The Rise and Rise of Influential Female Designers

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Diane von Furstenberg FW16
Diane von Furstenberg surrounded by models celebrating her Fall/Winter 2016 collection | Photo: Courtesy of Getty Images

For decades, the fashion industry has been dominated by men. Even in the event that a major house was launched by a woman, a man was eventually assigned to assume her role. Throughout the 1990s and into the 2000s, names like Alexander, Marc, Karl, and Tom amassed the biggest headlines. This has been the topic of many an op-ed. In 2011, Robin Givhan penned the following in her column for The Daily Beast, “While the fashion business is overwhelmingly for and about women, it always seems that women have the hardest time capturing the imagination of the industry’s king—or queen—makers… [W]hile there seem to be countless young men in the fashion pipeline who have been anointed as the next great designer, the women who are their contemporaries seem to be quietly plugging along, without much fanfare and certainly without the labels of ‘darling’, ‘wunderkind’, or anything else that suggests they have some kind of genius struggling to escape.”

In The New York Times, Eric Wilson stated, “Even though women are entering the industry at the bottom, they are not rising proportionally to the top.” Similarly, Lauren Sherman of Man Repeller asked, “Why Is Fashion, Of All Places, Still a Man’s World?” A-list star Emma Watson accused the fashion industry of racism and sexism in a gender equality video shot for her HeForShe campaign. This is but a small sampling of the concerns raised by the patrons of fashion for the simple reason that it makes little logical sense that so many men are being preferred over women to design… for women. It was Donatella Versace who made the gender design difference radiantly clear, saying ‘‘Male designers work for an ideal woman; female designers work for real women.’’

Donatella Versace
Donatella Versace | Photo: Courtesy of Getty Images

We say this not to suggest that male designers lack merit or skill. On the contrary, in fact. Women have been buying luxury goods from Chanel, Burberry, Louis Vuitton, Dolce & Gabbana, and hundreds of other male-helmed brands for decades. Clearly, the male perspective has contributed largely to the way women dress, but this brings up the question of who we are really dressing for when we buy into someone else’s ideas of beauty and style. On the flip side, there are almost no women who run menswear labels, which is vastly at odds with fashion’s purported stance on gender equality.

It is not only the fact that male designers have long held the most respected stance in the fashion industry, but also the way they choose to present their aesthetic that is a problem. Even in the face of France’s ban on underweight models, Hedi Slimane recently showed his Fall/Winter 2016 collection at Paris Fashion Week on the back of some of the thinnest models we’ve seen in recent memory. Some designers, sadly, regard models as “human coat hangers”. No wonder the fashion industry is so often accused of showcasing an unrealistic image of women.

As a champion of women’s rights, and someone working at a female-led magazine that puts the power of Middle Eastern women front and center on a daily basis, I am happy to report that this conversation is finally changing. The overlooked have become the overbooked, and that is thanks in large part to the indefatigable creativity of women like Stella McCartney, Clare Waight KellerMiuccia PradaPhoebe PhiloSarah BurtonNadège Vanhee-Cybulski, and most recently, Bouchra Jarrar, who was triumphantly named as the new head of Lanvin.

Bouchra Jarrar
Bouchra Jarrar, the new Creative Director of Lanvin | Photo: Courtesy of Getty Images

As consumers, women have unique needs. They require a wardrobe that is versatile, comfortable, and flattering all at the same time (which is why an item like Diane von Furstenberg’s wrap dress was so revolutionary, and now, ubiquitous). Women are engineers, scientists, CEOs, models, mothers, teachers, and heads of state. There is no uniform that addresses the multitudinous needs of the modern woman, but a powerful crop of influential female designers are reaching women at a larger scale than ever before.

Besides the aforementioned industry leaders like Prada and Burton, there are dozens of others who are making an impact on the way we dress. In addition to the big names, there is also Mary Katrantzou, who is taking magical realism into real-world wearable looks, Consuelo Castiglioni of Marni whose radically artistic collections are among the best Milan Fashion Week has to offer, and Julie de Libran who has taken over Sonia Rykiel and transformed it into one of the hippest, most style-savvy labels in Paris. Locally, Madiyah Al Sharqi is updating her regal collections with wearable daywear options, Reemami is taking print work to a new level with creatively adorned, minimalist separates, and Bouguessa has so thoroughly reimagined the abaya that even Beyoncé is buying in.

Consuelo Castiglioni
Consuelo Castiglioni of Marni | Photo: Courtesy of Getty Images

Notably, as women begin to lead the industry, the dominant silhouette is changing. Take a look back at the runways for Spring/Summer 2016 and Fall/Winter 2016. Notice anything? Almost everywhere you see a return to modesty, with high-neck, Edwardian ruffles adorning hundreds of dresses and tops, as well a sprawling variety of longline outerwear. Relaxed shapes are also at the forefront of new silhouette trends, and comfortable, wide-leg trousers and over-wide culottes are contributing to that theme as well. 100% of these looks are effortlessly easy to wear, and – most importantly – undeniably chic.

There has also been a push to include “real” women on the runway and ad campaigns, a movement which is being championed by female and male designers alike. As society continues to change and evolve, we are noticing more diversity and versatility on the runways than ever before – and this fact runs in tandem with the increased amount of diverse hires that major brands are extending to women and people of color.

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