why we need more women in top design positions

As Raf Simons departs Dior, the rumor mill spins at full speed with speculations about who will ascend to one of fashion’s most powerful positions. Here’s why his successor should be a woman.

by Emily Manning
27 October 2015, 4:30pm

Image courtesy Dior

In 1986, activist art collective the Guerrilla Girls published a report card ranking New York's top art galleries based on how many solo shows by a female artist each had mounted that year. The results were pretty dismal (actually, they're still pretty dismal). Let's try the same for fashion.

Combining the top highest grossing luxury brands of 2015 with style.com's most viewed shows of fall/winter 15, a sample list of fashion's top houses leaves us with Louis Vuitton, Hermès, Gucci, Chanel, Prada, Burberry Prorsum, Valentino, Saint Laurent, and Givenchy. Presently, three of these houses are helmed by a woman. In hundreds of years of history, there have been less than ten female creative directors among them -- combined.

On the runway, fashion's most powerful designers are playing with, or outright demolishing, gender. Think of Gucci's bold new direction, or Vivienne Westwood's boys in ballgowns. So off the runway, why is there such a disparity?

Though Raf Simons announced his departure from Christian Dior just five days ago, speculation as to who will take his place in one of the industry's most highly coveted roles has already started swirling. Rumors have ranged from Riccardo Tisci -- who has helmed another LVMH-owned house, Givenchy, for a decade -- to an unknown, following Alessandro Michele's recent success at Gucci. JW Anderson, Proenza Schouler designers Jack McCollough and Lazaro Hernandez, and Erdem Moralioglu have also been propositioned as worthy successors. Among these frequently mentioned power players, only one woman's name has appeared repeatedly: Phoebe Philo.

But as Cathy Horyn points out, the Céline creative director might not be interested in the Dior position at all. Philo isn't presently designing for multiple houses, an attractive quality she shares with Tisci. But she is perhaps more reluctant than Raf -- who frequently made weekend trips back to Antwerp -- to uproot. When the London-based designer and mother assumed creative control of the Parisian house back in 08, London is where she stayed. Surely, Philo isn't the only qualified woman in fashion. So why is she the only woman being widely mentioned in speculative reports by major critics?

Christian Dior's first collection -- a 90-look offering showed in 1947 -- inspired a romantic, ultra-feminine revolution. His structured silhouettes were marked by round shoulders, nipped waists, dramatic busts, emphasized hips, and flowing skirts. Dubbed the "New Look," Dior's earliest designs not only rebelled against World War II utilitarian uniform dressing, they literally gave shape to a new vision of what it meant to be a woman. This legacy has inspired decades of true innovation, from Galliano's lush couture creations to Simons' modernism. And yet, in the house's near 70-year history, a woman has never designed.

Of course, this gender imbalance balance isn't isolated to Dior, or even to Paris' storied couture houses (of the 16 that showed collections during the Spring 15 season, only four are female-led: Atelier Versace, Bouchra Jarrar, Valentino, and smaller Russian house Ulyana Sergeenko). Although women like Sarah Burton, Chitose Abe and Carol Lim -- who direct Alexander McQueen, Sacai and Kenzo presently -- are powerful voices in global fashion, creative director positions are still principally occupied by men. Perhaps it's telling that the industry's most influential female designers -- Rei Kawakubo, Miuccia Prada, and Westwood -- never chose to helm a design house under someone else's name.

This isn't to say that fashion design is completely bereft of women. In fact, they're often over represented in "smaller" positions such as petits mains (literal translation: "tiny hands") -- the impossibly skilled seamstresses who work in couture ateliers. Think of Florence Chehet and Monique Bailly, the two atelier premieres we met (and totally fell in love with) in Simons' recently released documentary Dior and I. Female designers clearly have the same skill, vision, drive and host of other qualities that make great creative directors. So why are they not being given as many chances to express a larger vision?

There could be any number of reasons: a lack of confidence, hesitation on the part of the business decision makers, or even their clothes. "Conventional wisdom has it that female designers make clothes they want to wear, and that male designers make clothes they want to see their dream woman wear; the latter speaking more to fantasy, the former to functionality," Vanessa Friedman conjectured in a recent New York Times piece. "But that's too reductive an explanation, and one that no longer holds true — when it comes to either gender," she argued.

Underrepresentation of women in leadership roles seems to be improving among emerging designers, especially in London. Molly Goddard, Grace Wales Bonner, Ashley Williams, and Phoebe English have followed on from the success of Mary Katrantzou and Simone Rocha. Greater gender equity is found among design duos or collectives like Eckhaus Latta, Sibling, or Area. But there's still a long way to go.

Of the 26 exciting young labels shortlisted for the 2015 LVMH Young Designers Prize, only five are headed up by a lone woman (Astrid Anderson, Ryan Roche, Faustine Steinmetz, Andrea Jiapei Li, and Christelle Kocher) while just three co-creative directed brands that include a female designer (Prize winner Marta Marques of Marques Almeida, Samantha Orley of Orley, and Anais Mac of Jourden). Much like the art world, that's still just 30%.

When it comes to gender, fashion is rewriting or ripping up the rule book. Whoever follows Simons at Dior will no doubt write an exciting new chapter in the house's rich history, but we'd like to see a woman take the lead. Just as it's crucial that women hold top roles in politics, business, technology, or art, it's crucial fashion achieves an equal balance among its highest ranks. 


Text Emily Manning
Image courtesy Dior

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