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International Women's Day: A closer look at the female designers reshaping iconic, male-founded houses

International Women's Day: A closer look at the female designers reshaping iconic, male-founded houses

The future is female

Text: Ryan Sng


Female designers.

For some reason, the fashion world has always singled them out, as though creative leads of the feminine persuasion were the exception, and not the norm. While women in fashion face identical barriers to success as women in other industries — there is undeniably a gender imbalance at the top levels of the trade — countless women have led and/or are leading their best creative lives, institutionalised sexism be damned.

Beyond the obvious names — Coco, Elsa, Miuccia, Phoebe and Stella in particular — history yields many more that are less remembered, from insider-y favourites such as Madeleine Vionnet and Claire McCardell to truly obscure figures. Callot sisters and Rose Bertin, anyone? Google is your best friend; we promise you won't be disappointed. The runways of today are similarly awash with strong, directional talents; Iris Van Herpen, Mary Katrantzou, Simone Rocha, Rosie Assoulin and Gabriela Hearst, to name but a few.

So why the fuss? Well, female designers have historically been subject to unfair stereotyping; chiefly, that their work is more decorative than structural, practical instead of imaginative, and further rooted in the personal (and by extension, less versatile) when compared with the supposedly limitless ingenuity of their male counterparts. In light of this, it will be interesting to see how the public receives and analyses this week's debut collection from Virginie Viard, who is succeeding the late, quasi-mythical Karl Lagerfeld at Chanel.

In the meantime, we've compiled a list of the female designers who are challenging preconceptions about women who create under the most striking of circumstances — at the helms of legendary houses founded by some of fashion's most godlike figures.

SARAH BURTON, ALEXANDER MCQUEEN
Similar to Chanel's Virginie Viard, Burton started out as an intern at Alexander McQueen in 1996 and gradually rose through the ranks; at the time of her appointment (following McQueen's untimely death in 2010), she was also described as a trusted right-hand and capable custodian of his legacy. Just a year into her tenure, Burton's meticulous eye for detail and subdued drama bagged her the coveted gig of designing the Duchess of Cambridge's wedding gown.

Initial responses to Burton's style were not universally flattering; many — this writer included — struggled to accept the total dissipation of McQueen's tormented darkness. Gone were the variously spear-skewered, masked, bound and hobbled goddesses, and in their place were decidedly mortal women, possessed of a focused serenity; for even in her edgier moments, Burton's girls were and are ever-composed.

Immortal as McQueen's work is likely to remain, Burton just feels like the right kind of designer for now. Fantasy expands our minds, stretches our capacity to feel and empathise, and fuels our imaginations; but in 2019, there's little need to heighten the multitudinous trials of women, or the resilience and ingenuity we summon in response. Sometimes, relatively unembellished narratives can reveal extraordinary truths.

CLARE WAIGHT KELLER, GIVENCHY
As a designer, Hubert de Givenchy was somewhat of an anachronism. At times, he seemed to have been born a decade or so late; while peers including Yves Saint Laurent, Karl Lagerfeld and Valentino Garavani pushed the envelope with unusually youth-oriented and globally-influenced high fashion, Givenchy always seemed content within the traditional boundaries of European haute couture.

Even in the '80s, his creations for personal friend and longtime muse Audrey Hepburn stood out for their remarkable restraint (once again, everything is relative). That lack of specificity and, for lack of a better word, oompf may have made it easier for subsequent designers like John Galliano, Alexander McQueen and Riccardo Tisci to blaze their own trails at the house. But it's also why the brand's archive — although it may fail to get most pulses racing — has aged so well.

It takes just as much skill to design a showstopping, camera lens-magnetising gown as it does to design a dress that lets the personality of its wearer do the talking; Givenchy had talent in spades to execute both, as does his successor, Clare Waight Keller. Following a well-received run at the helm of Chloé, she arrived at Givenchy and took on the worlds of haute couture and menswear with ease. Her work is technically marvelous — even a superficially straightforward men's suit warrants close, in-person inspection — and subtly eye-catching. It's no wonder that the Duchess of Sussex has adopted Waight Keller as her preferred designer.

DONATELLA VERSACE, VERSACE
The most iconic of the designers on this list, Donatella Versace has weathered all manner of storms. Her (very) public life has seen her relentlessly mocked for her appearance, and accused of being a derivative talent. Never mind that — by Gianni's own admission, she was always a crucial influence on the look and feel of Versace since its founding. It must be hard living in a loved one's shadow, harder still coming into your own via the death of said loved one; the grief and pressure of leading the company after her brother's death would have left most in tatters.

Sceptics have always attributed the continued survival of Versace to the afterglow of Gianni's unforgettable early collections. In all honesty, however, there are countless houses with fuller heritages to exploit, but which fail to hit the mark most of the time and fall into obscurity. The past can only take one so far, and while Donatella may endlessly draw from the well that is Versace in the '90s, it's her personal touch that has not only kept the Versace flame alive, but roaring. And no SNL caricature or sleazy tabloid takedown could ever take that away from her.

NADEGE VANHEE-CYBULSKI, HERMÈS
Hermès was founded in 1837, and during its long existence has seen a host of head designers, both male and female. In luxury womenswear terms, however, it's a relative newcomer to the runway; Martin Margiela, who joined brand in 1997, was the first of Hermès's high-profile creative directors, followed by Jean-Paul Gaultier, Christophe Lemaire and finally, Nadège Vanhee-Cybulski. 

When she landed the top job, Vanhee-Cybulski brought to the table an impressive track record with brands whose DNAs border on the rigorously austere, including Maison Martin Margiela (before its founder's first name was dropped), Céline (before the accented 'e' was dropped) and The Row. The flash and provocation that defines so much of contemporary fashion was clearly not on the cards.

In a climate where many heritage houses struggle between captivating the short attention spans of the wider public and retaining their historic aloofness — and where most wind up falling down a rabbit hole of celebrity-courting and overzealous marketing — Hermès and Vanhee-Cybulski remain committed to the ultimate aim of all design: making good product.

MARIA GRAZIA CHIURI, DIOR
Christian Dior, Yves Saint Laurent, Marc Bohan, Gianfranco Ferré, John Galliano, Raf Simons... and Maria Grazia Chiuri; these have been the creative forces behind Dior — we're not counting Bill Gaytten or Serge Ruffieux and Lucie Meier, who were always understood to be interim creative directors — French fashion's foremost purveyor of womanliness. 

Chiuri's own womanhood is not, obviously, the most noteworthy aspect of her Dior era. What is, however, is her central role in the sensitive, if not downright controversial, mainstreaming and commodification of feminist ideals in 2019. She's drawn both plaudits and fire for her slogan tees, and for putting the spotlight on women like the escaramuzas (female rodeo riders from Mexico) and artist Georgia 'O Keefe. Whether such efforts aid or impede the cause of equality remains a contentious issue in the fashion industry; in that sense, Chiuri has become as unexpectedly polarising a voice as Mr. Dior, whose luxurious New Look sparked — largely forgotten — protests and even physical attacks from an austerity-stricken public.

Truth: progress is messy and imperfect, and feminism as a cause is messy and imperfect. Neither of these truths mean that the ideals behind them aren't worth fighting for; none of us get it right all the time as we regularly discover in day-to-day life, and it takes a great deal to keep wading into these thorny discussions to advance them. And nobody within the fashion world these days, it seems, understands all this better than Maria Grazia Chiuri.

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