A model walks the runway in a Oscar de la Renta design at New York Fashion Week in 2011. FashionStock.com/Shutterstock.com
Female designers of womenswear use their inherent knowledge of what it means to be a woman, but male designers do it with empathy, bravado and a little bit of imagination.
It’s arguably a man’s world, but not when it comes to fashion. Fashion is one of the few industries that seem to have taken no notice of the outdated maxim, and from magazine editors to models, stylists, writers and interns, the players are overwhelmingly female.
And apart from the decidedly non-Mad Men era workplace infrastructure, the entire scope of the business is also more or less geared toward women. In retail, womenswear pulls in $662 billion to the $440 billion earned by menswear each year, and that gap is quite obvious on sales floors and in editorials alike. Department stores dedicate only small sections to menswear, and in media, men’s fashion is often crammed in among coverage of gadgets, sports and spirits.
While men are a minority in the industry at large, the same cannot be said of the design sector. Many top designers, both from an artistic point of view and in terms of commercial success, are actually male.
And when it comes to womenswear, male designers all but dominate. Since 1987, the CFDA award for womenswear has been awarded to 23 male designers and only six female designers.
Designers such as Oscar de la Renta, Valentino, Alexander McQueen, Gianni Versace, and Michael Kors are beloved and revered for creating clothing for women that taps into the very essence of being a woman, from pure sex appeal to harder-to-pin-down elements like confidence and femininity.
Beyond technical talent and business savvy, it takes a certain level of intuition to create beautiful clothes. There’s a great deal of psychology at play and female designers can, and do, tap into their own experiences as women to create clothing that will resonate with other women.
In a conversation I had with Stella McCartney earlier this year, the British designer linked her affinity for making jumpsuits, a silhouette that has made its way into her seasonal collections since the early days of her line, with the emotions that come from wearing one.
“I’ve been doing jumpsuits from day one, and this is where the psychology of being a woman designing for women is for me personally very interesting, because I know how I feel when I’m wearing a jumpsuit. I feel quite empowered, yet not too masculine or too abrasive; I still have my femininity. It’s a slightly androgynous piece to wear, which I always really enjoy,” she explains, pointing to the one she was wearing at the time, a long-sleeved silk number with an all-over wildcat print. “You can wear it with flip flops on the beach, over a swimsuit, or you can dress it up and wear it for evening or cocktails.”
Other female designers such as Donna Karan tap into their insecurities about their bodies to create lines of clothing that let women focus on their assets rather than their hang-ups. Karan was famously self-conscious about her hips and designed flowy pieces in signature fabrics like cashmere that were engineered to address this concern while still embracing femininity and cleverly enhancing the body, rather than covering it up.
It’s clear that for designers like McCartney and Karan, personal experience and psychology are very much a part of the design process. They draw on the feelings – empowerment, confidence, femininity, and so on – that come from wearing certain silhouettes, fabrics, or prints and translate it into collections that other women will relate to in a similar way as well.
Aside from the emotional, since physical gender and gender identity aren’t always so clearly defined, there is the matter of biology; the experience of walking in a woman’s body, the insecurities and confidences that come along with having one, cannot be taught in design school or with an internship.
Yet the fact is, many male designers are perfectly able to create figure-flattering, beautiful clothing without any of the shared experiences. When you take away that first-hand knowledge of not only being a women and understanding on a personal level what makes us tick, not to mention the fundamental experience of wearing women’s clothing day in and day out, how do male designers tap into that to create beautiful clothing that makes women feel like, well, women?
I posed this question to a number of womenswear designers, both male and female. Some male designers that I spoke to had some trouble grasping the concept of the question. And it seems that it’s not a matter of who does it better, men or women, but it’s a question of intuition and, as McCartney puts it, psychology.
“I know what women want. [They] want to be beautiful,” Valentino Garavani tells a reporter in the documentary “Valentino: The Last Emperor.” His multi-decade career stands as a testament to his words.
The same goes for Oscar de la Renta, who has dressed society women, First Ladies, and screen queens. “My role as a designer is to make a woman feel her very best and the most feminine,” he says in an interview with Net-A-Porter. “The success of my business is that I always design clothes that are extremely feminine and I think that today a woman knows that even in her workplace the power of her femininity is important.”
Valentino and de la Renta go to show that in place of that first-hand experience, a deep and sincere understanding of women is necessary.
For Luke Aaron, a womenswear designer based in Boston who specializes in formalwear, empathy and a bit of imagination is key.
“I try to have an empathetic approach, so even though I may not have all the shared experiences of my customer, I try as best I can to imagine how she might feel in a garment or what she wants to say by wearing that garment,” he explains. “My collections are often inspired by a character, fictional or historical, whose personality comes through in the clothes. My ideal customer is intelligent and self-aware, so I keep in mind a depth of character and personality traits with which these women might self-identify.”
When pressed on whether his gender is an advantage or a disadvantage when it comes to producing clothing for women, Aaron replied, “I like to think of people as individuals, beyond gender.”
In fact, it turns out that an experience-based approach can be as much of a curse as a blessing. “Female fashion designers are often their own muse, and tend to define their brand based on their own bodies,” explains Gina DeWolfe, a designer who also teaches fashion design at Bay State College in Boston. “Men haven’t lived the life of the consumer, so they’re able to approach design from a more objective standpoint. I think it becomes less personal – they aren’t influenced by the way the clothing might fit them, allowing them to reach a larger market and really understand a woman’s needs.”
In other words, the very lack of firsthand experience, rather than being a shortcoming, can be freeing. “Men are often better designers for women than other women,” Tom Ford tells the New York Times. “I think we are more objective. We don’t come with the baggage of hating certain parts of our bodies. Sometimes women are trapped by their own views of themselves, but some have built careers around that.”
And perhaps, as Ford demonstrates, another good substitute for experience is pure self-confidence.
That self-assuredness, more than arising simply from the mere fact of being male, may come from the industry’s long legacy of majority male womenswear designers (early female players like Coco Chanel and Elsa Schiaparelli were rare anomalies), and from the fact that the media has been accused of playing favorites with male designers.
“A 30-year-old woman who is not very glamorous, but approaching fashion from a different point of view, maybe would not get the same attention as a young, cute and probably gay man,” designer Liz Collins says in the New York Times article.
For male designers, having an automatic fan base among editors and audiences alike can eliminate traces of self-doubt or the need to compete for attention, meaning there’s more room, more encouragement, for males to express creativity.
Even still, there remain some challenges, at least technically speaking, that men face when it comes to designing for women. Aside from understanding the psychology of being a women, there’s the matter of pure physiology.
“I think the challenges presented to male fashion designers have more to do with proper fit,” DeWolfe says.
Unlike the inner workings of psychology, however, the problem of fit is something that can be learned.
“There’s an additional step when it comes to teaching men the techniques needed to design for women. Women understand their shape and their desired fit, and while men may have a brilliant and flattering design in their mind, when it comes to execution they must understand the way a woman’s body curves. Everything from our skeletal structure to the way we walk influences the fit of a piece, so it’s crucial for students to understand this,” she explains.
“Female students understand by default, but a male fashion designer must study the figure and have a complete understanding of silhouette since he cannot use himself as a reference when designing clothes.”
Some designers, like Cotey Bertone, one of DeWolfe’s former students at Bay State College, already seems to understand that a strong knowledge of fit, along with some good editing, makes up for a lack of personal experience.
“As a male designer, I don’t necessarily know what it feels like to be a woman, but at the same time I think I know what a woman wants to show off and what she doesn’t want to show off,” he explains. “For example, with a pair of pants, you don’t want extra fabric. You don’t want it to look like it’s made for male parts…. You want it to fit very well. The better a piece fits a womans figure, the more confident she can feel about her body.”
And that, in essence, is key. For male and female designers of womenswear, different approaches lead, ultimately, to the same end; a woman feeling confident, understood, and energised by what she wears.