According to The New York Times, Tracy Reese is perhaps one of the best-known African-American Female designer. (Photo Credit: Model D Media)
As Women’s History Month comes to a close, we thought we’d explore the origin of Woman’s History month, showcase some of the talented female designers from diverse ethnicities and shed light on equality and equity (or lack of) as it pertains to the fashion industry. According to a 2022 Council of Fashion Designers of America study entitled The Glass Runway, “while the vast majority of students who obtain a degree in fashion are women, men still dominate the industry.” The study concluded that “of the top 50 fashion houses in the world, only 14% of them are run by female executives.” In the Unites States, the most common ethnicity of fashion designers is White (63.0%), followed by Hispanic or Latino (11.9%), Asian (11.6%) and Black or African American (7.3%), as reported by Zippia, a career database. Looks like there is a lot of room for improvement in our industry when it comes to gender, race and ethnic equity and equality.
Before we dive in to this hot topic, here’s some history behind Woman’s History Month:
Women’s History Month 2023. (Photo Credit: PR Daily)
- The origin of celebrating women dates back to 1911 with the first International Women’s Day, which advocated for women’s rights and suffrage.
- Following a lobbying effort by the National Women’s History Project (NWHP- an organization founded in 1980 by a group of women historians), Women’s History Week was first celebrated in 1982, coinciding with the 91st anniversary of the first women’s suffrage march in the United States.
- After several years of lobbying, Congress passed a resolution in 1987 designating March as Women’s History Month. It is now celebrated in many countries around the world, with a theme chosen each year by the NWHP. The celebration includes events, lectures, and exhibitions to educate people about the accomplishments and contributions of women in various fields, including science, politics, art, and more.
- The theme for 2023 is “Celebrating Women Who Tell Our Stories.” The NWHA encourages the recognition of women, past and present, who have been active in all forms of media and storytelling including print, radio, TV, stage, screen, blogs, podcasts, and more. The timely theme honors women in every community who have devoted their lives and talents to producing art, pursuing truth, and reflecting the human condition decade after decade.
Top: Toni Morrison, Maxine Hong Kingston, Jovita Idar, Maya Angelou, Middle: Gerda Lerner, Gloria Steinem, Winona La Duke, Lillian Hellman
Bottom: Betty Soskin, Willa Cather, Gertrude Stein, Marjory Stoneman Douglas (Photo credit: nationalwomensalliance.org)
DIVERSE WOMAN MAKING A MARK IN THE FASHION INDUSTRY
As the fashion industry heeds the call for increased gender equity and diversity in the C-site, the design room, on the runway and in advertising and as women continue to face barriers and discrimination in the industry (with men occupying the majority of leadership positions), we are seeing some an increase in the number of female designers from diverse backgrounds making a name for themselves on their own.
What makes these diverse female fashion designers stand out is their ability to create designs that empower women. They are not afraid to take risks and push boundaries, creating designs that are not only aesthetically pleasing but also challenge traditional gender norms. Their work has been instrumental in shaping the fashion industry and inspiring other women to pursue careers in fashion design.
It is therefore important that we continue to support and celebrate the work of female fashion designers and promote gender equality in the industry. Here are a few female designers breaking down the barriers:
AURORA JAMES OF BROTHER VELLIES
Brother Vellies founder/designer Aurora James in her boutique. (Photo Credit: Kyle Knodell)
Born in Toronto in 1984, designer Aurora James grew up with a passion for fashion and design. She studied fashion design at Ryerson University in Toronto and worked as a designer in Los Angeles and New York City before launching her brand Brother Vellies in 2013. James is a woman of color who has made a significant impact in the fashion industry with her luxury footwear and accessories brand that celebrates traditional African craftsmanship. Her designs are inspired by her travels to different parts of the world and incorporate elements of traditional African culture. She has been recognized for her commitment to sustainability, ethical fashion practices and social justice initiatives.
Aurora James called her “Tax the Rich” dress for Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez a “powerful message” at the Met Gala. (Photo Credit: The NY Post)
One of James’ most notable initiatives is the 15 Percent Pledge, which calls on retailers to dedicate 15 percent of their shelf space to Black-owned businesses. The initiative gained widespread attention in the wake of the Black Lives Matter protests in 2020, and has been embraced by several major retailers, including Sephora and Macy’s. James was named to Forbes’ 30 Under 30 list in 2015 and was awarded the CFDA/Vogue Fashion Fund in 2015.
Haitian-Italian fashion designer Stella Jean. (Photo Credit: Getty Images)
Stella Jean is a Haitian-Italian fashion designer known for her unique blend of African and Western aesthetics in her designs. Born in Rome in 1979 to a Haitian mother and Italian father, Jean grew up with a deep appreciation for her mixed heritage. Jean studied at the European Institute of Design in Rome and later worked in the communication industry before transitioning to fashion. She launched her eponymous label in 2011 and quickly gained international recognition for her innovative and socially conscious designs.
Jean’s designs are a fusion of African and Western cultures, blending traditional African textiles and prints with contemporary Italian tailoring and utilizes bold and vibrant colors, mixed prints, and intricate embroideries. Jean has been praised for her commitment to ethical fashion and sustainability, using eco-friendly materials and partnering with artisans in Haiti and Africa to create her collection.
Throughout her career, Jean has collaborated with several fashion brands and organizations, including the Ethical Fashion Initiative of the International Trade Center, which supports artisans in developing countries. She has also showcased her designs at several international fashion shows, including Milan Fashion Week and Paris Fashion Week.
A hunger strike makes headlines before Milan Fashion Week 2023 begins. Stella Jean protests lack of diversity in Italian fashion. (Photo Credit: NY Times)
Jean is also an advocate for social justice and women’s rights and uses her platform to promote diversity and inclusivity in the fashion industry, highlighting the importance of representation and empowerment for marginalized communities. Her designs have gained international recognition and are worn by several celebrities, including Beyoncé, Rihanna, and Amal Clooney.
Nigerian-born designer Maki Oh. (Photo Credit: Maki Oh)
In addition to these established designers, there are also several up-and-coming Black female designers who are making their mark. One such designer is Maki Oh, a Nigerian-born designer whose designs celebrate African heritage and culture. Her designs are known for their intricate details and traditional African textile techniques. Her work has been featured in several high-profile fashion shows, including New York Fashion Week and Paris Fashion Week. She is considered one of the most exciting new voices in African fashion and has gained international recognition for her innovative designs.
Oh studied fashion design at the Arts Institute of Bournemouth in the United Kingdom before launching her eponymous label in Lagos, Nigeria in 2010. Since then, she has become known for her bold prints, vibrant colors, and intricate embroideries, which often reference traditional Nigerian motifs and symbols. She often uses locally sourced materials, such as Adire (a traditional Nigerian indigo-dyed fabric), Aso-oke (a handwoven cloth), and Ankara (a type of African print fabric) to create clothes that are both authentic and contemporary.
Beyonce rocking a Maki Oh creation. (Photo Credit: The designer’s studio)
In addition to her fashion design work, Oh has also been recognized for her contribution to African fashion. She was named a finalist for the prestigious LVMH Prize in 2014 and has been featured in exhibitions at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London and the Museum of Arts and Design in New York. Oh’s designs have been worn by several notable celebrities, including Solange Knowles, Lupita Nyong’o, and Beyoncé.
Mumbai-based designer Anita Dongre. (Photo Credit: Vogue India)
Anita Dongre is a Mumbai-based designer who launched her eponymous label in 1995, focusing on bridal and special occasion wear. Since then, she has expanded her brand to include menswear and ready-to-wear. Her designs are known for their intricate hand embroidery, luxurious fabrics, and timeless silhouettes. In 2015, Dongre launched her sustainable fashion brand, Grassroot, which focuses on supporting local artisans and promoting environmentally-friendly practices using natural materials and traditional handcrafting techniques. Dongre’s designs have been worn by numerous celebrities and she has won several awards for her contribution to the industry.
Looks from Indian designer Anita Dongre. (Photo Credit: Anita Dongre)
Dongre has received numerous awards and recognition for her contribution to Indian fashion, including being named one of the 50 most powerful women in Indian business by Forbes India in 2018. She is also a member of the Fashion Design Council of India and has been a guest speaker at several prominent fashion events and conferences.
Mumbai-based designer Masaba Gupta. (Photo Credit: India TV News)
Masaba Gupta is another female Indian fashion designer who has been making a mark in the industry. A Mumbai-based designer, Gupta was educated in fashion design at SNDT Women’s University before launching her label in 2009. Her designs are a blend of traditional and contemporary Indian prints and often feature asymmetrical silhouettes with unconventional draping, making her a stand out from other designers in the industry. Gupta has been recognized for her innovative approach to design, thus winning the 2012 Vogue India Fashion Fund award in 2012.
Looks from Masaba Gupta’s Wedding Collection. (Photo Credit: Shaadiwish)
In addition to her fashion design work, Gupta is also a prominent social media personality and has used her platform to promote body positivity and mental health awareness. She has been vocal about her struggles with depression and anxiety and has used her experiences to inspire others to seek help and speak out about mental health issues.
Gupta has received numerous awards and recognition for her contribution to Indian fashion, including being named one of Forbes’ 30 Under 30, in 2012. She has also been featured in several prominent fashion events, including Lakme Fashion Week and Amazon India Fashion Week.
Indian fashion designer Payal Singhal. (Photo Credit: Vogue India)
Payal Singhal is another Mumbai-based designer who launched her eponymous label in 1999 after completing her education in fashion design from SNDT Women’s University in Mumbai. Singhal uses traditional Indian textiles and embroidery techniques, such as Zardozi and Chikankari, but gives them a modern twist with innovative cuts and silhouettes.
Looks from Payal Singhal’s past collections. (Photo Credit: StyleGods)
In addition to her fashion design work, Singhal has also collaborated with several prominent Indian brands, including Coca-Cola and Lakme, to create limited edition collections. She has also been a guest speaker at several prominent fashion events and conferences, including Lakme Fashion Week and India Fashion Forum and her designs have been worn by numerous celebrities .
Singhal has received numerous awards and recognition for her contribution to Indian fashion, including being named one of the 50 most powerful women in Indian business by Forbes India in 2018. She is also a member of the Fashion Design Council of India and has been a vocal advocate for promoting sustainable fashion practices in the industry.
Hong Kong-born Parisian designer Anaïs Mak. (Photo Credit: Prestige)
Anaïs Mak was born and raised in Hong Kong, but today the fashion designer is based out of Paris. Mak has gained international recognition for her unique and innovative designs that blend contemporary and traditional elements. She launched her eponymous label in 2016, after working for several high-end fashion brands, including Lanvin and Alexander McQueen.
Mak’s designs are known for their experimental silhouettes, bold colors, and unexpected combinations of materials. She often incorporates unconventional fabrics such as PVC and latex into her designs, while also using traditional materials like silk and cotton. Mak is also known for her use of asymmetrical cuts and unconventional draping techniques, which give her designs a unique and edgy look. Mak’s designs have been worn by several prominent celebrities, including Rihanna and Solange Knowles.
A look by Anaïs Mak. (Photo Credit: Luke Casey)
In addition to her fashion design work, Mak is also a trained visual artist and often incorporates elements of sculpture and installation art into her fashion designs. Her background in the arts has given her a unique perspective on fashion, allowing her to create pieces that blur the lines between fashion and art.
Mak has received several awards and recognition for her contribution to the fashion industry, including being named one of the top 10 designers to watch by Vogue in 2018. She has also been featured in several prominent fashion events, including Paris Fashion Week and London Fashion Week.
Singapore-based designer Celine Kwan. (Photo Credit: Prestige)
Celine Kwan is a Singaporean fashion designer who is known for her intricate and innovative designs that combine traditional techniques with modern elements. She launched her eponymous label in 2014, after completing her studies at the Parsons School of Design in New York City.
Kwan’s designs are characterized by their intricate detailing and use of traditional techniques such as embroidery and beading. She often incorporates elements of her Singaporean heritage into her designs, such as the use of Peranakan embroidery techniques and batik prints. Kwan is also known for her use of unexpected materials such as plastic and PVC, which give her designs a unique and edgy look.
Kwan’s designs have been featured in several prominent fashion events, including Singapore Fashion Week and New York Fashion Week.
In addition to her fashion design work, Kwan is also a passionate advocate for sustainable fashion practices. She has collaborated with several eco-conscious brands to create sustainable fashion collections and has been a vocal advocate for reducing waste in the fashion industry.
Looks from Celine Kwan. (Photo Credit: Lifestyle Asia)
Kwan has received several awards and recognition for her contribution to the fashion industry, including being named one of the 30 Under 30 designers in Asia by Forbes in 2017. She has also been featured in several prominent exhibitions, including the Singapore National Museum’s “Century of Light” exhibition in 2019.
EQUITY VS. EQUALITY: WHAT’S THE DIFFERENCE?
Maria Grazia Chiuri, creative director at Dior created “We Should All Be Feminists” for her debut collection in 2016. (Photo Credit: Getty Images)
Over time, female fashion designers have made significant contributions to the fashion industry (ex. Chanel, Vionnet, Madame Grès, Donna Karan, Diane von Fürstenberg, etc.). And yet, access to a top tier design house job remains unequal for women, even though they may have the same training as their male counterpart. That’s inequality. When the fashion industry continues to support a system where male designers are favored over female designers that’s inequity.
While the industry has slowly become more racially and ethnically diverse (ex. Tracy Reese, Kimora Lee Simmons, Reem Acra, Aurora James, Virgil Abloh), we have a long way to go toward equality and equity, especially when it comes to hiring and promoting female fashion designers.
Achieving equality and equity in the fashion industry requires a multi-faceted approach that involves various stakeholders: schools, designers, brands, retailers, consumers and industry associations. Here are some strategies that can help:
- Diversity and Inclusion: embrace diversity and inclusion by promoting and showcasing a range of body types, skin colors and gender identities in marketing campaigns. Fashion brands should also include a diverse range of people in their hiring practices, from models to designers to executives.
- Equal Pay and Opportunities: The fashion industry should strive to provide equal pay and opportunities for both genders. Women should be represented in all areas of the industry, from design to management positions. Brands should also ensure that women receive equal pay for equal work and that there are no barriers to their career advancement.
- Sustainable and Ethical Fashion: The fashion industry should adopt sustainable and ethical practices, which benefit both the environment and workers in the supply chain, many of whom are women. This includes promoting fair labor practices, safe working conditions, and using eco-friendly materials.
- Collaboration and Advocacy: Industry associations, fashion bloggers, influencers, and media outlets can collaborate to promote gender equality in the fashion industry. They can highlight brands that are inclusive and sustainable and advocate for policies that support gender equality.
Promoting diversity and gender equality/equity in the fashion industry requires a long-term commitment. But, by working together we can create a more inclusive and sustainable industry.
What about choosing a female designer to replace Jeremy Scott at Moschino? Care to share your thoughts on the subject?