Where Are the Women?

On the eve of the Costume Institute's exhibition celebrating two pioneering female talents—Elsa Schiaparelli and Miuccia Prada—Nicole Phelps asks why there aren't more successful young women designers in New York.

Diane von Furstenberg, Nadja Swarovski, and the Swarovski Award winners

At the CFDA Awards last June, a decade's worth of Swarovski Award winners joined Diane von Furstenberg and Nadja Swarovski on stage. The prizes recognize emerging talent in womenswear, menswear, and accessories, and are voted on by members of the Council of Fashion Designers of America, along with a broad cross section of the fashion community that includes leading retailers, journalists, and stylists. A quick count tallied up 18 men and three women at the podium. Not every winning designer from the last ten years was present, but further research didn't improve the numbers much. Adjusting for design duos and groups, slightly more than a quarter of the winners have been female. The stats are similar for the CFDA/Vogue Fashion Fund. The Fund's selection committee, which brings together highly respected men and women from several different fashion fields, has given its top award and accompanying six-figure prize to female designers—Doo-Ri Chung and Sophie Théallet—twice in its eight-year history.

"We call it the lucky boys' club," said designer Victoria Bartlett, remembering the sea of tuxedos on stage at the CFDA Awards that night. Luck, to be sure, isn't the whole story. But considering that 85 percent or so of graduates at Parsons The New School for Design, arguably the number one fashion design school in America, are women, a question begs asking: Is it easier to succeed in New York fashion as a man?

Of course, New York has plenty of driven, powerful women designers—in addition to CFDA president von Furstenberg, there's Carolina Herrera, Donna Karan, and Vera Wang. Ashley and Mary-Kate Olsen, at the other end of the age spectrum, turned The Row into one of American fashion's most talked-about brands by the time they were 25, but they had the advantage of being famous since birth and millionaires to boot. (They've been nominated for this year's Designer of the Year Award.)

Aside from the designing sisters, New York's current under-30 success stories belong to men: Alexander Wang, Jason Wu, Joseph Altuzarra. Why the shortage of female counterparts?

"Given that fashion, unlike film and art, is run by women, you'd think it'd be the one creative industry that champions women, but for some reason, most of the prominent artists are men," says Sophie Buhai, who launched Vena Cava with Lisa Mayock in 2004, shortly after they graduated from Parsons. Earlier this month, after not producing their Spring 2012 collection, they announced a new partnership with Li & Fung, the trading company behind the Rachel Zoe collection, to generate capital for brand expansion. "We see a lot of women who don't get as much attention as the male designers who are adored by editors," continues Mayock.

Let's call the phenomenon the editor/designer dating game. The launch parties, the magazine dinners, and the pairing up with celebrities at charity galas (the last of which is almost strictly the bastion of male designers) can keep a fashion boldfacer out five nights a week, and on and Patrick McMullan every morning. A gorgeous actress, the prevailing logic goes, is put into further relief by a tuxedoed designer. Then, of course, for female designers, there's the issue of familial obligations. "There was a point in my life, I had to stop and think, do I want to have children or do I want to do this?" says Norma Kamali. "I didn't think I'd have healthy kids if I had kids and had a business."

Where Are the Women?

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Daryl Kerrigan, who shot to fame in the mid-nineties on her butt-uplifting skinny pants, believes that her own young children put her out of the running for the Celine job she was up for. "Tom [Ford] was in charge of Gucci at the time," she says, explaining that she believes the thinking was: "Are we going to share her with her kids, or are we going to hire this man who'll be able to go out every night?" The job went to Michael Kors in 1997.

Fast-forward to March 2012, when an eight-months-pregnant Phoebe Philo slashed her Celine show invite list—to howls from magazine editors and cheers from her designer peers. "The pinnacle of success shouldn't be to have a business like a guy," says Maria Cornejo. "In my way of thinking, it's not that guys are better or worse; it's that women have a different way of working, a different business model. Bless Phoebe. She's saying, you know what, I'm having a kid and that takes priority." Still, Philo's ability to scale back for a season may be less a sign of general progress than of the clout she's earned with her incredible success at the label.

In addition to the after-hours courting match, the clothes that designers make also count for a lot when it comes to press coverage. "When you look at clothes that women design, it's usually things they'll wear. It's about the feel, the fit, comfort," says Victoria Bartlett. "For a male designer, it's more visual. Take McQueen, it was like theater. It's incredible visually, not just for his shows, but for press, for editorial."

As the founder and president of The News showroom, Stella Ishii has shepherded plenty of up-and-coming designers, including Jane Mayle, whose eponymous label, defunct since 2008, is still lamented in fashion circles. "When men are designing women's clothes, there's a lot more fantasy, whereas women design because it's something we'd wear ourselves; it's a more practical way of thinking," Ishii says. "It could be to your advantage that you don't have these limits."

Part of the story seems to be that male designers strive for art while female designers strive for humanity, and this difference influences, even defines, the success they achieve. Rodarte's Kate and Laura Mulleavy are the exception that proves the rule. From the beginning, the designing sisters, now 33 and 31, were championed for their imagination and creativity. The flip side is that their designs have often been criticized for lacking a sense of realism or practicality, areas in which women designers supposedly excel.

Beyond accolades and awards, there's another important measure of success: dollar signs. Ohne Titel's Flora Gill points out that in the cases of Alexander Wang and Joseph Altuzarra, at least, "their families are huge parts of their business, and you can't find a better investor than a mom or dad." Financial backing, she continues, "makes a huge difference, more than being a man or being a woman."

The good news here, says Daniella Vitale, the chief women's merchant at Barneys, is that a designer's gender is immaterial to the store's customers. "They respond to the design, quality, fit, and aesthetic," she says. "It's not gender-specific." Ikram Goldman, the Chicago retailer, agrees. "I love Ohne Titel, I love Sophie Theallet. Erin [Beatty] from Suno is so hip," Goldman says. "Are they getting the press? Maybe not, but they sell, they sell beautifully."

Still, says designer Tess Giberson, "more press recognition directly affects the power of a brand. People buy a name they recognize more." Words to contemplate with this year's CFDA Awards fast approaching on June 4.

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