Why the fashion industry still has so few women at the top, despite some recent high-profile appointments

The role of creative director at a fashion house is so all-consuming even some men struggle for work-life balance; for women, it’s harder still to balance such responsibility with family duties and face down sexist attitudes

PUBLISHED : Friday, 05 May, 2017, 8:17am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 09 May, 2017, 6:00pm

Four female designers have recently taken over at old-world European fashion houses, allowing industry commentators to declare the days of a boys’ club of creative directors over. Maria Grazia Chiuri and Clare Waight Keller became the first women directors at Dior and Givenchy respectively, while Natacha Ramsay-Levi takes over Chloe and Bouchra Jarrar is the first woman to lead Lanvin since Jeanne Lanvin founded the brand in 1889.

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However, fashion remains an industry dominated by women at every level bar one: the very top. Of the 92 shows on the Paris Fashion Week womenswear schedule, fewer than 30 have female creative directors, and Milan scores even lower with 31 per cent of brands represented by a woman. And on the business side of things, LVMH executive vice-president Delphine Arnault seemingly stands alone among male executives.

So how is this female-focused industry still predominantly a man’s world? London arts and design college Central Saint Martins has a 74 per cent female student body, while New York’s Fashion Institute reports 85 per cent female attendance. Women are winning university placements and entry -level jobs, but why so few leadership roles?

The fashion industry is extremely demanding and women still often have to make a choice between a family life and a career
Julie de Libran

Many of the world’s leading brands were started by women but success brought changes. Coco Chanel is the most notable example of male control, but Jeanne Lanvin, Madeleine Vionnet, Elsa Schiaparelli, Nina Ricci and Marie-Louise Carven are women whose eponymous labels became influential and were then taken over by men.

It seems female designers are still less likely to be seen as “pioneering” than their male counterparts. In an industry where innovation is key, brands are looking for men such as JW Anderson or Alessandro Michele, who are known for their ability to redefine a label’s aesthetic.

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“I feel my work is still very related to me being a woman designing for women,” says Julie de Libran, artistic director at Sonia Rykiel. “It’s considered a more personal, subjective perspective, so it is often talked about as being more ‘wearable’.”

This point of relatability, wearability and more personal clothing has been repeated by designers such as Stella McCartney, Donatella Versace and Jarrar.

While some journalists and industry commentators may underplay the inventiveness of Mary Katrantzou, Sarah Burton or the Mulleavy sisters at Rodarte, Phoebe Philo at Céline has wielded immense power over the way we want to dress – firstly at the high fashion level, but the trickle-down effect of her philosophy of pure lines and minimalism was huge.

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Another barrier to women’s progress to the top is the relentless nature of the modern fashion calendar. Male creative directors such as Alber Elbaz and Raf Simons have lamented how much the job hinders them from leading a normal life, and while women continue to shoulder the weight of childcare, a successful career in fashion is becoming increasingly difficult to balance with a family – especially since most creative directors are appointed between the ages of 35 and 45.

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British designer Philo is a rare example of someone who has successfully combined family and fashion, aided by the fact Céline moved its workshop from Paris to London for her, and cancelled its autumn/winter 2012 show when she was heavily pregnant.

“The reality is that women in creative director roles are still seen as a minority,” says de Libran. “The fashion industry is extremely demanding and women still often have to make a choice between a family life and a career. They don’t always have the support to make their careers their priority and then there is the inevitable tension for a woman conflicted between her role in society and her role in her family. Men typically aren’t burdened by that guilt – their work commitments are traditionally more respected within the family.”

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This burden is easier when women are directors of eponymous brands, with the power to build teams that can work around their schedule. However, getting to that point is a challenge.

“Growing up with three brothers, I never realised there was such a big difference between men and women,” says American designer Tory Burch. “I experienced some prejudice in my first jobs but when I started my company, I quickly realised how anti-women people’s attitudes could be. When I needed to raise money, there were lots of raised eyebrows and petty comments. It made me understand the challenges women face.”

Asia adds another dimension to the challenge faced by women. Men make up a much higher proportion of the consumer base than in the West, with brands such as Ermenegildo Zegna and Dunhill now relying heavily on the Eastern market. This stronger focus on menswear has translated into more men studying fashion at university and a higher proportion of men entering the fashion workforce.

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However, many high-profile women don’t feel disadvantaged because of their gender.

Masha Ma, a Chinese-born designer based between Shanghai and Paris, says she hasn’t experienced professional sexism in either Asia or Europe.

“As you can see, there are a lot of excellent female designers in this industry,” she says. “However, we have to admit that there are external factors restricting female designers that mean we need to make some trade-offs at a certain stage of life … The fashion industry is fast-moving, especially the developing domestic fashion market. If you choose to step into this field, you need to maintain a firm belief and unremitting efforts.”

The last 12 months have given women working in fashion reasons to be hopeful. Obstacles remain for fairer representation at the top of an industry they dominate at other levels. But with Edward Enninful now the first male editor of British Vogue, careers may soon become as gender-neutral as some fashion choices.