Where are the women at the top of Haute Couture?

Speaking at the Oxford Union last term, Anna Wintour expressed her desire to see more women as fashion designers. As she said, there are very few female designers in Haute Couture. Most fashion designers who create the exclusive and trend-setting fashions seen on the catwalk are male.

This disparity between female and male fashion designers may at first seem surprising. For many, the fashion industry appears to be one dominated by women. For instance, there are fewer fashion magazines aimed at men than there are at women. Yet even in an industry that largely caters to women, when it comes to Haute Couture, men dominate. In light of this, Kathleen Joe, a fashion journalist has noted that, There are far more women designers at the bottom of the industry, comprising over 70 per cent of fashion graduates; they’re just not rising proportionately to the top.”

However, it is worth venturing onto the High Street to look for a more positive story. For instance, the Chief Design position for H&M is carried out by Ann-Sofia Johansson. Johansson had previously served as the Head of Design of Hennes & Mauritz. She began working at H&M in 1987, and through incredible hard work and determination in her capacity as a design assistant, rose through the ranks to become the label’s Chief Designer.

Her success story is rather isolated however. In 2005, the New York Times stated that The Council of Fashion Designers of America (CDFA) had given its annual award for young talent to 29 men compared to eight women. Even more startlingly, while male designers have taken home the Womenswear Award 13 out of 18 years, a woman has never won the CDFA Menswear award.

Moreover, what’s particularly troubling is that even if women are in relatively high positions on the High Street, these clothes are themselves inspired by the trends on the catwalk; trends that have been set by male designers. If we stop and think, the trends we follow and the styles we wear are more often than not products of male, rather than female designs. What does that say about gender equality in fashion?

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At present there is an ever-increasing drive for gender equality across all job sectors with more women being promoted to higher positions. Yet in Haute Couture, a backward development is being made. In the past, there was a far greater number of female designers in Haute Couture – think Vivienne Westward or Coco Chanel, a brand named after the female designer herself. Now, the Chief Designer for Chanel is Karl Lagerfeld and many of the creative directors at top luxury brands are men: Hedi Slimane at Saint Laurent, Marc Jacobs at Louis Vuitton and Raf Simons at Christian Dior, to name just a few.

Let’s bring women back into Haute Couture, designing for the luxury fashion sector. Let’s celebrate and support current female designers like Stella McCartney and Victoria Beckham. They are both inspirations for other female designers seeking to go into Haute Couture. By showing this support and by flagging up the current issue, Wintour’s desire for more female designers can become a reality.