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A Woman's Work: How Women Can Get Ahead in Fashion

Women are, by far, the primary consumers of fashion, but remain underrepresented in top creative positions. On International Women’s Day, Maria Grazia Chiuri, Tory Burch, Julie de Libran and more weigh in.
Clockwise from top left: Julie de Libran, Clare Waight Keller, Tory Burch, Maria Grazia Chiuri, Martine Rose, Molly Goddard
  • Osman Ahmed

LONDON, United Kingdom — During the international fashion weeks that just wrapped, powerful imagery of women flooded all manner of media channels. From the models on the runway and the editors and buyers following the shows to the digital influencers and street style stars, those in the spotlight were mostly women. Of course, women are also the primary end consumers of fashion goods. And yet, women are underrepresented in leadership positions across the industry, where the majority of fashion houses are still helmed by male designers.

Of the 371 designers leading the 313 brands surveyed by BoF across the world's four main fashion weeks in September 2016, only 40.2 percent were female. And while there are exceptions to the rule — Miuccia Prada and Donatella Versace come to mind — the number of female designers at fashion's biggest houses is even lower. So what does it take for women designers to get ahead?

Somewhere between the golden age of female-led fashion houses in the 1930s — the era of Gabrielle Chanel, Elsa Schiaparelli, Madeleine Vionnet, Jeanne Paquin, Nina Ricci, Jeanne Lanvin and Callot Soeurs — and the acquisition of many of those houses by large conglomerates in the 1980s and 1990s, female designers were side-lined by megastar male counterparts who were celebrated for their showmanship and artistic prowess. The language used to discuss the work of female designers, comparatively, is often centered on practicality and function.

They are often very conditioned to feel that expressing their opinion is aggressive... but you absolutely have to say what you think as woman.

Indeed, prior to Maria Grazia Chiuri's appointment as artistic director at Dior last June, just four of the 15 fashion and luxury brands at LVMH, the world's largest luxury conglomerate, were headed by female designers: Phoebe Philo at Céline, Sylvia Fendi at Fendi, Carol Lim (who is co-designer alongside Humberto Leon) at Kenzo and Florence Torrens at Thomas Pink. Amongst rival French conglomerate Kering's luxury fashion brands, Stella McCartney and Sarah Burton of Alexander McQueen are the only two top female designers.


“In fashion there are a lot of women, but at the big fashion houses not many are at the top,” said Maria Grazia Chiuri, who is the first woman to ever assume the highest creative post at Dior. “I was very lucky in my life as I started at Fendi, which was a family company run by five women who had children, but sometimes we think that if something didn’t happen to us, it just doesn’t happen, and we need maintain attention on this debate of equal opportunity.”

Chiuri is keen on female empowerment. Nigerian writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie's slogan, ‘We Should All Be Feminists,’ was seen throughout Chiuri’s ready-to-wear debut for Dior, and female photographers Brigitte Lacombe, Sarah Moon and Lea Colombo were commissioned to create the brand’s advertising and marketing imagery. To coincide with International Women’s Day, the brand has established a new programme that will match 60 young women from ten cities around the world with mentors from the company’s pool of female executives under the age of 30. The aim is to increase confidence and self-esteem amongst younger women across various fields and will kick off with a seminar on Wednesday followed by quarterly meetings between mentors and mentees.

“I saw in the past that sometimes women don’t believe too much in themselves,” explained Chiuri. “They don’t dare to ask and they are often very conditioned to feel that expressing their opinion is aggressive, and that they should be gentle and keep a low profile, but you absolutely have to say what you think as woman.”

Tory Burch, who has launched a campaign to encourage women to embrace ambition — historically seen as a negative trait in women — echoed Chiuri's sentiment. In 2009, Burch launched a foundation dedicated to giving more women access to education, capital and mentorship. In 2014, the foundation partnered with Bank of America to provide low-cost loans to female entrepreneurs across the US and has since given $25 million to over a thousand female-owned businesses. Yet despite the positive deeds, Burch has been reticent to talk about the foundation, for fear of it being perceived as a marketing ploy. That's changed. "For me, now is the time to talk about it," she said. Her new campaign, #EmbraceAmbition, features several high-profile female leaders and celebrities — from Julianne Moore and Melinda Gates to Gwyneth Paltrow and Anna Wintour — urging both women and men to be more demanding of success and equal opportunities in the workplace.

When men are ambitious, it's celebrated. But when that word is used to describe a woman, it's generally used in a negative way.

The origins of the campaign are personal for Burch. “After the first article written on me came out, a good friend called me and told me that it was a great article but that I shied away from the word ‘ambition,’” recalled Burch. “She was absolutely right. In a way, I perceived it as distasteful and crass, but over the years I’ve had to work on embracing that word. For me it’s such a harmful stereotype and double standard. When men are ambitious, it’s celebrated. But when that word is used to describe a woman, it’s generally used in a negative way.”

Burch believes that confidence is the biggest issue facing young women today. “I can’t say I’m not guilty of that — even asking for a raise,” she said. “People would come to me and say what a great company and trajectory I have, and I would play it down in an almost apologetic way, because I was embarrassed by success. Arrogance is not something I admire, but it’s nice to take ownership of your own success and be happy to talk about it.”

For Julie de Libran, creative director of Sonia Rykiel, taking on the helm of a brand that was founded by a woman allowed her a certain sense of freedom. But her decision to do so came after years of working behind-the-scenes at Prada and Versace, two brands also designed by women, as well as with Marc Jacobs at Louis Vuitton. "People ask why I didn't take over a brand earlier and I always thought it was better to learn from inside a brand and be able to do all the work before," she said. "Some young people come to a interview and feel they can be an assistant director in a minute — it's not what its about."

De Libran added that there are innate challenges facing female fashion designers. “I was in Italy for many years and felt a macho side, and it’s the same in France. Women still have to fight to get what they want and to be listened to because they are often spoken over. Sometimes I have to not listen and take myself away and do what I think is best, and that’s when you get the best results.”


“Female sex appeal is also different,” she continued. “When men design for women, it can push a certain sex appeal. And when women are designing for women, they want to show other values than the body. I sometimes hear women saying they are too old to wear something above the knee and it’s because they feel limited and pushed.”

The lack of female designers at major brands is perhaps part of the reason behind the surge in succesful independent labels started by women for women, such as Mary Katrantzou, Roksanda Ilincic and Simone Rocha. There's also been an uptick in the number of fashion prizes awarded to rising young women, including Sophia Webster (2016 BFC/Vogue Fashion Fund), Wanda Nylon's Johanna Senyk (2016 ANDAM Prize) and Grace Wales Bonner (2016 LVMH Prize).

"The talent pool is clearly there and there are many women who have the ability to lead a big brand," said Floriane de Saint Pierre, one of fashion's top executive search consultants, who has placed several creative directors at leading luxury brands. "So we are talking about the designers of this new generation, probably because few women are at the helm of big companies."

At this year's LVMH Prize, the jury for which consists of four women and eight men, two of the female nominees took time to reflect upon the challenges faced by female fashion designers. "There's a bit of a battle when you are a businesswoman and in the factories and discussing things; I think it takes more effort for them to take you seriously," said Molly Goddard, who cites Rei Kawakubo of Comme des Garçons as a mentor who she admires for her uncompromising and independent spirit. "I find it a constant battle being labelled feminine and girly," she added. "In the general scheme of things in fashion, it always sounds like a negative putdown. I don't think there's anything wrong with being girly or feminine at all, but that doesn't define anyone. You can be girly and feminine and be incredibly strong."

"I have never been a man, so I don't know how it differs," laughed Martine Rose, the London-based designer who has been quietly building a solid menswear business for a decade — and whose aesthetic is almost the opposite of Goddard's. "I wonder if I've been slower — I've taken my time. It's difficult to say because you start falling into gender stereotype, like, maybe I'm kinder and softer and all of that stuff," she added. "But there is patience and I've been willing to hold back. I've been more prone to take a backseat and allow the process, to make mistakes privately."

One of the first major fashion brands to actually hire young women to take the helm was Chloé, which was founded by Gaby Aghion in 1952 and led by Stella McCartney from 1997 to 2001; Phoebe Philo from 2001 to 2006; Hannah MacGibbon from 2009 to 2011; and Clare Waight Keller from 2011 to 2017. (When Phoebe Philo took maternity leave in 2005, it was the first time a creative director sat out a season to allow her studio to take the lead, an attitude that Philo has taken to Céline and Sarah Burton has followed at Alexander McQueen, where she sat out a season last year to have a child).

"The vision of Chloé is about the freedom of allowing women to be who they are — that is expressed in the brand," said Geoffroy de la Bourdonnaye, the company's chief executive. "If you look at Stella McCartney, she dared to have that power at a young age and she was visionary and made a huge impact, was followed by Phoebe, who was also in her twenties, and the rest is history," he added.

So who will fill the role left vacant by the departure of Waight Keller? “I have to be honest,” said de la Bourdonnaye. “For me, I never envisioned anyone but a woman in the role.”


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