A-Z night #10: the report of Female Voices in Fashion

Who is the woman you design for? An oft-repeated question in fashion interviews. And though the answer is likely as predictable as flowers for spring, it is not insignificant. After all, fashion is a female-dominated industry: women are systematically over-represented on the pages of magazines, in the classrooms of schools, in production ateliers and at checkout counters. Women are the muses, producers and consumers that support this industry. And so, describing who you create for defines your brand identity. But no matter the financial bracket or aesthetic niche that brand might be situated in, the answer will most likely be something along these lines: “My woman is a strong woman. She knows what she wants and doesn’t take no for an answer. She’s a powerful woman.” Let there be no doubt, fashion doesn’t like its women weak.
But what makes a woman powerful? And is it possible to empower women through design? Those were the questions at the heart of Tuesday’s A-Z night, accompanying two exhibitions running in Hasselt: “Dissidence – quilting against” in Z33 and “Wonder Women. Strong women in Fashion” at the fashion museum.
Because, in this field that claims to love powerful women, its powerful women don’t hold that much power at all. As Libby Sellers, curator at the Design Museum in London and author of Women Design, aptly mentioned at the start of her presentation, women might make out the overarching majority of fashion graduates, most top positions are held by men. “Women designers make up nearly three-quarters of the student application process, yet this figure drops dramatically to less than one quarter when it comes to senior figures in the industry,” she explained.
Too much testosterone at the top. That appears to be the trend across all areas of the sector, from the board room (a survey on gender inequality by the CFDA, Glamour and McKinsey & Company showed that only 14 percent of major brands are run by a female executive) to the design studios (a fashion week analysis by the Business of Fashion showed that of the 371 designers helming 313 brands, only 40.2 percent were female).
It was a visual reminder of this gender imbalance that inspired artist duo Pinar&Viola (whose work is currently showcased at Z33) to make one of their video projects, titled Mother Earth in Paris. As part of her presentation, Pinar Demirdag shared a picture of the U.N. Climate Change Conference in 2015, exemplifying its lack of female leaders. She went on to explain that a gender-diverse group of decision makers would inevitably lead to a better, greener future.
That was also the seemingly unquestioned consensus when Maria Grazia Chiuri became creative director at Dior, the first of her gender to do so – one pay raise for a woman, one giant step for all women. A sentiment Chiuri herself gladly reinforced, introducing the “We Should All Be Feminists” slogan t-shirt in her first collection. The feminist fanfare surrounding the appointment makes it easy to forget the murky details that make a rhetoric of equality in a luxury conglomerate so paradoxal. For example, the fact that the sales of that €560 t-shirt mostly benefit Bernard Arnault who, as CEO of LVMH, can be found in the top 10 of Forbes’ recent Billionaires list, while the average (female) employee at the company wouldn’t even dream of owning a t-shirt with that price tag.
Dior might just have discovered the lucrative power of a female head designer, but the trope has existed for decennia. To take another iconic fashion house of equal measure, Chanel’s founding designer Gabrielle “Coco” Chanel is routinely depicted as a feminist hero who liberated women from corsets and allowed us to wear fake pearls. That might be historically correct, but the story strategically glosses over the darker side of the designer’s history, and the ways in which she used her power to devastating effects for others. The legend appears leakproof, with Karl Lagerfeld only requiring a few feminist cardboards to veil his own misogynist views.
This obviously isn’t just an issue of luxury fashion houses spinning history to sell more handbags. The mainstream feminist narrative clings to the myth of the power woman to the point where simply showcasing a successful woman is deemed feminist – it’s Ariana Grande gracing the cover of this month’s Elle above the words “Be The Boss”, it’s Facebook’s COO Sheryl Sandberg teaching women how to lean in, it’s the voice of Serena Williams over footage of other gold medallists reminding us that there is nothing more empowering than being number one.
The problem with the idea of the Powerful Woman, is that in order for someone to be powerful, others need to be weak. That might be fine for sport competition, but in other work environments, the stakes are much higher. Fashion is an industry that still relies heavily on manual labour, and as Western consumers look to spend increasingly less on their clothes, it’s non-white female garment manufacturers who pay the price.
In 2014, U.K.-based high street brand Whistles collaborated with Elle magazine on what would become the first of many viral feminist slogan t-shirts. “This is what a feminist looks like,” could be read below the faces of all the right progressive celebrities, like #heforshe campaigner Emma Watson, right up until the Daily Mail revealed that the garments were produced in a Mauritian sweatshop by women earning 62p an hour. More recently, the Guardian shed light on a charity t-shirt emblazoned with the words “Girl Power” made in a Bangladeshi factory where over a hundred garment workers were fired after protesting low wages.
In a global economy, it’s dangerously easy to be distracted by glass ceiling-shattering heroines and not see the workforces they exploit in order to shoot so high. But the truth is that ensuring diversity at the top of the pyramid doesn’t really do anything for those at the bottom, exactly because it keeps patriarchal capitalist structures in place rather than recognising and shifting them.
As Libby Sellers explained, true gender equality won’t be achieved unless we redirect our focus from the individual to the communal, proposing structural solutions such as flexible work hours, safe work environments, equal pay and childcare. Another, surprisingly clear-cut, solution came from the night’s third speaker, Flora Miranda. In our conversation before the presentations, the topic had drifted to the inescapable male gaze: no matter what you wear or how you behave, there will always be that one dude in the room who refuses to see you as his equal. “Well, in that case,” she added matter-of-factly, “there’s only one thing you can do: build yourself a different room.”
A summary by Aya Noël.
Have a look at the image summary by Wide Vercnocke.