Diversity in the fashion industry is one topic of conversation that is often brought up. Each season, we praise designers who feature more inclusive casting when it comes to body diversity, fawn over unusual stories of model discovery, and tally the number of women of color cast for shows while inquiring whether or not fashion has a race problem (and with a slew of all-white runways plaguing last week's collections in Paris, the answer, unfortunately, seems to be yes). But amidst this discussion of parity in all areas of the industry, there is a less-asked question that takes the conversation off the catwalk and into the design studios and ateliers. In a field that seems to be so driven by the spending habits of women (not men) -- not to mention the fact that this is womenswear we're talking about, not menswear -- why aren't more women running the houses built by women?
In the early part of the 20th century (and the few years that preceded it), the industry wasn't saturated with designers, ideas, or an unsustainable amount of collections. A group of women in France saw this room for creativity and innovation, and sought to make fashion their own. Back then, they were specialists, each finding their niche in what the style world was lacking, while simultaneously designing items women weren't traditionally "meant" to wear. Today, these names -- Jeanne Lanvin (1889), Coco Chanel (1909), Madeleine Vionnet (1912), Elsa Schiaparelli (1927), Nina Ricci (1932), and Marie-Louise Carven (1945) -- and the eponymous labels they opened are regarded as pioneers. These women were tired of the clothing options available, saw a business opportunity, and decided to do it for themselves.
This season, this notion of "tiredness" has resurfaced; there's been talk of exhaustion between designers. And the query of how high fashion can be modernized, or rather, actually wearable, for women today has also been been discussed. Certain designers in Paris did just that (or, at least, presented collections that felt to be on that track): newly minted Demna Gvasalia, at Balenciaga, was one; J.W. Anderson, at Loewe, another. These men were able to achieve what the aforementioned women did nearly 100 years ago. Yet the lack of women making these advancements is startling, as is the association the labels have earned with their respective creative director. When the name Lanvin comes to mind, many immediately consider its former creative director, Alber Elbaz. The same can be said for Nina Ricci and Guillaume Henri, or Vionnet and Hussein Chalayan. It's problematic that so many don't even realize that these companies were, in fact, started by women -- or that the designs and aesthetics we consume today are continuations of the values and aesthetic each founder instilled.
It isn't necessarily a problem, men designing for women. After all, some of the most successful legacy brands were founded by men (think Givenchy, Louis Vuitton, Yves Saint Laurent). The issue, however, lays in the fact that somewhere along the way, fashion seemed to lose its feminist direction. Somehow, an industry that caters so specifically to women and the female body has, ironically, become less inclusive than it was at the turn of the century. Of the 92 shows on the Paris Fashion Week womenswear schedule, less than 30 have female creative directors at the helm.
Women like Miuccia Prada, Stella McCartney, Phoebe Philo, and Rei Kawakubo, for example, have utilized their creative leadership to progress how people think and talk about clothing. But when a position becomes available at these big, grand, Parisian ateliers, not often are these names thrown around (or not anywhere near as much as their male contemporaries, like Riccardo Tisci or Raf Simons). Fashion as a place for women, not just selling to women, feels like it has a long way to go.
However, Friday's hiring of designer Bouchra Jarrar at Lanvin felt like a breath of fresh air; a signifier that the industry could be on the verge of a revival. Jarrar designs with women in mind -- not for a male gaze and not for a gay male gaze, either. She designs for women who move, work, consume, create, and want to look beautiful while doing it. She has a reputation as a luxury designer who understands that not all luxury consumers necessarily live (or want to live) that white-gloved luxury lifestyle. Bringing the over 100-year-old house back to its female roots, her appointment could potentially be the first move the industry (and 21st century) needs to open its doors to female talent once again.
By: Erin Cunningham
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