In the fashion business, men designing clothing for women is not unusual. On the flip side, though, it’s pretty arduous attempting to find more than a smattering of female head designers in the world’s most highly-regarded fashion houses. Of course, Phoebe Philo at Céline is one of the strongest examples. Miuccia Prada and Donatella Versace famously lead their houses, but although they’re undoubtedly both talented, they inherited their creative director titles.
The powerful conglomerates pulling the strings appear to be hesitant in offering women a place in the driver’s seat, so fashion is still, sadly, very much a man’s world. Females heading up womenswear houses may be rare, but a woman being appointed at the helm of a menswear brand is almost unheard of.
With that in mind, let’s take a chance to celebrate some of the women out there who are making menswear better than many of the boys.
The Women Driving Hermès
One woman who bucks this unfortunate trend, and solidly leads one of the most reputed houses in menswear, is Hermès’ Véronique Nichanian. After cutting her teeth at fellow Parisian label Cerruti, the French designer has run the house’s menswear line since it began in 1988. Nichanian’s long term success at Hermès is evident – her considered mix of relaxed tailoring, luxe fabric development and sporty layers means the ever-chic label is a linchpin for many top luxury buyers and editors during Paris’s menswear week.
Even Kanye West acknowledges the reputation of the house – he recently admitted that his greatest ambition in life is to be the Creative Director of Hermès. Whether he is referring to the men’s or women’s line remains to be seen – but something tells me the insatiable, fashion-obsessed rapper would probably want to oversee both.
However, unlike many brands, Nichanian’s Hermès is less about creating hype around the name, or a particular “it” product, and more about presenting entire collections that define the current state of grown-up luxury menswear. What’s more, Hermès also has a female Creative Director heading up its womenswear line, Nadège Vanhee-Cybulski. Top marks for the house, which clearly embraces the power of a #girlboss in fashion.
Young London Talent
While the big houses mostly remain under the guidance of male creative directors, there are many talented women striking out and establishing their own independent men’s labels. London in particular has fast become a hotbed for young menswear designers, many of whom are, we’re pleased to say, of the fairer sex. Astrid Andersen’s opulent sportswear has gained her esteemed fans like A$AP Rocky and Drake, neither of whom are afraid to don the Danish-born, London-based designer’s embellished leisurewear.
Katie Eary, a designer with a similarly eye-catching aesthetic, dresses her ideal men in color-saturated digital prints. Subversive writers like Irvine Welsh and William S. Burroughs serve as inspiration in her work, while collections are created in this spirit of disobedience. Her designs have also been worn by Harlem’s A$AP Mob, as well as the flashiest rapper of them all: 2 Chainz.
Lou Dalton is another shining example of a female’s ability to dress the modern man. Having mastered the use of texture and proportion, Dalton’s clothes have charmed their way into the wardrobes of many of London’s guys in the know.
The newest name shaking up London Collections: Men, the city’s dedicated menswear week, is Grace Wales Bonner. Only two seasons young, Wales Bonner’s work has received high praise for the impeccable designs and broad cultural representation at her shows – something that’s noticeably missing elsewhere in fashion month.
These women are injecting menswear with much-needed new ideas, while creating boundary-pushing clothes for sartorially confident men. Perhaps they’re following the path laid by Dame Vivienne Westwood, who’s reigned as London’s queen of fashion since the ’80s. Having influenced men’s dress since the early days of punk, Westwood’s impact on menswear is not to be underestimated. To this day, you can still find re-interpretations of her trademark Victorian pirate-punk style on the streets of the British capital.
These promising young names all share a common thread: they’re designing and showing their collections in London, and proving that this particular fashion capital is one of the most progressive in the world, especially when it comes to giving masculine clothing a woman’s touch.
Ladies on Savile Row
The British capital is also home to a distinctively more traditional style tribe – the world-famous Savile Row tailors. The area has been the residence for top tailors since the late 18th century, and a stroll down the street presents an array of busy workshops staffed by dapper men, working to create the highest quality bespoke suits for the city’s most discerning (and wealthy) gentlemen.
Just a few weeks ago, Kathryn Sargent became the first female Master Tailor to open up her own premises on the legendary Mayfair street. Sargent, who worked for 15 years at Gieves & Hawkes, makes tailored garments for both sexes and says that, although it is uncommon, the Savile Row community welcomes female talent. Sargent, who has dressed both royalty and celebrities, is an inspiration to women who feel like tailoring is a boys-only club. We’re hoping that one day she won’t be the only woman at home on the Row.
From Womenswear to Menswear
Many of the females holding their own in the male-dominated industry started by making womenswear, before turning their skilled hand to dressing men.
Most notable is Rei Kawakubo; the industry’s High Priestess of “Anti-Fashion.” Kawakubo founded COMME des GARÇONS in 1973, and her signature dark, deconstructed and asymmetrically-draped clothing was first made for women. By 1978, the untrained Japanese designer decided not just to dress women “like the boys” (the translation of her label’s name), but to actually clothe men, too.
The camera-shy fashion genius has now turned CdG into a luxury conglomerate, and eight of its sub-brands make menswear. Not only did Rei Kawakubo make the triumphant transition from womenswear designer to an all-rounder, but she is one of the most highly-respected icons in the industry, achieving huge commercial success without ever forsaking her creative vision.
One of Kawakubo’s many successful proteges is Chitose Abe. After working as a pattern cutter at CdG, Abe launched her own label Sacai, a label whose womenswear impressively combines sporty and romantic qualities. Since Sacai became a fashion favorite, Abe has expanded her business and now offers menswear, continuing her vision with deluxe layering and unique fabrics.
One woman who followed a similar path is Ann Demeulemeester. First making a name for herself as a member of the radical Antwerp Six, Demeulemeester’s cult following has grown thanks to her dark, twisted tailoring. After four years making womenswear, Demeulemeester broke into the men’s market, lending her androgynous aesthetic to the boys. In fact, the Belgian designer was one of the first to show men’s and women’s clothing in the same runway show. Although she stepped down as head of her namesake brand in 2013, Demeulemeester’s label remains faithful to the design legacy created by its founder.
Still a long way to go…
Imbalance in the fashion industry is unfortunately still rife. However, the aforementioned visionary designers prove that a feminine eye can deliver desirable clothes regardless of gender. In an industry where the odds are stacked against them, we need to celebrate the few feminine design icons who do make it to the top – they’re brilliant examples of women that can successfully lead a brand and dress the male body, whether it be in sportswear, tailoring or avant-garde attire.
Let’s hope this is the beginning of a future for the fashion industry – one that’s not shy of appointing female talent in top professional positions.
For more women’s fashion content, check out these 10 Must-Follow Female Creatives Killing It On Instagram.
- Words: Rachael Rodgers
- Cover Image: Eva Al Desnudo / Highsnobiety.com