Why Fashion Needs to Pay More Attention to Emerging Female Designers

It's unfortunate that in an industry that primarily serves women, we're not supporting young, female designers in the way we should be.
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It's unfortunate that in an industry that primarily serves women, we're not supporting young, female designers in the way we should be.
A look from Rosie Assoulin's Fall 2014 collection. Photo: Imaxtree

A look from Rosie Assoulin's Fall 2014 collection. Photo: Imaxtree

When the CFDA nominations were announced last week, there was a lot of excitement around Rosie Assoulin’s nomination for the Swarovski Award for Womenswear. The winner of the young-talent award will be granted "generous financial support" from Swarovski, as well as access to the company's vast inventory of crystals. And while that support will mean a lot to Assoulin's fellow nominees -- Creatures of the Wind's Shane Gabier and Christopher Peters, as well as Wes Gordon -- her place on the roster seemed to mean something more.

Assoulin, who launched her collection less than a year ago, is the only woman nominated in a womenswear designer category for the 2014 CFDA Awards. (The Row's Mary Kate and Ashley Olsen were nominated in the main accessories category, while Jennifer Fisher and Irene Neuwirth were nominated in the Swarovski accessories category.) All three nominees for Womenswear Designer of the Year were men: Alexander Wang, Joseph Altuzarra and Marc Jacobs. In fact, out of the six awards that will be given to designers during that night, 14 out of the 18 brands nominated are designed by men.

Of course, two of those awards will go to menswear labels. Yet it still spurs the question: why are the majority of womenswear brands designed by men? In Europe, the playing field is a tad bit more even. Stella McCartney, Alexander McQueen's Sarah Burton, and Chloé's Clare Waight Keller all run prominent fashion houses. The look of Céline, created by designer Phoebe Philo, is cultural currency at this point. But at LVMH, Philo is only one of three four creative directors who are women in a portfolio of 12 brands. (The other three are Donna Karan, Edun's Danielle Sherman and Kenzo's Carol Lim, who shares her post with partner Humberto Leon.)

For an emerging female designer working for herself in the US, the prospects are discouraging. For every Diane von Furstenberg, there are three or four Tommy Hilfigers. And for every Rosie Assoulin, there are 10 other female designers struggling to connect with editors, buyers and customers. (Since 2004, only two of the 10 CFDA/Vogue Fashion Fund top winners have been women: Sophie Theallet and Doo. Ri Chung.) While pure talent and luck have something to do with it, other factors are at play.

For one, the menswear market is accelerating rapidly, which means male designers -- whether they're making clothes for women or not -- are getting lots of attention. One need not look further than last year's CFDA/Vogue Fashion Fund nominations to know that menswear is a major point of interest. Nearly half of the 10 finalists were menswear designers. Interestingly, though, the winners -- Public School's Dao-Yi Chow and Maxwell Osborne -- used their award to help fund a women's collection, which debuted this past New York Fashion Week. (The runners-up were also men: Juan Carlos Obando and Marc Alary, who both design primarily for women.)

There is also the matter of what editors glean on to. Over the past six months, I'd estimate that nearly a dozen publicists and designers have mentioned to me that it's more difficult to sell an editor on a female designer. To them, the hierarchy goes like this: straight men first, gay men second, women third. Sure, it's a generalization, but straight men do seem to get quite a bit of editorial play as there is a certain novelty there. It makes for a "better" story in some ways; it adds tension. Most female designers are designing for themselves -- they're creating clothes they want to wear. While that's a valid idea and probably serves them well with buyers, it seems to be a turn off, unjustly perhaps, for many publications. There isn't a "big" story there to latch onto.

Last year, Tom Ford took the "designing clothes we want to wear" hypothesis in another direction. “I find this about myself when I’m designing menswear: You’re very conscious of your own things. Like, 'I don’t look good in white, so I prefer to design in black' and 'I don’t wear this, or I can’t wear that,'" he told British Vogue. "I think as a woman, you might not be able to liberate your mind as easily as a man who appreciates women but isn’t caught up in the individual obsessive things that all of us have about our bodies or what we want to hide. So I think maybe men are able to be more objective.” One could also argue, though, that most men are designing a fantasy. And when it comes to fit, practicality and just overall desirability, they don't always succeed.

The most difficult element to admit, though, is that like every other industry, women often don't like to support other women. As successful as Tory Burch has become, you can't have a frank conversation about her business without someone handing off all -- and I mean all, not his rightful "some" -- of the credit to her ex-husband and business partner, Chris Burch. It's not fair. And it's not right.

This issue is not restricted to the creative side of fashion. In an article that ran in WWD in 2012, it was noted that out of 67 top executives at publicly traded retail companies in the U.S., only six were women. (The number has surely shifted since then, but not drastically.) It's unfortunate that in an industry that primarily serves women, we're not supporting them in the way we should be. It's our duty to give these female designers an opportunity to prove their worth.

That much-needed sea change may be indeed be coming. The latest class of the CFDA's Fashion Incubator program includes four female womenswear designers -- Katie Ermilio, Kaelen Haworth, Misha Nonoo and Nomia's Yara Flinn -- as well as several female accessories designers. Is the next Philo in the bunch? Who knows. But unless we pay attention, we'll never find out.