Looking at the fashion industry from the outside, it might seem as though sexism would be far from a problem – the fashion world is a liberal, safe cocoon sheltered from the misogyny present in the real world, right? Wrong.
The fashion industry is largely aimed at women, at yet it appears to be run completely by men. With all the talk about fashion’s diversity problems (in size, age and race), it seems that, at the very least, they at least have young, white, able bodied, incredibly skinny women well represented. But if you stop looking at the models and start looking at the high power executives who run the show, it is clear that fashion has failed. Only 14% of major brands are even run by a female executive. Oftentimes publications will run articles surrounding the fashion industry’s unrealistic beauty standards for women, but people rarely focus on the designers who are making (and being praised) for making the clothes.
There is not a lack of women who are attempting to succeed in the fashion industry, though. In fact, women outnumber men considerably at every single fashion school across the country. The graduating class at Parsons School of Design is 85% female. The graduating class at the Fashion Institute of Technology is 86% female. At top design school, Pratt, 54 of the 58 graduating fashion majors are women. They all leave their schools ready to enter the fashion world and climb the corporate ladder, but somewhere along the way they hit a ceiling.
If almost every single person coming out of the top design schools in the country is a women, how come prior to Maria Grazia Chiuri’s appointment as artistic director at Dior, just three of LVMH’s fifteen brands were headed by female designers?
In an interview with Vogue, designer Jonathan Saunders admits, “It’s very easy to slip into the mind-set where you feel like you’re working in a very liberal environment where men and women are treated equally, where there doesn’t seem to be any kind of gender preferential treatment. So it’s easy to kind of neglect it being an issue.”
The issue of sexism in fashion is sometimes tackled, as seen by Vogue’s conversation with Saunders and other prominent figures, such as Emma Watson, Stella McCartney, Erdem Moralioglu and Bella Freud, in which they all shared their thoughts on sexism in the fashion industry. However, the problem still persists. The way we treat and talk about female designers is fundamentally different from the way we talk about male designers.
Nearly seven years ago, Pulitzer Prize-winning fashion critic Robin Givhan, noted in the Daily Beast that “while there seem to be countless young men in the fashion pipeline who have been anointed as the next great designer, the women who are their contemporaries seem to be quietly plugging along, without much fanfare and certainly without the labels of ‘darling,’ ‘wunderkind’ or anything else that suggests they have some kind of genius struggling to escape.”
“The list of male designers who have at one time been—or still are—fashion darlings is long, ranging from Derek Lam and Phillip Lim, to Zac Posen, Jason Wu, Thakoon Panichgul and now, Prabal Gurung,” Givhan continues. “They are talented designers, but it also seems that they have an advantage simply from being male. They can charm and woo the female editors and models. It is as though what they have to say about feminine style and female allure is more legitimate, more believable, more acceptable or simply more exciting because it is coming from a man.” Since her observation, not much has changed.
According to statistics compiled in a quantitative study published in 2015 by Allyson Stokes, a sociologist at the University of Waterloo, between 1981–2013, 98 men had received an award from the CFDA, compared to only 29 women. And if you don’t know what the CFDA awards are, think of them as the fashion world’s Oscars (aka a really, really big deal).
Not only is being a designer fundamentally different for women in the fashion world, but getting to the point of directing one’s own brand is noticeably more difficult.
“Growing up with three brothers, I never realized 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 realized 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.”
Women in the fashion industry are guilty of the same pitfalls the industry as a whole face as female designers pay more attention to male designers, disproportionately praise male designers, and write their female counterparts off.
Donatella Versace, during an interview with the Telegraph once famously said: "Feminism is dead in the world. It comes from another time. I'm a feminist. I want to fight, but I don't see many people with this desire to fight for something. Women don't help each other, especially in fashion. I know Miuccia… but that's it. Nobody else."
Recently, Sarah Jessica Parker came forward about the sexism she had faced at the contemporary fashion label, Halston, where she had been hired as the Chief Creative Officer in January 2010.
"I was brought in to help run a fashion company for about a year (although I don't want to name names)," she said. "I was shocked to experience an old-fashioned attitude about women and business: Women had titles but were treated as figureheads. So it wasn't one negotiation, but an ongoing negotiation to make clear that my voice was just as important, and that if they wanted me to be an active participant, it had to be an open conversation."
Since then, Parker has launched her own shoe brand that has been met with unprecedented success and has become a favorite amongst women everywhere, only proving that women love what other women design.
There is no easy fix to this problem. Sexism in the fashion industry isn’t going away anytime soon, but the first step to fixing a problem is being aware of it. Notice the types of praise that women are receiving compared to their male counterparts and support female designers! After all, they’re making clothes with actual female bodies in mind. While Christian Louboutin has pointed out that it’s not his “job to create something comfortable,” female designers such as Sarah Jessica Parker share similar priorities as their female consumers – SJP has spent her entire life in heels and that’s probably why her shoe line is being hailed as one of the most stylish AND comfortable shoe lines on the market.
During the 2018 CFDA Awards, airing as I write this, writer, actor, and producer Issa Rae made history as the first person of color to ever host the event. The Insecure star (one of my favorite TV shows – get yourself an HBOGo account and binge it now) was also the first woman to emcee the event since 2009 when Tracey Ullman hosted. On the surface, it appears that fashion is trying to do better.
When Edward Enninful, the first black man to ever run British Vogue, received the Media Award (from Oprah Winfrey!) he remarked “We must learn that we are more alike than we are different… Fashion has the opportunity to contribute now more than ever, to a more inclusive, diverse, and tolerant society. I want my work to advocate this change.”
I personally think that the expansive fashion industry is making strides, but hasn’t the fashion world always prided themselves in being the most liberal and progressive industry, where anyone, no matter who they, are can make it? One can only hope that as time moves on, fashion becomes a world where everyone can actually succeed.