In January this year, Céline unveiled the surprising appointment of Hedi Slimane as the brand's new creative director, posting a photo and to-the-point caption on Instagram. Many commenters aired their woes at Phoebe Philo’s departure and wondered aloud whether the renowned menswear designer could really stay true to the Céline woman.
A mere two weeks later, cosmetics company Avon appointed Jan Zijderveld as its new CEO, in place of Sheri McCoy. Like Céline, whose core message is "to make beautiful, sincere and genuine products which empower women and give them joy in dressing and living for themselves", the beauty brand emphasises its commitment to women: "Avon is the company that for 130 years has proudly stood for beauty, innovation, optimism and, above all, for women." For such influential and large-scale companies, which are female to their core, appointing male leads in the wake of Time’s Up and #MeToo – not to mention the gender pay gap – feels like a regression.
For both beauty and fashion, the gender gap is glaringly obvious. The luxury sector is still largely marketed to and consumed by women; in 2018, McKinsey & Company expects digital sales of women’s luxury fashion to account for 17% of the total market, itself worth $12 billion. "The majority of people involved in making fashion are women and the majority of sales are attributed to women, so it is shocking to see that it is still mostly men who occupy both creative and business leadership positions across big fashion companies," London-based Korean designer Rejina Pyo tells Refinery29.
Just two of the fashion houses in the LVMH stable and five of those owned by Kering have female creative directors (at Kenzo, owned by LVMH, Carol Lim and Humberto Leon share the creative leadership). Contemporary brands fare better, with young eponymous labels still run by their founders, yet women are missing at the upper echelons of prestigious houses. With the notable exceptions of Maria Grazia Chiuri, Miuccia Prada, Sarah Burton and Clare Waight Keller, women are still grossly underrepresented in positions of power.
Major beauty companies, too, have a shockingly low percentage of women in high-level roles. According to LedBetter, a database that consolidates leadership data by gender, only 31% of L’Oréal's executive leaders are women, while just six of Estée Lauder’s 21 top executives are women (two of whom are members of the Lauder family).
The issues at play are difficult to tackle. Women face age-old battles – concerns regarding their family life, which hinder their career growth, especially with the demands of the fashion calendar. “Becoming a mother just over a year ago has added to the challenge,” says Pyo. “You are required to travel a lot working in fashion, and this can be near impossible when you have a young baby. Balancing work with being a new mother is hard, it is physically and mentally draining, and yet it is a challenge many women who want to have children and a fulfilling career face every day. I am lucky to be in a position where I am working for myself, because I have known other women to go on maternity leave and not have jobs to come back to, even here in the UK.”
To this day, men continue to earn respect for prioritising work commitments, while women who do the same are frowned upon. Fortunately, more and more mothers-cum-designers are shattering these outdated ideas, showing that it’s possible to balance motherhood with a career. “I am a woman, a mother and also the founder of my own business,” says Alice Temperley MBE. “It is key to maintain a balance between my private life and my working life. I am lucky enough to be surrounded by incredibly talented women in my team. I am hugely inspired by my friends, a lot of whom are successful businesswomen. I feel that this should be not abnormal in any industry but accepted as the norm.”
Designer Holly Fulton agrees, telling Refinery29: “The notion of motherhood is no longer such a barrier in terms of female progression and I feel that is almost a mindset that we need to have the confidence to believe that we can do it all, if we want to. I don't feel I have ever missed out in terms of career progression and I see a strong generation of female talent rising through the ranks to continue and expand on the opportunities and broaden the profile of women within design."
Another problem lies in the exchange of power. How does it affect women to have men dressing them? In her book Men and Women: Dressing the Part, fashion historian Valerie Steele points out that “expectations of a woman’s passivity have been embedded in a psychologically restrictive and physically limiting wardrobe.” One only needs to look at the history of women’s clothing and the gendered constrictions it so often placed upon them. Then there are the gendered ideals of how a woman ‘should look’ when dressed by a man. The difference, Fulton says, lies in the creative vision: “To comprehend where each nuance of a garment sits and the relationship women have with their own image, I felt I had the insight required through sharing my experiences with my own gender.”
“Female designers have a deeper understanding of a woman's body and are able to design and dress for them with their sensitivities in mind,” says womenswear designer Dilara Findikoglu in support of women dressing women. “There's a lack of support from female leaders in the fashion industry who I think have a duty to help young female designers and creatives find higher roles in the big fashion houses. So I would like to see more of female designers celebrating each other’s success, championing and supporting one another rather than trying to compete with each other.”
“A lot of women say they can tell when their clothes have been designed by a woman,” says Pyo. “I believe women designers have an intuitive understanding of how to balance beauty, comfort, versatility and quality for the complex daily lives we lead today. As a woman, of course I have insight into how women actually live their lives and how they want to dress, it is not just an imagination exercise. At the end of the day, I design clothes that I myself and my friends want to wear, because if we want to wear them, the chances are other women will want to wear them too.”
A study conducted by Jack Zenger and Joseph Folkman for Harvard Business Review surveyed 7,280 leaders and found that the majority (64%) were men, yet noted that “At every level, more women were rated by their peers, their bosses, their direct reports, and their other associates as better overall leaders than their male counterparts ... Specifically, at all levels, women are rated higher in fully 12 of the 16 competencies that go into outstanding leadership. And two of the traits where women outscored men to the highest degree – taking initiative and driving for results – have long been thought of as particularly male strengths.”
Change is coming. Of the 10 nominees in the womenswear and accessories categories for this year's CFDA awards, exactly half are women, but only by actively supporting women in the workplace will more women begin to rise to the top. “I don’t consider gender a limitation,” says Temperley. “There should be no boundaries. I am proud to call myself a designer and a businesswoman and I hope to inspire future generations that anything is possible.”