In the exciting and diverse world of womenswear fashion, it is strange how most of the creative directors leading up top fashion houses are mostly men. But when you think about it again, perhaps it’s not that surprising — being the creative director of a top design house (or any design house) requires a lot of time, energy, endurance and vigor, both physically and mentally — the same that is required of anyone in another industry with the desire to climb the career ladder. Career barriers in the form of expectations of motherhood and childcare, is no exception to women in fashion. But there are, however, a selection of female designers who have cemented their place voice and work in fashion. In light of International Women’s Day, we take a look at some of fiercest and most badass women designers out there shaping today’s fashion scene.
Isabel Marant is a French fashion designer known for her bohemian aesthetic and fervently coveted creations. It all started in 1989 when she launched Twen, her first knitwear and jersey brand, at 22 years old. She held her first show in her own name in 1995 in the courtyard of a squat, with her friends as models.
Barely three years later, she opened her first boutique in an old artists’ workshop in Paris’ Bastille district.
Twenty-two years and twenty-two boutiques later, everything and nothing has changed…. her vision remains the same. She often bases her creations on her own style and tastes: “I am my first customer… My approach has always been: would I like to wear this garment? I do prêt-a-porter; I do not revolutionise the fashion world,” she said in 2011. Embodying a casual, perfectly tousled but never over-thought look, her clothes are worn by some of the world’s most fashionable stars including Kate Moss, Sienna Miller, Kate Bosworth, Rachel Weisz and Alexa Chung.
Stella McCartney is a British fashion designer best known for her sharp, simple tailoring with a feminine edge. In 1995 Stella McCartney bursted into the fashion world when she invited friends and supermodels Naomi Campbell and Kate Moss to model a collection of her clothes at her graduation from London’s Central St. Martins College of Art & Design. Two years later she was tapped to be head designer at the fashion house Chloé.
While critics said McCartney’s name (she is daughter of former Beatle Paul McCartney and Linda McCartney) artificially accelerated her rise, McCartney quietly and quickly proved herself worthy of the appointment. In 2001 McCartney landed a joint venture with Gucci Group, which agreed to let the young designer have her own label. Since then, she has been known in fashion not just as a force for designing clothes easy and feminine pieces that women feel good in, but also a voice for environmental and animal rights – no animal products is used in any of her designs, and sustainability is deeply ingrained in core parts of her business.
Founder and creative director of Sacai Chitose Abe’s story is not one of overnight success. Before founding her own label in 1999 in Tokyo, she worked under Rei Kawakubo of Comme des Garçons and Junya Wantanabe for 8 years, and she only showed her first fashion show 12 years after running her label in 2011. Sacai is most known for combining two or more different garments into one to create something unfamiliar and extraordinary, yet completely wearable.
Abe owns 100% of her business, which allows her complete creative control and freedom to select any commercial considerations she chooses. “My collections are based purely on my creative instincts,” she told BoF. “Maybe I’m an idealist, but I am a firm believer that if you’re producing well-designed products at the right price, your business is destined to flourish.”
(Who just left the fashion house but we thought she should still be included!)
The fresh new designer for Céline is Hedi Slimane, but for the last night years, the label was headed by Phoebe Philo. She worked under Stella McCartney at Chloé and became the label’s creative director when McCartney left to start her own label, creating the easy-pretty aesthetic that the label was well known for while she was there. In 2009, she became Céline’s creative director, effectively resurrecting the label from the brink of death. Truly, it seems like whatever Philo touches turns gold. Under her leadership, she has created a new wardrobe for the woman who lives and dresses for herself — minimal, functional, well-made coats, wrap skirts, shirts and frill-free shoes. Phoebe Philo’s time in Céline would doubtlessly be an era to remember.
Following the tragic death of Alexander McQueen in 2010, his longtime colleague Sarah Burton was charged with continuing the great designer’s legacy.
Sarah Burton grew up in the no-nonsense North of England, one of five artistic children who was dressed in her brother’s hand-me-downs. That created a longing for beautiful clothes, which eventually took her to Saint Martins art school to study fashion print design. She then started interning at Mcqueen, where she worked for 14 years alongside the designer before his sudden passing. Since being appointed creative director, Burton has subtly shifted the house’s aesthetic, whilst maintaining its iconic spirit with its references to nature and religion, as well as its mission to empower women – perhaps best summarized by Mcqueen’s own words: “I want to empower women. I want people to be afraid of the women I dress”.
Miuccia Prada, the founder and designer of Prada and Miu Miu, has had an unconventional start to her fashion career. She completed a PhD in political science before studying to become a mime, joining the communist party and working at Milan’s Piccolo Teatro. She entered the family business in 1978 and eventually began designing for her family’s then accessories house in 1985, producing a line of black lightweight backpacks that were an immediate success.
Three years later with the encouragement of her husband Patrizio Bertelli , Prada debuted her womenswear line in 1988, which she described as “uniforms for the slightly disenfranchised.” She would add Miu Miu , a secondary line, which now shows in Paris and has become a power brand in its own right.
Prada is perhaps the reason why “ugly chic” is in our fashion vocabulary. When she showed her first collection, no one except for a few liked it. Speaking to journalist Alexander Fury, she explained “It was not for the classic ones – there was something disturbing. And for the super trendy, avant-garde-ists, it was too classic. I always like to move in that space, never please anybody. There is always something disturbing, which is probably what I am, and I like.” Fast forward to now, Prada is known for showing clothes that you don’t know you’d like yet until 6 months later. The designer is doubtlessly one of the most influential in the industry.
Prada is now the flagship brand of the publicly listed Prada Group, which includes Miu Miu and shoe makers Church’s and Car Shoe.
Rei Kawakubo is the creative director of Comme des Garçons, which, despite operating according to an unconventional ethos rooted in raw creativity, she has grown into a business turning over $220 million a year.
Kawakubo never trained to be a fashion designer; instead she studied art and literature at Keio University. Perhaps as a result of this, she has always followed the beat of her own drum, both commercially and creatively, and as a result is hailed by the industry as an icon of modernity who continues to make ripples across the fashion industry. She is also co-founder of cult retail destination Dover Street Market , which she and her husband Adrian Joffe established in 2004.
In 2017, Comme des Garçons was the subject of “Rei Kawakubo/Comme des Garçons: Art of the In-Between,” the Metropolitan Museum of Art Costume Institute’s exhibition—only the second such show to honor a living designer, the other recipient being Yves Saint Laurent in 1983.