In the ‘Linkiesta’ Podcast curated by Giuliana Matarrese, titled “The Fashion Theory”, we delved into the reasons behind the significant scarcity of women at the top of Fashion Houses.
From the contributions of iconic figures like Madeleine Vionnet, Jeanne Lanvin, Miuccia Prada, Elsa Schiaparelli, Phoebe Philo, Rei Kawakubo, and many others, significant roles played by women in fashion have always emerged. However, we pose the question: why is it so challenging to find artistic directors in fashion houses today?
Contrary to the mistaken and recently historical idea that a white man is the only or the best candidate for the position of a fashion Maison designer, we examine the past and discover that many women have significantly contributed to defining the fashion of their time. The current lack of women in creative roles is a topic of discussion in the industry, but it is crucial to go beyond were popular indignation and delve into the reasons for this disparity.
Exploring the statistics of major fashion schools, we notice that the majority of students are women. However, in the business world, women have a limited presence at the top of fashion houses. This gap highlights the need for an in-depth examination of the transformation that has led from a significant presence of women designers to an almost absence in leadership roles.
Analyzing major fashion conglomerates like Kering and LVMH, we observe a predominance of white male designers in their lists of creative personnel. This, despite most students in fashion schools being women. This contrast raises questions about the real inclusivity and representation within the most prestigious fashion companies.
Beyond these data, innovative initiatives are emerging in contemporary fashion schools. For example, at Naba, collectives and new approaches to fashion are being formed that reflect the values and needs of contemporary society, highlighting the need for changes in work models and roles within the industry.
Current exhibitions, such as “Ann Lowe: American Couturier,” “Iris van Herpen: Sculpting Senses,” and “Women Dressing Women” at the Met, seek to bring to light the stories of women who have significantly contributed to fashion, often remaining in the shadows.
In particular, the exhibition at the MET focuses on the almost unknown Adèle Henriette Nigrin, married to Fortuny. In the sumptuous Venetian palace, Adèle Henriette Nigrin in Fortuny, together with her husband, stands among the pioneers of modern fashion, managing the atelier not only nominally but also practically, experimenting with pigments and collaborating with him to invent a fabric pleating machine (patented in 1909 by the National Institute of Industrial Property in Paris).
However, what was not known to everyone is that Delphos dress, unanimously considered a masterpiece and exhibited at the Museum of Modern Art in New York in 2003, was not created by Mariano but by Adele.
In a handwritten letter on the patent copy, preserved at the National Marciana Library in Venice, Fortuny himself writes: “This patent is the property of Henriette Brassart, who is the inventor. I registered the patent in my name due to urgency.” This situation occurred because women, both today and yesterday, face significant difficulties in obtaining patents, as highlighted by the 2022 study “Women’s Participation in inventive activity” by the European Patent Office. If the current situation remains dramatic, it is easy to imagine that in 1907, registering an invention in a woman‘s name seemed like an impossible feat, so much so that Mariano Fortuny preferred to claim paternity of the invention.
This extraordinary dress, designed for teatime and inspired by the attire of the Auriga of Delphi, an ancient statue from ancient Greece found in the Sanctuary of Delphi dedicated to Apollo, embodied a genuine engineering miracle of the time. The secret of the pleating of this dress involved the skillful use of heat and pressure in combination with the use of ceramic wands. Moreover, Murano glass beads, threaded on a silk cord and positioned along both side seams, not only served a decorative function but also contributed to giving weight to the dress, ensuring optimal wearability.
More well-known, however, is the story and impact on the female world of Coco Chanel born in poverty and immediately orphaned, Gabrielle had the innovative idea of using jersey, a fabric commonly associated with underwear, to create casual women’s clothing.
This allowed women to participate in sports activities comfortably, recognizing the importance of physical activity for health in the twenties. Elsa Schiaparelli, of bourgeois and intellectual origin, faced the abrupt severance of access to family funds after divorcing Count William de Wendt de Kerlor, her husband. Undertaking occasional work to support her fragile daughter, Elsa joined the surrealist circle with figures like Man Ray and Duchamp.
From this experience came the idea of creating a golf sweater with a trompe-l’œil bow tie (drawn, not real), bringing renowned art and artistic movements into fashion. This almost subversive gesture was positively received by the intellectual elite of the time, including Anita Loos, the screenwriter of “Gentlemen Prefer Blondes,” who wore the sweater for her breakfasts at the Ritz. Elsa’s creative freedom was in tune with her time, recording and exalting it. Regarding Jeanne Lanvin another symbolic figure of her time, who dedicated her life to her daughter from her first marriage and built a unique aesthetic around her, today, we remember the “robe de style.” This dress, with a boat neckline, short sleeves, low waist, and wide skirt, represents a feminist and more inclusive version of the flapper dress of the twenties, suitable not only for androgynous physiques.
Jeanne Lanvin, for example, used her bond with her daughter to transform remote inspirations into dresses that found immediate resonance in everyday life. This ability, historically associated with women in fashion, paved the way for influential contemporary figures like Maria Grazia Chiuri, Stella McCartney, and Phoebe Philo.
Christian Dior, celebrated for the revolutionary New Look, introduced a style that, despite its visual beauty, set women back fifty years, limiting freedom of movement. In contrast, Chanel, Jeanne Lanvin, and Madeleine Vionnet, with her famous “bias cut,” offered more comfortable and liberating alternatives. Vionnet’s bias cut, popularized by John Galliano, gives elasticity to the dresses, allowing women to move with ease and dance.
Madeleine Vionnet not only revolutionized fashion but also created a company that promoted the rights of its employees, exclusively women. Her socialist vision translated into comfortable chairs for workers, a nursery, company canteen, and free medical services, marking 1922 with a progressive perspective.
In the wake of Vionnet, Madame Grès dedicated herself to draping, influencing successive generations. In Italy, Germana Marucelli, the “Italian Christian Dior,” anticipated trends by a few years, contributing significantly to Made in Italy. In 1946, instead of presenting in Paris as was customary, she chose to stay in Milan, collaborating with important intellectuals and engaging in a dialogue with artists like Pietro Zuffi. In 1950, with the “Giovedì di Germana” (Germana’s Thursdays), she promoted weekly meetings with different speakers, offering a comprehensive view of the spirit of the time.
Despite the comparable talent of women in modern design offices, the difficulty in reaching leadership positions, such as creative director, raises questions about the persistence of gender disparities.
However, the question remains: why, despite highly qualified women, do they find it challenging to reach creative leadership roles? Vanessa Friedman of the New York Times highlights the issue of “Fashion’s Groupthink” and the challenges women face when it comes to advancing in the creative career. The lack of female representation in decision-making positions and biases against female candidates underscore the need for a cultural transformation in the industry.
The issue of homogeneous thinking in the fashion industry was raised by Vanessa Friedman, fashion director of the New York Times, in an article titled “Fashion’s Groupthink Problem.” Among various opinions expressed, that of Alice Bouleau, head of the creative sector at Sterling International, a company that collaborates with numerous fashion houses to identify the most suitable profiles, stands out. Bouleau states that about seventy percent, or at least two-thirds of creative directors in major houses are white men. The decision on who to appoint as creative director is often made by CEOs, mostly white men, who, despite a diversified list of candidates, tend to select someone with whom they culturally identify. This phenomenon is evident in conversations about female candidates, often subjected to questions like “Do you think they are ready for this step?“—a question rarely asked about male candidates younger than the women in question.
This could be one of the reasons why women like Veronica Leoni, consultant for a renowned brand like The Row, Grace Wales Bonner, and Martine Rose, considered viable candidates to succeed Virgil Abloh at the helm of Louis Vuitton, along with Dilara Fındıkoğlu and Emily Bode, have not yet been appointed creative directors. Despite having a loyal customer community and owning successful brands, their ascent has been slowed. The predominant presence of white men in decision-making positions is a barrier that perpetuates this dynamic.
The turning point could come when female CEOs become the norm rather than the exception, revealing a patriarchal system. Examples like Francesca Bellettini, CEO of Saint Laurent, show that women can reach positions of power. When women and minorities take on leadership roles and promote the work of other women, it is hoped that a significant change will occur. The appointment of Chemena Kamali, recently at the helm of Chloé, represents a step forward. Kamali, former design director for women at Saint Laurent, returns to work with a brand she knows well, having collaborated with Phoebe Philo and Claire Waight Keller.
Journalists must resist the temptation of clickbait and consider each appointment as an independent project, evaluating innovations as legitimate opportunities. It is essential to tell the stories of women, regardless of their ethnicity, highlighting their contribution, even if this approach may receive less attention than exposé pieces that generate engagement. However, mystifying the almost absence of women at the top of the fashion industry is impossible, and the lack of female names among new creative directors in recent years confirms it.
Women like Martine Rose, Grace Wales Bonner, Miuccia Prada, Emily Bode, Yoon Ahn, and Cynthia Lu of Cactus Plant Flea Market are just some of the talented designers who have founded brands expressing their creativity, otherwise – perhaps – unexpressed. What a pity.