Fashion

From Phoebe Philo to Rejina Pyo, how are female designers shaping what we wear?

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Victoria Moss
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Women fashion designers are more prevalent than ever before, but what effect is this having on our wardrobes? 

When you get dressed in the morning, what do you consider? The practical (is it raining, will my legs be cold?), the emotional (what can I wear to make me confident?) and the aesthetic (do I like how I look?).

You may also consider how someone else might think you look: your partner, your boss, your Instagram followers… But how often do you think about the eyes behind your outfit? Who designed those trousers, a man or a woman? Does it matter? Is there even a difference?

It’s far too simplistic to push designers into binary positions, split by gender stereotypes, saying women only make practical clothes and men only design bodycon dresses and thongs. There are countless examples to disprove that idea. Donatella Versace is the mistress of high octane, sexy, slashed-to-the-thigh dressing. A recent Marc Jacobs collection featured oversized, wide-legged, giant-shouldered tailoring.

In Paris, in the past two years, venerated houses Dior and Givenchy welcomed their first female creative directors, Maria Grazia Chiuri and Clare Waight Keller respectively. And earlier this year, in a stealth power move, Stella McCartney bought back the 50% stake the conglomerate Kering had owned in her label. 

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These are female designers who have come of age and reached the highest ranks of the luxury world (there is still a ceiling though: at the very top of the big fashion conglomerates, the business is still largely managed by men. And across the board, the industry lacks women of colour at the helm). 

Claire Waight Keller of Givenchy designed the dress Meghan Markle wore for her wedding to Prince Harry

But there are also myriad new independent brands created by women: The Vampire’s Wife, AlexaChung, Molly Goddard, Rejina Pyo, Shrimps, Olivia Von Halle and Rixo London are just a few of the brands coming through. They offer women a softer, feminine look, but still with an edge of cool. London Fashion Week has seen Emilia Wickstead, Mary Katrantzou, Simone Rocha, Roksanda and Mother of Pearl flourish. And this collective impact filters down.

Amy Powney, the force behind Mother of Pearl, says she feels women do design differently. “At every fitting, we’re saying, ‘But what if you have a big bum; and, yes, some women want to show off their waist, but some don’t, so what can we do for them?’ 

“Which I think is the difference between female and male designers; a man could only ever think about what she looks like, rather than put themselves in it. I have stumbling blocks like, ‘Who is going to wear that, and how will she feel in it, and how is she going to put a bra on?’”

Elizabeth von der Goltz, Net-a-Porter’s global buying director, believes, “There’s something very positive about more women designing for women. Stella McCartney is a great example, she’s a successful business woman who juggles a busy life with family, which helps to give her a true understanding of what women want to wear and what makes them feel good in their day to day lives. Since Waight Keller took over at Givenchy, there is more ease to the collections, and a more relaxed feel which is still very sophisticated and feminine.”

The Philo effect

Models at the Celine a/w 2017 show, in clothes designed by Phoebe Philo

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There may be ease at Givenchy, but there have been several recent appointments that show male designers offering a traditional version of femininity are still highly valued.

At Burberry, Riccardo Tisci has taken over from Christopher Bailey and will present his first collection on Monday at London Fashion Week. In Milan, Consuelo Castiglioni stepped down from Marni, the label she co-founded. Castiglioni’s Marni was a paradise for unusual shapes and pattern; exactly the kind of looks that led blogger Leandra Medine to coin the phrase “man repeller”. She was replaced by Francesco Risso, who has, so far, seemed to miss the brief of what the Marni woman wants to wear (hint: it’s not bodycon). But the appointment of Hedi Slimane at Céline caused the sharpest intake of breath.

The French label Céline was led for 10 glorious years by Phoebe Philo. Philo has almost certainly changed what you wear, even if you have never so much as glanced at a Céline sweater: her effect on our wardrobes has been phenomenal. She brought a new, elegant, minimal sensibility to dressing, stepping out the shadow of Noughties naffness, killing off mega-heels and blingy bandage dresses. If you shop in Cos, you’re part of her legacy. If you paired trainers with your work trousers or fell back in love with Birkenstocks, you’ve been touched by her. Philo embodies female-focused fashion, accepting that women wish their clothes, and lives, to be simple as well as beautiful.

Slimane on the other hand was last seen slashing mini dresses up to the groin during the heady period where he reinvented the style of Saint Laurent. His grunge-glam, heavy-on-the-kohl, light-on-the-carbs aesthetic is the antithesis to Philo’s. 

And yet, the reason Slimane got the gig? His years at Saint Laurent were controversial, but they were also extremely lucrative. He might not be to everyone’s taste, but there is a market and he knows exactly how to appeal to it. 

“Miuccia Prada has delivered her vision of ugly chic time after time”: Prada at the finale of the Miu Miu 2019 Cruise Collection Show

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There is, however, an intriguing rumour doing the industry rounds. Chanel, the most famous fashion house of all, is currently under the stewardship of Karl Lagerfield. Word has it that when Karl steps down, his place will be taken by none other than Phoebe Philo. This is a position that confers serious status. A woman designer at Chanel could inspire the whole industry.

Historically, the strongest women’s names in fashion have adhered to the idea that ease and practicality are key, but so is a heady shot of je ne sais quoi cool. Coco Chanel freed women from corsets and pioneered dresses made from jersey, previously only used for men’s underwear (no fabric house would sell to her in the beginning). Madame Vionnet pioneered the bias cut, which offered a languid feminine line, sexy but not constricting. Elsa Schiaparelli offered wit, colour and vivacity, appealing to women who wanted their dress to reflect their personality.

Diane Von Furstenberg, creator of the wrap dress, refers to her clothes as “the friend in the closet”, dependable and instantly stylish. Donna Karan pioneered her “seven easy pieces” concept, which would take women from the school gates to the boardroom and to dinner.

Rei Kawakubo of Comme des Garcons staged intellectually and visually challenging catwalk shows (but sold a shrewd collection in stores, offering something for the avant garde purist with a job to do). And Miuccia Prada has delivered her vision of ugly chic time after time, turning utility and function into something cool and daring. She was, after all, the woman who turned a plain nylon backpack into a cult item.

Feminist statements

A woman wears Maria Grazia Chiuri’s ‘We should all be Feminists’ T-shirt at the Christian Dior Haute Couture s/s 2017 show in Paris

In snobbish, sometimes misogynistic, fashion circles, an argument rages about the relative merits of practical clothing and creative fashion. Maria Grazia Chiuri’s work at Dior has been accused of being too “simplistic”. Chiuri countered this sharply, saying, “So it’s more artistic if you don’t understand it? If it is creative it should be difficult to wear? It is a stereotype about the genius. The genius is a man. The genius is sad and difficult… I want to build a dream, but this dream has to be useable.”

Chiuri is also famous for emblazoning “We should all be feminists”, the title of Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s book, onto a T-shirt (priced at £490). A percentage was donated to The Clara Lionel Foundation, Rihanna’s non-profit organisation which provides education and healthcare to impoverished communities worldwide. Understandably, once it had been plastered all over Instagram (do you think those influencers paid for their tops?) the message became a little watered down. That T-shirt, however, set off a new vogue for sartorial sloganeering. But does a line on a T-shirt really help women?

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“Politely, it’s problematic,” says Marisa Bate, author of The Periodic Table Of Feminism. “If you’ve got a bunch of teenagers engaging with ideas of empowerment, solidarity and being exposed to feminism as a word they should embrace, then, no, that’s not an inherently bad thing.

“But, I’m not convinced that the awareness raising project has genuine aims. I’m always nervous about the commodification of something that is there to make women’s lives better. Who made each garment? What’s it like to work there as a woman? What’s their maternity policy? What percentage at the top of the company are women? You can’t think that in buying that T-shirt you’ve achieved something; ‘Hey, girl power!’, no, that’s just called capitalism.” 

“Elsa Schiaparelli offered wit, colour and vivacity”: the runway at the Schiaparelli Haute Couture a/w 2016 show

Slogan T-shirts are an obvious way to showcase the wearer’s beliefs, but the gains we’ve made through decades of feminism have reframed how we, as women, view ourselves and this has had a knock-on effect on our wardrobes. We are more tuned in to how female-sympathetic designers work.

And female-focused fashion doesn’t just come from cisgender women. Natalie Kingham, buying director at Matchesfashion.com, points out that the more modest, feminine aesthetic currently in vogue (see the midi length dresses of this summer) is also being offered by “Erdem, Sies Marjan and JW Anderson. I think it’s all about taste and understanding how to design pieces that women can throw on when they’re busy that still make them feel great.”

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For Bate, perception is key. “I like quite ugly clothes, which I assume a woman would have designed, because they’re not anything to do with looking attractive to anyone other than yourself. That feels empowering. There’s a reason why women go batsh*t about dresses with pockets. They’re useful.”

Women no longer fall prey to outdated notions of femininity and what we ‘should’ wear. Dress codes have broken down – we wear trainers to work, tea dresses in the pub. Lucie Greene is worldwide director at The Innovation Group, a creative thinktank for the advertising agency J. Walter Thompson Worldwide, and she nails it when she says the designers making this happen “are unapologetically grown-up and own their experience in life with pride, the kind of women that would have been the muses of Coco Chanel”. Just like the women who choose to wear the clothes.

Doing it for ourselves

A Rejina Pyo dress seen at London Fashion Week 

We are more confident now in our style choices. We certainly have more choice than ever. But, we are also under more scrutiny to consider what those choices mean. Our fashion identities can become polarised, glancing at popular Instagram accounts you could assume all women fall into two camps: either modest, flirting with midi lengths and gentle ruffles, or a disciple of the Kardashian/Love Island look, all bodycon body positivity and stretchy fabrics.

In truth, one person may embrace both and a number of other looks. There’s nothing wrong as long as YOU are happy in what you are wearing. And women designers have undoubtedly opened up the industry to a bigger variety of looks and ideas.

For me, fashion is a great force to enable you to be your best self, to feel confident and in control. Ultimately, what we want from our clothes is as varied as the lives we live. We want ease, fun, design that makes us sigh with happiness, elegance, comfort and to see our friends smile at our choices. And pockets.

Male designers have been responsible for some wonderful moments in fashion (where would be without Yves Saint Laurent or Alexander McQueen, for example?). But, as with every industry, more women at the top means the concerns of all women are considered. Women who are looking out for our needs, our body shapes and our bras.

What do you think about when you get dressed in the morning? Well, perhaps think about the many women who were thinking about you. 

Images: Getty Images