Clothing The Gender Gap – A critical analysis of fashion in the third millennium

“I would like to think that a good design speaks for itself. When we use our senses, whether it’s taste, sight or hearing, for example, we don’t first think, hmm, was this chef a woman? Or, was this music performed by a man? Hopefully, we have evolved enough not to judge these things first through a sexist or ageist prism, but through the strength and merit of design.”

For many industries today, closing the gender gap is one of the biggest and often most heavily publicised challenges faced. Debate rages in the media as to the why’s and wherefores of the apparent over or under representation of a particular gender group within various non-creative sectors. The fashion industry in particular, known for its economic dominance across all creative sectors bares no exception. Kate Hart trend forecaster and wave-maker, assesses the ‘spill over’ effects of gender inequality in fashion and makes a strong case for an industry wide reassessment to adopt egalitarian approaches which embrace gender diversity from the-bottom-up.


Fashion’s ‘Glass Ceiling’

One would imagine that creative industries and perhaps the women’s fashion industry in particular, with it’s reputation as an enterprising and avant-garde platform would be swifter and more effective in embracing inclusivity and equality, affording comparable if not increased opportunities to create, build and grow a successful business or brand on a relatively gender-neutral playing field.

Across the board – at least for the most part – this would seem to be the case. The fields of photography, styling, beauty and the fashion media, though often not without a more dominant gender, appear to properly represent both men and women who can expect to achieve an equitable level of success.


Nevertheless it is in the major fashion houses, the places that arguably earn its chief incumbents more column inches, more status and more financial rewards that have come under the most scrutiny.

Critics argue that an apparent ‘glass ceiling’ is causing a dearth of female designers in prominent positions, whose goals of ‘breaking into thebig time’ have increasingly been met with low levels of visibility and acknowledgement. Although the above quote from Linda Fargo (senior vice president and fashion director of Bergdorf Goodman) sets out a standard, whereby design merit holds sway over the designer’s identity. We ask ourselves is this really achievable in an industry that often places as much emphasis on the names and faces of the creators as the creations themselves? With an apparent lack of equality within the upper echelons of the industry, will women begin to feel that they no longer have a place and encouraged to remain consumer rather than designer?


The male designer – from obscurity to prominence

Though women have held positions of prominence throughout fashion’s history, they have rarely been the dominant force. The pre-war era was a golden age for female couturiers when ‘dressmaking’, even at the highest levels, was viewed as very much a female preserve and male couturiers were something of a novelty. Despite the emancipation of women during World War II, the post war era saw female fashion designers become the exception, not the rule. Male designers such as Christian Dior rose to prominence with the translation of traditional menswear roles such as tailoring, drapery and pattern cutting into womenswear, dominating both the creative and technical sides of the industry.

Coco chanel

Gabriel “Coco” Chanel – Lipnitzki/Roger Viollet/Getty Images

For instance Chanel, founded by arguably the most famous woman in fashion, Coco Chanel and one who was among the first to expound the concept of clothing created by women for women, has not had a female designer since her death in 1971. Others, such as Dior, Givenchy, Saint Laurent and Burberry have never had a woman designer at the helm.

After Giannini’s abrupt departure from Gucci, Maria Grazia Chiuri was the only female name on an otherwise all male shortlist of potential replacements, with the role finally awarded to Alessandro Michele. Simone Rocha was considered, albeit fleetingly, for the creative directorship at Carven but the label ultimately hired Alexis Martial and Adrien Caillaudaud.


Old habits die-hard

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The implication is that only a house that already has a long established history of employing female designers is inclined to continue to do so. Céline is one house that has employed an equitable mix of male and female designers since it’s creation by Céline Vipiana (who remained chief designer until 1997) and it was the appointment of designer Phoebe Philo in 2008 that not only revived the fortunes of a then ailing brand but also saw a woman make a serious impact in the fashion press.

Philo’s move to Céline followed a five-year tenure at Chloé, a label that has also maintained strong female representation throughout its history. Founded by Gaby Aghion in 1952, its role call to date includes Martine Sitbon, Stella McCartney, Hannah MacGibbon and current incumbent Claire Waight Keller.

Hermès is another house that has a history of women at the helm and this years’ appointment of Nadège Vanhee-Cybulski follows Lola Prusac (1925-1935) and Catherine de Karolyi (1967-1980 the designer behind the iconic ‘H buckle’) while the menswear line has been directed by Véronique Nichanian since 1988.

Celine show

Celine ready to wear SS 2014


Role reversal – women in menswear

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Conceivably any under representation in the womenswear sector would be less contentious if women were discernibly making strides into the menswear arena. The menswear sector is in a state of flux with more brands and retailers expanding into an area which, according to market researchers Euromonitor International, generated an estimated US$440 billion worth of sales in 2014, forecasted to contribute an estimated US$40 billion to the global apparel market by 2019 outperforming womenswear in terms of growth. In many respects it should follow that if men can be such a dominant presence in womenswear then the gender split of designers and creative directors would be similar when the roles are reversed. However the increase in new opportunities has not seen a corresponding increase in the number of women in leading menswear roles.  Although designers such as Rachel Comey and Jayne Min produced well-received collections for the menswear A/W 2015 calendar, out of 163 shows, 135 were designed by men.


Givenchy AW 2015


Givenchy images

Moschino SS 2015


Uneven tides – disproportional representation

While it could be argued that many of these figures do not necessarily present a case for gender bias because they simply reflect the current ratio of male to female designers working at the highest level, it does not answer the question as to why (despite the calibre of Miuccia Prada, Stella McCartney, Tory Burch and Donatella Versace et al), so few are prevailed upon to design for major labels. All are highly regarded as both designers and businesswomen and Prada is widely considered to be one of the most influential designers of her generation.

The argument that there are significantly fewer women to choose from for these positions is being rendered as somewhat flimsy. In fact there are significantly more women entering the industry now than ever before. As far back as 2005 Timothy Gunn, Department Chairman at the Parsons New School for Design in New York stated that a steady decline in the numbers of male applicants saw them make up less than 7% of the student body. That same year, Eric Wilson in his New York Times column highlighted the ‘glass ceiling effect’ stating that “even though women are entering the industry at the bottom, they are not rising proportionally to the top.” A decade on and the current figures provided by the Fashion Institute of Technology reveal women make up 85% of the student body, seemingly reinforcing the fact that although women now outnumber men in running their own labels and are well represented at grassroots level, advancing their careers, though by no means impossible, is still considerably a trickier prospect for them than it is for their male counterparts.


Prejudicial perceptions of female leaders

It seems that ‘high fashion’ has not been immune to the preconceived ideas or pervading perceptions of women in both business and creative leadership roles. Women are seen as less ‘pushy’ according to Jeff Banks while Sarah Burton is often described as ‘self effacing’.  Although female designers are no less capable, ambitious or commanding than their male counterparts, management style that differs from the masculine norm is often misconstrued as an absence of authority. Even though giant conglomerates that own many of the leading fashion houses are operated by men, historically women were the first to set this benchmark. Jeanne Paquin, one of the first female couturiers, who followed the 1891 opening of her Parisian fashion house Maison Paquin with stores around the globe and Jeanne Lanvin who diversified her house’s output with furs, lingerie, menswear and interior décor products laying the foundations for the modern fashion empires we know of today. Although these achievements seem to have been forgotten it forms the basis by which woman are perceived to be a lesser attractive proposition for major fashion houses.

Jean Paquin and Jean Lanvin

Photo of Jean Paquin (left) and Jean Lanvin (right)


Press and publicity – the unbalanced coverage

The lack of visibility afforded to female designers also puts them at a disadvantage when vying for these prominent roles and this is in part, due to the lower levels of publicity and acknowledgement bestowed upon them by the industry in comparison to their male colleagues.

The fashion media is an extremely powerful force when it comes to promotion, with their glossy pages responsible for the launches of abundant stellar careers. However back in 2005 Anna Wintour was criticised by ‘Imitation of Christ’s’ Tara Subkoff for appearing to favour ‘young gay male designers’ and featuring them more heavily in Vogue.

Imitation of Christ and Tara

Imitation of Christ AW 2007 (left) Tara Subkoff (right)

Subkoff’s comments were met with both support and condemnation. Many designers leapt to the defence of Wintour, accusing Subkoff of ‘whining’ and citing the number of covers that had featured women designers that year (two by Vera Wang and one by Carolina Herrera). When in actuality, a look at 2014’s selection revealed that just five out of the 15 looks featured on the cover were by women designers.


Industry Awards – The real winners

CFDA Award winners

CFDA Award winners

The industry has a long history in supporting both established and emerging talent with numerous funding initiatives, mentoring programmes and glitzy award ceremonies that honour those deemed to have made the most important contributions to fashion.

However a look at the winner’s statistics at these various ceremonies indicate that women’s contributions may not be considered equitably. Since the CDFA (Council of Fashion designers in America) began awarding a ‘Womenswear Designer of the Year’ prize in 1999:

  • Only 8 of the 27 recipients have been female including female partnerships.
  • 9 out of 21 ‘Emerging Womenswear/Ready-to-wear Talent’ awards went to women (whether singularly or as part of a mixed gender partnership).
  • 4 out of 20 awards have been garnered in the International Designer category.
  • Out the 9 former winners of the CFDA/Vogue Fashion Fund (which provides financial support and business mentoring to the next generation of American designers), only two were women and Donna Karan is the only female designer to have won in the Menswear category as far back as 1992.

The British Fashion Awards fair marginally better with 10 female designers taking home the womenswear prize compared to the 18 awarded to men, with only one woman, Mary Katrantzou, winner of the British Fashion Council (BFC)/Vogue Fashion Fund since its inception.


Misconceptions of who makes a better designer

One explanation offered for this lack of recognition is the way in which women and men approach fashion design. Broadly speaking a male aesthetic of extravagant shows and fantastical editorial worthy creations, akin to art is a more appealing prospect to the fashion press.

Designers have waded into this debate with Michael Vollbracht of Bill Blass asserting that ‘male designers have the fantasy level that women do not’, while Tom Ford believes that ‘sometimes women are trapped by their own views of themselves, but some have built careers around that, Donna Karan was obsessed with her hips and used her own idiosyncrasies to define her brand’.

Quote 6 Gender equality articleWhile it may be the case that female designers have lived the lives of their customers and able to fulfil everyday fashion needs, this generalised view that women focus on practicality and men on fantasy serves to pigeonhole both sexes and neglects the work of those who do not follow this pre-prescribed formula. The surrealist designs of Elsa Schiaparelli, the deconstructed chic of Rei Kawakuba or Yves Saint Laurent’s empowering take on the trouser suit being a fraction of the exemplars that negate much of that argument. Ford’s further and somewhat unsubstantiated claim that ‘men are often better designers for women than other women’ is the antithesis of the approach taken by the consumer-driven retail sector. Nonetheless the perception of a more empathetic outlook as a means to engage with their target audience has seen a much larger percentage of women appointed to key roles. Diane von Furstenberg stated ‘Women do not need muses….they are their own muses’ and the idea that a woman is better placed to identify not just what to sell to other women but how to sell is eagerly embraced at high street level.


The gender ratios in the retail sector

Topshop’s recent appointments of Jacqui Markham as Global Design Director and Creative Director Kate Phelan, along with Lisa Byrne who heads up the design direction at Warehouse and Kate Bostock who has held senior posts at Marks & Spencer, now Chief Executive at Coast, suggests that women are able to attain visible positions amongst their peers within the retail sector. The ratio of male to female designers invited to create collaborative collections also suggests that the ease with which the customer can relate to a designer and their profile level are equally important. H&M, River Island and Target’s Go International programme yields an approximately 50/50 gender split made up of emerging and established names. At every level of the fashion industry trends are inescapable and despite Ford’s assertions, women’s changing lifestyles in combination with current economic factors is shifting fashion’s focus away from couture towards ready-to-wear. If the prevailing male/female designer stereotypes are to be given any credence, then broadly speaking this shift would seem to favour the ‘female’ notion of fashion far more. In this respect the retail sector may have it’s finger much more firmly on the fashion pulse than the major fashion houses when it comes to reacting to the needs and wants of the female consumer and appointing it’s leaders accordingly.

A tendency to dismiss more ‘wearable’ forms of fashion as too practical or somehow not spectacular enough to warrant attention is arguably short-sighted. Failing to consider that over the course of fashion’s history it has been some of the simplest garments (for example the trouser suit, mini skirt or wrap dress) that have often had the most profound impact.

Needless to say, one ‘type’ of fashion cannot exist without the other for very long and for every wearable element there must be a hand beaded objet d’art or gravity defying dress in order to maintain the status of fashion as both inspirational and aspirational and to satisfy the creative/business aspects of the industry.


Fashion’s strides towards an equitable future

In terms of gender bias, the pendulum will always swing in favour of one or the other gender over time as designers react to fashion’s changing moods but the longer term goals must be to attain more equitable levels of visibility and opportunity throughout. Women are seemingly trapped by a ‘glass ceiling’ while considerably fewer men are now entering the industry, which serves to associate fashion with an outmoded perception that is increasingly out of step with the rest of society. This is also a cause for concern when the over or under representation of any particular group can mean that vital contributions are lost or that differing points of views go unheard.

Creative forums thrive on inclusivity and are enriched and enlivened by having as many different design propositions from as many diverse sources as possible. With an already diverse group of players, the fashion industry is in a prime position to set an example and take a leading role in the fight for equality, bringing us a step closer to the day, as Linda Fargo states, when every design is judged solely on its attributes rather than the gender attributes of its creator.



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