SYNESTHETIC VISIONS BY COLLIDE
words by SARA LUCCHESE
COLLIDE is raising antennas – we are opening our eyes to decoding the contemporary narration and selecting the most ingenious, cutting-edge protagonists in the Industry. Believing that all human nuances must be exalted, we aim to move the conversation forward.
FASHION: AN ELITE AFFAIR SOMEWHAT RINGARDE
After massive attention – at least at the level of perceived image and communication – to inclusion, whether in terms of gender, ethnicity, size or age, the fashion world, a major player in representing today’s society and shaping tomorrow’s, seems instead to be losing ground, helping to sustain a societal system that is out of step with the times. As it turns out, appointment after appointment, the landscape of creative directors heading the most important brands in the industry is now seeing predominantly male representatives – a step backward in the quest for gender equity and a discouraging message for women designers aspiring to senior positions. All creative directors of the six main fashion houses at Kering are white men. At LVMH things are just as disappointing, with eight women out of the 33 creative director roles. Fashion companies Puig and Richemont have no female creative directors. OTB Group has only one female creative director, Jil Sander’s Lucie Meier, who splits the role with her husband. Prada still has Miuccia Prada, however, along with the likely heir Raf Simons. Burberry has never had a female designer. Male creative directors are thus thriving. A Financial Times analysis of creative directors and chief executives at 33 major luxury fashion brands shows that the proportion of female designers is now lower than 15 years ago – after slightly increasing annually from 2003 till 2018, the proportion women versus men has fallen since. It shows that fashion companies are not at all focusing on creating inclusive work environments or recruiting diverse talents. Indeed, also ethnically speaking, people of color and other ethnicities are rare in leading roles and often result as ‘approved voices’, serving mainly when a company wishes to target a particular consumer. The general call for inclusion appears to no longer be part of the priorities, raising questions about the role of conglomerates and their responsibility in promoting diversity and equity.
Historically, it has been white people who have held creative decision-making positions at luxury brands. The classic patriarchal pattern recurs as if nothing has moved forward, concentrating power in its own stereotype. After all that has been said, seen and heard, this dull outline makes its way with chilling naturalness. Therefore, it is not just a matter of discussing what needs to be changed, it becomes necessary to go and grasp what works behind, not so much or only the system – which is known to be money and power above all – but rather what drives individuals – men, women and non-binary nuances – to keep supporting it, starting with thought, which then turns into more or less voluntary actions.
THE GLORY OF DESIGNS BY WOMEN
Dolly Faibyshev for The New York Times
The fashion industry is a particular case as female significantly outnumber their male peers. Discrimination begins at design school. Male designers have long been portrayed as creative geniuses, while female designers are perceived as more practical. Therefore, in schools, boys are often given more room to develop their egos and personalities. Women should better understand how to design for female bodies – which is conversely true for their male counterparts – and, by understanding their needs, also have excellent sales skills. However, they are not left with the decision-making power as especially the business of fashion is based on networking, where the inner circle is mostly men. A counter voice that somewhat vindicates women in this regard comes from the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Costume Institute’s current exhibition, Women Dressing Women, which aims to send a message by presenting work from the museum’s own collection by more than 70 different female designers from the early 20th century to the present. The shift in luxury fashion from being product-driven to marketing-driven has put female candidates at a disadvantage, yet the leading female fashion designers have always tended to be founders or owners of their companies, as if to say that to be a creative director and a woman, they have to build their own brand. Significant here is the recent choice of Phoebe Philo, a well-known and acclaimed name in the industry, who, to break out of the mold of ‘big luxury’, has chosen to implement her own vision of a fashion house, which is exclusively available via her eponymous webshop.
The inequality operates at a deeper level, which becomes evident when acknowledging that both men and women can believe that men are better suited to leadership positions. The key word here is belief, the unconscious acceptance of a condition that fuels stereotypes. The emergence of these labels can be seen as a way of simplifying existence: people tend to categorize others as well as to self-categorize, with stereotypes becoming a way of justifying the status quo or finding social identity. ‘Standardization’ takes place when people have expectations that because of some characteristics such as gender, color, race, age, nationality, marital status, education or upbringing, individuals will have – and, therefore, represent – particular values and behaviors. Gender stereotyping owes its origin to the gendered division of labor within a patriarchal social, economic and cultural structure. As a result of women being allocated to household work and men to paid work roles, each developed skills, which society then accepted as normative of gender roles, both descriptive and prescriptive in defining how women and men should behave. The characteristics ascribed to women are those of being nurturing, caring, driven by emotions, illogical and non-objective as well as self-sacrificing – men are instead typically associated with characteristics such as strength, assertiveness, rationality, competitiveness, self-confidence, objectivity and intelligence. As a direct consequence, in these day’s hire process candidates who are more qualified and better able to fulfill the social expectations of a leader still will be favored, which sees women often perceived as not possessing enough male-type qualities required for promotion to senior-level positions, potentially leading to a ‘think manager – think male’ attitude. This is an argument that applies to all industries. For fashion though, there is a further aspect to dissect: why is creative genius, according to unconscious belief, a male prerogative? There is an implicit parallelism between creativity and genius. Creativity is indeed seen as a manifestation of intelligence, creative intelligence precisely. Intelligence also consists of an analytical and a practical part. It is often associated with reasoning, logic, features that, going back to the patriarchal cultural heritage, are found in the male domain. Where then to find the ultimate ‘analytical creator’, intended as a person with high creativity but also high intelligence all at once? The answer is easily found: in a man. A ‘comfort’ aspect needs also to be considered in the selection process – a man tends to feel more comfortable talking about business face-to-face with other men, just as a woman does with other women, while people usually give greater consideration to observations that match their stereotypical beliefs than they do to counter-stereotypical observations. This attitude creates environments entrenched in their beliefs and certainties, segregated along gender lines and missing out on the growth that comes from diversity.
A breakthrough figure in all that has been said so far is Leena Nair, since January 2022 the current chief executive officer of Chanel. At first sight seemingly an outsider taking the reins of one of the houses that most represent the concept of luxury, choosing a change of direction from the top. Indeed, who better than an outsider to nurture renewal? It’s not just being a woman, her Indian roots and path allowed Nair to look at leadership in a modern way, with kindness and humble openness, so that all voices – especially dissonant ones – are heard and can this way fuel a transformation towards valuing inclusivity, which for that reason actually make her a very well fit for this leading position. In addition to true top-down managed engagement, the brand’s commitments include philanthropic projects, sustainability, innovation, support toward new artists and designs with a focus on cultivating artisanal knowledge. In true Chanel style, it puts forward an old-fashioned turning new-fashioned conscious discreet attitude, investing not in communication but rather in dedication. Just as in its origins by Coco Chanel, promoting an independent groundbreaking femininity through dressing, today the house pursues a change that independently and wisely addresses not style but structure and intent.
Overcoming stereotypes requires extra effort for all individuals and an important step begins with supporting the brands that the audience would like to see succeed as they align with their personal values. In order to move the fashion state of power, it is necessary to strike from the bottom up, since ‘big luxury’ will most likely not make the radical changes necessary to achieve a post-patriarchal condition. To really change the lack of women and of other ethnicities at the helm and boost another wave of leaders, it takes investing in and supporting brands that adopt healthy intellectual values along with a critical look at their inner workings and corporate structure. In the way they organize work, hire people and plan for the future, leaders are responsible for setting the tone and shaping the next phase of their industries – equality in fashion evolves from a problem to be solved in an opportunity for renewal, realizing the urge for this paradigm shift. Other spheres are already a step ahead.
THE GLORY OF DESIGNS BY WOMEN
Dolly Faibyshev for The New York Times