaking hands with Scottish First Minister Nicola Sturgeon, opening negotiations with German Chancellor Angela Merkel and — come November, please god — planning to talk Turkey with American President Hillary Clinton, and I don't mean swapping Thanksgiving recipes. It may seem a stretch to compare this apparently sudden takeover of women leaders with something which is happening in the British fashion industry, but there is a strong parallel. A simple head-count tells the story.

On the London Fashion Week schedule this September, 31 of the 77 designers are female, either businesswomen in their own right, partners in brands, or creative directors working behind brand names. They span many ages and types, but overwhelmingly, it's the youngest who have brought this London reality to critical mass. The roll-call of names within London's NEWGEN and Fashion East programs is the most telling barometer of all: Ashley Williams, Molly Goddard, Faustine Steinmetz, Sadie Williams, Danielle Romeril, Marta Jakubowski, Paula Knorr, Mimi Wade, and Amie Robertson. That's nine girls to only two boys, Ryan Lo and Richard Malone.

As in politics, this apparently sudden breakthrough of the numbers of girls and women in the front ranks of London fashion has been brewing behind the scenes for a long time. The new wave began gradually with Roksanda Ilincic and Mary Katrantzou, and then Simone Rocha and J.JS Lee, picked up momentum with the shoe designers Charlotte Olympia and Sophia Webster, and has since turned into a torrent of names in both ready-to-wear and accessories: Emilia Wickstead, Isa Arfen, Shrimps' Hannah Weiland, Edeline Lee, Roberts-Wood, Anna Laub. Add that list to the established names of London Fashion Week: Anya Hindmarch, Alice Temperley, Amanda Wakeley, and the rise of Hillier Bartley. And then think of the ones who live in London but show in Paris: Stella McCartney, Phoebe Philo of Céline, Sarah Burton of Alexander McQueen — major forces in international fashion.

But why the latest surge in young female entrepreneurial talent in fashion? A huge factor is education. The predominance of exceptionally talented girls who have been streaming out of fashion colleges and starting their own businesses is an exact reflection of the female/male numbers going into the university system. Since 2013, there's been all sorts of journalistic fretting over the fact that females have been outnumbering men at most UK universities. By 2015, women made up more than half the student body in two thirds of subject areas. The girls who are staging the British designer fashion takeover now are exactly the ones who've been beating boys at exams ever since they took their GCSEs.

Naturally though, when you read the press on this, the angle always trawls endlessly over why the education system is failing boys, instead of turning to laud and celebrating girls for their increasingly incredible track record of achievements. Is there something — in a British way — which is almost embarrassing, or too impolite to mention for fear of causing offense, in declaring the fact that so many women have emerged, and are emerging, through London Fashion Week? Or does it feel so normal now, that the women themselves see each other as nothing out of the ordinary, and that we, the onlookers take them for granted?

Well, enough of that. The situation London women and girls have created for themselves today is special and exceptional — as anyone can see if they search Milan, New York, and Paris calendars for female equivalents. If they don't tend to lump themselves together as a movement, there is a reason: they have all met their moment, and their markets, by being specialists and individualists. In a time of saturation of everything, starting by doing one thing very well, and keeping at it, is a way to stand out and get known. Besides, once you own a technique, and build a relationship with a factory, which wants to keep working with you to perfect your product as you create more sales, that's much easier to manage than casting far and wide for different shapes and fabrics every six months.

That's why it's so easy to bring to mind exactly what each of the London women designers do, uniquely. Roksanda Ilincic: graphically vibrant dresses. Mary Katrantzou: mind-bending print. Simone Rocha: subversive lace and broderie anglaise. Molly Goddard: bonkers smocked tulle. Shrimps: fun fur. Marta Jakubowski: elongated tailoring. Charlotte Olympia: pin-up platforms. Sophia Webster: butterfly stilettos. Anna Laub: sophisticated swimwear and sunspecs. Having a personal instinct for something, living it, wearing it, and making other women really want to have a part of it, is the way women designers have become successes in every age — Coco Chanel, Elsa Schiaparelli, Sonia Rykiel, and Donna Karan, not to mention Jean Muir, Zandra Rhodes, and Barbara Hulanicki of Biba.

The young women of today are just the same, but operating in a different time, and with ranks of successful role models in front of them. In times gone by, it might have been more normal for young women to choose to go into jobs behind the scenes in fashion, possibly to drop out when they had children. Since the millennium, that's been changing. Start-ups by British businesswomen have flourished across the board, not just in fashion — in part, a reflection of a very female rejection of regimented corporate strictures on working and running a family. When you're in control, you can figure it all out yourself without someone telling you when to clock in and out. And far from damaging a woman's creative output, motherhood itself can lead onto yet more inspiration, yet more finessing of product, and a bigger and better understanding of what other women are thinking and needing in their lives.

All of these background factors have come together to create a female fashion scene in London, which is quite unlike that in any other fashion capital in the world. We also have a Prime Minister who wore Vivienne Westwood the day that she made her bid to run the country. Like Theresa May or not, that's a very good look for the power of British women in fashion as well as politics.


Text Sarah Mower

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