Combing through the racks of any luxury retail establishment will quickly reveal something very unusual. Among the hundreds of designer label carried by Barney’s, Blake or Ikram, most are designed by men despite the fact that so many of the customers are women.
While it’s true that the past few years have seen a resurgence of influential female designers (Phoebe Philo of Céline being one notable example), most luxury labels are helmed by men. This trend in design goes back to the end of World War II and has yet to show any significant signs of reversal.
Before the advent of World War II women like Coco Chanel, Madeleine Vionnet and Elsa Schiaparelli were the most formidable purveyors of high style. The violence that consumed Europe caused the temporary or permanent closing of many of these businesses.
After the war, names such as Cristobal Balenciaga and Christian Dior elegantly passed through everyone’s lips. Today men like Marc Jacobs, Tom Ford, Alber Elbaz, Azzedine Alaïa and Ralph Lauren outnumber their female counterparts in the realm of high fashion.
Why is this the case?
Here are my top three theories on where all the women have gone:
1) Though fashion is a joy and a luxury it is, ultimately, a business. It should be noted that the male designers mentioned above are the directors of companies worth hundreds of millions, even billions of dollars. For centuries, men have had a fundamental mistrust of women’s ability to take charge of finances. These reasons are without merit and based on blatantly sexist notions, but they still prevent female designers from receiving the critical financial backing they require to enter today’s tough market.
2) The fact that women have children frequently works against them in nearly every field. Neither Chanel nor Vionnet nor Schiaparelli ever had children. Since the name of the designer rests above the door, that person is unable to take a significant break of any kind, especially with today’s dizzying fashion schedule. Donna Karan famously finished designing a collection for Anne Klein only days after giving birth to her daughter. There is no maternity leave in fashion, but powerful female designers are beginning to break the rules.
3) Strangely, men have been the definers of what is considered feminine. Male designers sell the world a fantasy through breathtaking runway shows, but the clothes aren’t always the kind that function in the real world. However, that fantasy often receives the most attention. Luxury is a fantasy of sorts and women have just begun to wrestle their aesthetic agency back from men. Women produce clothes that are as dazzling as any man’s, but the fantasy is different. They aren’t dressing a woman up like a doll so much as they are dressing her up in the raw intelligence of her own imagination.