Are Women Driving Fashion Forward?

It’s still a boys club, so who can reshape the fashion industry?

Fashion has long been perceived as a female dominated industry. Rewind back to the 20th century and women were truly the pioneers of a new movement. They were literally cutting it up and redefining fashion for the new modern, liberated woman.

Coco Chanel one of the most iconic and pioneering female designers from that era – a true visionary, spearheaded the feminist movement of the day by subtly expressing femininity through the liberation of women and the clothes that were to define them. She never overtly defined herself as a feminist yet was influential in designing women’s clothes that were of a “the sports type”. What she did was change the style and made them for women’s bodies; not for men’s eyes.

Like Chanel, many fashion houses at the beginning of the 20th century were started by women for women. The stark reality now is that women for the majority, no longer run them – echoed by Sonia Rykiel artistic director Julie de Libran,“Even if certain fashion houses were created by women at their time, today they often have creative leaders that are men.” With rare exceptions – it’s men that head them with Karl Lagerfeld running Chanel. The role of many leading luxury brands – from Chanel to McQueen – should be about challenging stereotypes. The modern world has advanced dramatically but has it progressed when it comes to role women play within design?

This years 2017 LVMH Prize winner, French designer Marine Serre made a ‘Radical Call For Love’ – presenting only her second collection this year, it was heralded as her break-through moment. As well as a creative comment on recent political events, Marine “projects the combination of 19th century Arabic luxurious garments with corporate sportswear branding aesthetics of the 1990s and 2000 into a futurist oriented fashion.

Also shortlisted for the LVMH Prize this year, British designer Martine Rose brought the fashion world to a climbing wall in Tottenham for her S/S 18 collection. The coveted Menswear designer who had taken a hiatus to design for Balenciaga, made a return to London Menswear this year and has also recently published a limited edition zine, Don Pedro, for her A/W 17 collection, strongly inspired by her local area of Tottenham.

From a consumer perspective, especially in editorial and publishing – fashion is largely perceived as being a female dominated world. Key Fashion magazines, on the whole are run by women (although that’s set to change with Edward Enniful taking the helm of British Vogue this August). The majority of stylists are women – so women seem to appear to be properly represented but elsewhere? When it comes to the top design jobs or top management roles, fashion has barely got off the starting block. Where are the equal opportunities for women? In a female dominated industry – where are the top jobs?

The lack of Senior Figures in the fashion industry is blatant and wins hands-down as the worst performing category with only 25 female CEO’s holding a role – which worryingly was an all-time high. This is not new news. What makes this disturbing reading, is that this was flagged over ten years ago by New York Times writer Eric that “Even though women are entering the industry at the bottom, they are not rising proportionally to the top!”

Dig deeper and start to compare the fashion industry to CEO roles within the Fortune 500 companies and it gets worse. Fashion wins hands-down as the worst category: with only 1.7% of women holding CEO roles in the fashion industry. That is over 2% lower (an already low number to begin with). Refinery 29 recently highlighted that of the 92 shows at the 2016 Paris Fashion Week women’s wear schedule, less than 30 had female creative directors at the helm. A BoF survey amplifies this. Looking across the four fashion weeks: of the 371 designers helming the 313 brands surveyed only 40.2% are female.

Ivy Park, Beyonce’s ‘athleisure’ line a joint venture with UK retailer Topshop operates under the company Parkwood Topshop Athletic Ltd. Awarded the CFDA Fashion Icon award last year, Beyonce has served as CEO of Parkwood Entertainment and is one of the few female entrepreneurs using her platform to reshape the fashion industry. The label is actively promoting a powerful message of self-assurance, confidence, inclusivity and diversity. “Womenswear is a $5bn business for us,” that’s according to CEO of Nike Mark Parker, so it’s no surprise that Beyonce is vying for a chunk of this growing and lucrative market.

Fashion is a huge platform. It has a huge voice. It’s a huge opportunity. The voice needs to be proactively used. With that voice should come a role – a vital role which can and should really make a difference. Why isn’t it being used to more effect? Fashion owes a huge responsibility to both its consumers and employees. Fashion needs to empower women both creatively and commercially. It should not portray them as weak and fragile. The culture needs to change.

Nothing could illustrate this point more powerfully than the male dominated Streetwear sector. Its identity has always been clearly defined by young men involved in a subculture of fashion. Increasingly it is influencing and defining the direction of luxury brands. Streetwear is all about a culture as Edison Chen maintains, “It’s not about clothing.” It’s all about a specific “lifestyle” according to Off White Fashion label founder and Kanye West’s Creative Director Virgil Abloh. Streetwear he concludes is an “art movement and a way of making things”. 

Realistically, whether we like it or not, street culture has been perceived as an exclusive male-only club. However, image consultant, model, and fashion blogger Aleali May believes, “Women have made a huge impact in Streetwear”. Referencing Fruition Co-founders Samantha Jo and Val, she goes on to discuss, “What I admire about these women especially is that they went out and did it all on their own. No assists. Women like that show young women like myself that there are no barriers. It doesn’t matter who you are, how you grew up, or in this case what gender you are”.

Interestingly May is upbeat about the future role that women can and will play a part in shaping the industry, she thinks, “The future role is limitless. I used to hear in general business; there is a glass ceiling for women. And there have been so many women to prove that statement to be false. Women are taking over. I think the biggest cause of that might be the fact that it is also a time where we are collaborating and supporting one another.”

So what is going on? The fast-paced street wear sector appears to be changing; with women designers now starting to make an impact, in a culture, which was traditionally and predominantly, dominated by the male counterpart both from a design and consumer perspective. Could it be that the fashion industry, in the same way that it’s collections are influenced, is coming full-circle and retracing it’s origins back to some of the industry pioneers ethos?

Melissa Battifarano’s career has spanned over 10 years in fashion industry across menswear, womenswear, activewear and the urban market. Starting out at Eckō, designing for Polo, Champion and Fila and currently the Design Director for Rihanna’s hugely successful Fenty x Puma collaboration, Battifarano’s view on streetwear is broad -“What even is streetwear anymore? Is it Stussy? It’s such an overarching term that it’s hard to actually define streetwear. Is Public School streetwear? Is Kith streetwear? It’s really fashion. It’s just fashion.” When it comes to women in the fashion industry, “women still have to fight 10 times as hard I think” says Battifarano.

Well known in the streetwear design scene, Erin Magee is director of development and special projects for Supreme. Bucking the trend, and identifying a lack of design for women by women, Magee took a stand “after working in men’s wear for many years, I wanted to provide something for girls like me”, so launched MadeMe in 2007.

Male and female design duo Celine Kreis and Suman Gurung support the view that the streetwear industry is lacking attention to women’s wear. “There is a huge gap in the market for a predominantly women’s wear focused streetwear brand — especially one that really thinks and considers the woman’s body and form.”

Whilst these are all positive steps and women’s streetwear is growing it’s still obvious that there are key brands moving forward led by male designers and directors. Brashy Studios Brothers Jacob and Axel launched their brand because “there was and is a creative opportunity in creating a new women’s streetwear line not present in the men’s market. For us, streetwear should incorporate something of an anti-establishment ethos”. 

Designing for the female market is lucrative – men are cashing in on the newly flourishing women’s sector, but are enough women taking advantage of the upward trend? Nicki Minaj had a few choice words for the industry during this weekend at the New York Fashion Week afterparty.

“Designers get really big and really rich off of our culture, and then you don’t see a motherfucker that look anything like us in the front row half the time.” – Nicki Minaj at NYFW18