The High Fashion Food Chain: Gender Inequality in the Design World
High fashion labels have always catered to powerful, independent women. It comes as a surprise, therefore, that in an industry so dependent on a female consumer base, men head most major high fashion and couture labels. Karl Lagerfeld, for instance, has held the reigns at Chanel for over thirty years and Dior and Louis Vuitton have never had a woman as creative director.
So why are there so few women at the helm of major high fashion brands? While the likes of Diane von Furstenberg or Miuccia Prada have firmly established their place in the upper echelons of the fashion world through the continued successes of their own brands, statistically speaking, older, established labels have been less inclined to support qualified and talented female designers. Male colleagues are chosen in their place, under the assumption that they can contribute something fresh and new to the brand that female designers are incapable of bringing to the table.
Many of the most lauded young and emerging designers are predominantly male as well, such as Public School designers Maxwell Osborne and Dao-Yi Chow, who were recently installed as DKNY’s new creative design team. A visible tension has emerged between “those who feel they are discriminated against and those who feel somewhat favored by a perception, largely unexamined, that men are better designers than women, and gay men are the best designers of all” (New York Times).
Despite the fact that these successful male fashion designers have an acute understanding of the female form, it’s impossible to ignore the fact that “when the majority of these products are designed by teams of men, how can they properly meet the needs of women?” (Morrama). For a long time, consumers and members of the fashion industry have adhered to the belief that woman want men to tell them what to wear, and it appears as if this mentality has contributed to gender inequality and disparities in the high fashion and design workforce. Designer Tom Ford famously attributed the success of male designers over their female counterparts to their objectivity; “we don’t come with the baggage of hating certain parts of our bodies” (DailyLife). Bill Blass designer, Michael Volbracht’s ignorant claim “women are confused about who they want to be. I believe that male designers have the fantasy level that women do not” also comes to mind (New York Times).
The notion that women are inherently trapped by their own conceptions of themselves and that these insecurities inhibit their capacity to be creative is clearly flawed. One only has to reference the ethereal, inventive and imaginative designs of Iris van Herpen, Simone Rocha or Ulyana Sergeenko for inspiration. Clearly, the problem of systemic inequality in the fashion industry stems not from a lack of creativity and confidence on the behalf of female designers, but from a lack of visibility, the notion that women are threatened by the successes of other women and the misconception that women involved in the fashion industry are vapid and materialistic (Forbes).
Unsurprisingly, the need for role models to motivate young, female designers to enter the field is at an all time high. The burden thus falls on industry leaders in the fields of fashion journalism, design and marketing as well as consumers to seek out and foster the potential of talented young women in the industry and encourage gender equality in the workforce.
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