Men in women’s fashion — the gender imbalance we don’t talk about

A few weeks ago, rumours abounded about Tom Ford possibly returning to Gucci, after Frida Giannini’s departure. While there is no doubting Mr Ford’s all-round creative nous, from couture to perfume and makeup, and film making, it would have been disappointing if he did return to the role. In the event, Ms Giannini was replaced by Alessandro Michele.

The technology industry isn’t the only gender-imbalanced industry in this world. Women’s fashion world redefines the imbalance between the customer base of women, who spend but where value appropriation is disproportionately made by men.

It is men, who overwhelmingly own stakes in, invest in, and lead companies that serve the women’s fashion market. For instance, Richemont, that owns Net-a-Porter, Chloé , Azzedine Alaïa, Van Cleef & Arpels and Cartier amongst others, fields, at the time of writing on March the 8th, 2015, a board consisting of 18 men and one woman! Doing better is Kering (formerly PPR) led by Francois-Henri Pinault with a board of 11 of which 4 are women. Kering owns, to varying degrees fashion brands such as Gucci, Saint Laurent Paris, Stella McCartney, Alexander McQueen, Bottega Veneta amongst others.

Men are also overwhelmingly the creative leads in many of women’s fashion brands. Here is a roll call for the uninitiated — Nicolas Ghesquière at LVMH, Karl Lagerfeld at Chanel and Fendi, Christopher Bailey at Burberry, Alexander Wang at Balenciaga, Hedi Slimane at St Laurent Paris, Jean-Paul Gaultier at the eponymous brand which is fair enough but he was at Hermès 2003-10, Rodolfo Paglialunga at Jil Sander, Alber Elbaz at Lanvin, John Anderson at Loewe, Olivier Rousteing at Balmain, and John Galliano having recently returned with Maison Margiela (he was earlier at Dior).

Which makes it worth celebrating Miuccia Prada at Prada, Donatella Versace at Versace (with Anthony Vaccarello at Versus), the incomparable Vivienne Westwood, Jenna Lyons at J Crew, and Hermès’s 2014 appointee Nadège Vanhee-Cybulski.

The magazines that serve women’s fashion market, Vogue and Harper’s Bazaar to name but two, are owned by corporations – Condé Nast and Hearst respectively – where almost all board directors and senior executives are male. Hearst has one female board director, Condé Nast‘s imbalance is tipped by the presence of Anna Wintour, the well-known industry heavyweight.

In fact only a minuscule 3% of creative directors in advertising, that drives women’s spend, are women. A staggering minority no matter how one looks at it!

I should however point out that mainly British women are in charge of some of the most influential fashion magazines including Glenda Bailey and Justine Picardie at the Harper’s Bazaar respectively in the USA and the UK, and Anna Wintour and Alexandra Shulman at the Vogue respectively in the USA and the UK. Thank goodness also for Vanessa Friedman, Suzy Menkes, Jo Ellison, Christina Binkley who witness, document and report on the fashion industry from the front row and beyond!

So why is it that when we talk of gender imbalance, we get stuck at the technology industry and Silicon Valley?

Why not start at the obvious — where women are spending money but where the value appropriation is overwhelmingly not made by women?

It’s not the pipeline for sure. A good 71% or more of the graduates of Central St Martins, the alma mater of late Alexander McQueen, and a reported 74% of the graduates of London College of Fashion are women. The number is 77% for women students at Parsons The New School for Design.

The industry is also traditionally not seen as no place for women.

But the industry does keep up with the tradition of notable wage gap between men and women, so much that there are no women in the top-20 highest paid executives.

So while we sit in the middle of Paris Fashion Week and mark another International Women’s Day, we ask yet again — what gives?

And more importantly, as we seek that elusive goal of gender equality — can we make it happen?

The theme for #IWD2015

The theme for #IWD2015


Unflattered by imitation

Luxury marques trade partly on the tangible benefits of craftsmanship, provenance and history, and partly on exclusivity (i.e. some can only aspire to them not afford them) and the brand name’s signalling value.

While discussing the face-off between the democratic web and the exclusive nature of luxury, in an earlier post, I wrote that the democracy-exclusivity divide may belong in a debate about sales targets but it certainly does not belong in a discussion about building a brand’s long-term value.

Luxury brands like to connect with the fans of their brands on social media but they draw the line at being flattered by imitation such as offered by counterfeit, fake or knockoff goods that some “fans” of the brand may purchase. There may be uncertain brand building gains but there is potentially certain revenue loss. While in most cases, it is expensive and time-consuming to go after sellers of counterfeit or knockoff goods, in other cases, such as the litigation LVMH brought against eBay, it is possible to make a concerted effort to suffocate the trade in fakes.

Museum_of_Counterfeit_Goods_Wikimedia_CC3.0Who buys these counterfeit or knockoff goods, with intent, anyway?

Some are bought by people, who aspire to but cannot afford the brand, yet nonetheless wish to signal their worth to others. In that sense, one could argue, that knockoffs do not really devalue the original brand. They serve a different market. They serve aspirers. These aspirers may or may not have real social influencer status, so their purchases may not matter either way.

A knowing few (hipsters?) often deliberately choose fakes. Someone I know socially, who can afford to buy the real thing, wears a fake Patek Phillipe Calatrava. It is a topic of gossip amongst those, who don’t know him well. On the other hand, a person, who knows Patek Phillipe craftsmanship well can tell immediately and won’t be impressed with his fake watch. His defence was, “I wear the fake ironically.” That makes it alright then.

Amongst those, who knowingly choose to buy fakes, some find social embarrassment mortifying. If you carry a fake Birkin, but move in circles where many have the real thing, that embarrassment will find you sooner than later.

Some others I know socially first bought counterfeit goods because of the aspiration value of the counterfeited brand, and because they coveted the brand’s beautifully made products. But then they found the quality satisfactory for their purposes and have continued buying those counterfeit products.

This is where it gets tricky for luxury brands.

How do luxury brands then stand out so that they can bring these people seeking quality into the fold or at the very least make the genuine article stand out so dramatically that the aspirers move away from fake goods altogether?

I see three flavours of a new kind of exclusivity emerging.

The first kind, that has been running for a few years now, is to make the brand aura accessible via collaboration with a high street brand, as Alexander Wang, Isabel Marant and others have done with fast fashion H&M. Such collaborations create a kind of desire and exclusivity within the mass market milieu, satisfying some aspirers while probably nudging others into exploring the real thing.

Then there is the use of technology to create and enable an inclusive form of exclusivity, such as Burberry enabling customers to buy off the catwalk and have goods personalised for a limited period after a fashion show.

But above all, luxury turns to its roots in craftsmanship, the exclusivity of custom-made novel fabrics and materials, such as practised by Mary Katrantzou, who is having a special kind of lace and embroidered jacquards specially made in Swiss mills. This is near-impossible to knock-off and the goods are certainly far from anything the mass market can access.

Luxury will always have an uncomfortable relationship with the democratising effect of the web and emergent technologies. In exclusivity lies its allure.

What will emerge is innovation in ways of keeping that exclusivity alive. And in ways of influencing the intent of fans and potential customers towards the real thing and away from fakes.

Craftsmanship is the reliable foundation luxury can always turn to.

But will that suffice?

Wearable tech’s luxury and fashion challenge

“Here’s the only thing you need to know about wearable punditry: No one knows anything. Zip. This is a market that barely exists.”, said technology columnist Christopher Mims recently.

Google Glass, a high profile early avatar of wearable tech, had made an appearance in New York Fashion Week in 2012’s showing of Diane von Furstenberg’s SS ’13 collection. More recently it debuted in London at Selfridges’s YSL makeup counters. Neatly making progress with fashion and luxury brands.

Yet it was withdrawn, retired from public view last week.

Cue, much discussion about its tech wizardry, privacy challenges and use cases.

To test wearability, Google Glass flirted with fashion and luxury. Yet, it has to be said it was ugly as sin. Aesthetically unacceptable. There is no disagreement on that.

Historians and scholars of luxury have argued that early human clothing was not about the need for protection against the elements or about emergent norms of decency, but about the need for ornamentation, adornment of the self.

As far back as 850BC, Homer describes in The Iliad, how Paris or Alexandros, as he steps forward to combat, bears a panther skin on his shoulders.

“When they were close up with one another, Alexandrus came forward as champion on the Trojan side. On his shoulders he bore the skin of a panther, his bow, and his sword, and he brandished two spears shod with bronze as a challenge to the bravest of the Achaeans to meet him in single fight.” – from Samuel Butler’s translation of The Iliad, Book III.

Historian François Boucher, author of 20,000 Years of Fashion: The History of Costume and Personal Adornment, suggests wearing such ornamentation “identified the wearer with animals, gods, heroes, or other men”.

In other words, “wearability” has always been about more than utility.

Wearable tech, as it exists now, is failing this very first test of “wearable as adornment”.

Utility can not be divorced from the beauty that well-crafted objets embody, and expect wide success.

Consider this early example of wearable tech — a Qing dynasty era (1644-1912) abacus ring.

Miniature Abacus Ring, Qing Dynasty

The beads could be moved using a hairpin a woman would pull out of her hairdo, enabling some rapid day-to-day arithmetic. But boy, is it an hommage to beauty in miniature!

Yes, I know women don’t use hairpins any more. But to fixate on that is to miss the point.

Unless the aesthetic and craftsmanship game is raised, and unless it fits in with the aesthetic and craftsmanship discourse of these industries, wearable tech will just flirt around the the edges of luxury and fashion.

Without getting the patronage of those who seek excellence in making and craftsmanship, that effortlessly combines beauty with utility.

Here’s hoping Google Glass is not broken and they are just polishing it.

Is care in design exclusionary and elitist?

The monograph last week generated much conversation. And some observations that caring in design and craftsmanship was all about expensive pieces made for the few, not for the masses. Seeing the examples that I cited, it is not entirely inconceivable to think of caring and craftsmanship as the preserve of the few.

But that couldn’t be further from the truth.

Because to think of care as something that only the few, the elite deserve is to believe that the relatively poor, the everyman does not deserve the respect that such care implies.

But isn’t such care expensive? I’d posit it is not.

Is it feasible to create an organisation whose fabric has caring woven into it? Yes, it is.

Mujifounded in 1979 — on the principles of minimalism in design and in wastage in production and packaging, recycling and no branding is a beautiful example. The philosophy is summed up as “no brand quality goods”.

Muji makes and sells a range of products from stationery, to utilitarian goods such as ear-buds and portable mirrors, basic clothing such as cotton dresses and t-shirts, storage such as bottles and boxes, kitchen articles and electronics. The products use very little, just sufficient packaging. The stores themselves are marked by a simple layout, minimalist shelving with goods on display, the absence of colourful or loud banners and “offers” or any other point-of-sale tools.

And the goods last, delivering the promise of low wastage (wrought often by the need for frequent replacement of often-used goods) and caring and respect in design.

A portable, foldable mirror in aluminium I bought from Muji 8 years ago, and the loyal companion in my handbag on all my travels every day, is still intact and looks good as new. An average Muji cotton t-shirt has last me 5 years. I feel a twinge of sadness when I have to retire a Muji t-shirt from active duty.

Muji mirrorThe mirror, seen in the picture, if bought today, would cost me a princely sum of £3.95. Two plain t-shirts can be bought for under £10.

This is inclusive, affordable and respectful design.

Of basic goods that anyone — you, me, anyone — can afford and be confident that it won’t unravel or break within days of our buying them, leading to further expense and material wastage.

The philosophy scales beyond small household goods too. While Muji keeps private the names of its designers and manufacturers, in line with its no-brand policy, it has collaborated to produce a fuel-efficient, low-emission car with Nissan.

Can anyone create products with care and respect, for anyone, not just the few, to use and enjoy?

I believe so.

It does take commitment though.

Commitment to asking “what if this were me?” at every step of the organisation’s design.

Commitment to treating the other human, as well as materials we derive from the planet and through manufacture, with respect and consideration.

Commitment to engaging mindfully with what we do, create and deliver.

Is that too much to ask?

Caring — an antidote to mindless consumerism?

I disagreed with a few things that Jonathan Ive said in his talk at the Design Museum. But there was one thing he said with which I agree fully:

“It’s made better. There is an integrity there.

I really truly believe that people can sense care. And in the same way they can sense carelessness.

And I think this is about the respect we have for each other. If you give me something, and if you expect me to buy something, and all I can sense is carelessness, it is personally offensive.”

In practice, that integrity, that care, that respect all require — and drive — a few things in the process of making.

The maker or craftsperson, who knows his or her materials well, their limitations, their potential, is essential to this process. The craftsperson then translates this knowledge into making, well, well-made products.

These products may seem a bit pricey so we buy less of but use more of, more frequently.

These products bring pleasure not just in use but in ownership too. I am thinking of the Riedel wine glasses I bought over a decade ago. A flick on the edge of the wine glass creates a single note, like from a suzu gong, that reverberates for several seconds. It is not a bug, it is not a feature. But with every wine glass making the same sound, that sound is the hallmark of a design process, which deemed the beauty of the experience at least as important as the functionality.

These products don’t fall apart at the seams, nor do their buttons or hemlines unravel easily. Like that beautiful DvF silk dress I bought fifteen years ago. I wear it often, at every given chance, but I am yet to find a stray thread hanging loose.

Some of these products are so intuitively designed that they minimise the consumer’s need to “figure out” before being able to use them. Take the iPad. So intuitive a baby can use it.

Thoughtfully made, painstakingly crafted, beautiful things spoil us. So much that one can no longer bear to engage with mass produced stuff that screams to be replaced season to season.

They spoil us because we now have tasted the possibility of paying attention and putting care in the design process of a product we use daily.

They spoil us because we have now experienced excellence and human endeavour to perfection.

They spoil us because once we see beauty and profound care, we cannot un-see it.

Perhaps, this is the antidote to consumerism.

Uncompromising care, meticulous attention to detail, deep knowledge of sensual and practical aspects of materials, craftsmanship non-pareil and a great consumer experience — from finding, to buying, owning and using — all delivering us products that truly satisfy us.

Have you experienced such care and thoughtfulness in your entire interaction with businesses that sell you things? How did it make you feel?

More importantly, how has it changed you? Tell me your stories!