In an industry dominated by men in leadership and creative roles, female-led design is finally making itself heard, writes Carolyn Moore.
Why have there been no great women artists? Emblazoned on a Breton top, this was the question posed by Dior designer Maria Grazia Chiuri this season; a 2018 follow up to the ‘We should all be feminists’ T-shirts that marked her debut at Dior the previous year.
There have of course been great women artists — the slogan was referencing art historian Linda Nochlin’s 1971 essay of the same name — and in the history of fashion there have been great women designers too.
But just as Nochlin outlined the ways in which the art world conspired to hold women back, too often women designers have seen their roles in the history of fashion minimised, their progress impeded, and their point of view superseded by a male perspective. Coming from the first female head designer at the 70-year-old house of Dior, the T-shirt can only be viewed as an acknowledgement of such.
Historically, it’s often been women designers, from Chanel to Phoebe Philo, who have revolutionised the way women dress; yet the fashion industry is largely run by men. But while women remain a minority in creative and business leadership roles at the top luxury houses, Chiuri’s appointment at Dior was one of a flurry of new and significant female accessions that reflects a growing trend toward female fronted fashion brands.
From luxury powerhouses like Victoria Beckham to cult brands like Ganni, fashion designed by women, for women is gobbling up market share — and it’s a power shift that makes perfect sense.
After all, who better to know what women want than other women, who often cite their own busy lives when referencing the versatility of collections that address genuine needs in the lives and wardrobes of their customers.
Ralph Lauren may once have said, “I don’t design clothes. I design dreams”, but what good are dreams to a woman who doesn’t want to spend — as a recent study showed — six months of her working life deciding what to wear?
The trend is reflected here at home too, but as the exhibition, Ireland’s Fashion Radicals, demonstrates, Ireland has a long history of great female designers — women like Sybil Connolly and Neillí Mulcahy, who carved out an indigenous industry and put Ireland on the fashion map.
Today they are followed by an equally formidable group of women putting the specific needs of Irish women first, often with brands they established to fill gaps in the market highlighted by their own personal experiences.
As Carolyn Donnelly explains of her line for Dunnes Stores:
“The Edit has always been about designing clothes I want to wear. It’s pared back to the key pieces, and I feel that’s what women want — clothes that fit well, are modern and wearable everyday, but with my design point of difference.”
To that ends, she says, “I try everything on. Every sample is made in my size so I know how a fabric feels; is the sleeve tight; is the neck too wide; can I take big strides in a skirt?”
Her Dunnes Stores stablemate Joanne Hynes is equally informed by the mirrored needs of herself and her customers.
“The Joanne Hynes woman is always at the fore of each collection,” she explains.
Launching March 27, her spring collection, she says, “completely reflects my frame of mind as a woman and as an individual right now. It’s basically about just going for it and embracing yourself as you are.”
Likewise, designer Heidi Higgins’ personal style informs her collections, and strikes a chord with her customers.
“I personally love dresses,” she says of her signature style. “I find it much easier to put on a dress in the morning rather than trying to match tops and trousers.”
Though she established her brand just a year out of college, growing a business and starting a family has given her a greater insight into her customers’ needs.
Last year she launched The City Look, a trans-seasonal range which, she says, “came from working women asking me for simple dresses they could wear all day long; that will look as good going to an event after a day in the office as they do first thing in the morning.
“I also wanted these pieces to be available to customers no matter what time of year it was,” she adds. “Often ladies want a black dress, and I might not have that offering in a summer collection, which is more trend-driven.”
Tran-seasonality is a buzzword among Irish designers — Irish women won’t invest in quality pieces for summer weather that might never transpire, and the likes of Lucy Nagle and Theo & George cater specifically to this need.
Elsewhere, the global expansion of Fiona Heaney’s Fee G proves the ethos of female-led design is eminently exportable.
It stands to reason.
If you want to know what women want, just ask them.