image: NY Times

image: NY Times

In the midst of major gender-related progression in the political landscape in the U.S., in particular, it seems an apt time to reflect on the state of the gender power structure in the fashion industry. In a 250 billion euros market, 85% of personal luxury goods consumers are women, according to a 2015 Bain report. This figure is wildly disproportionate to the statistics that support the supply side of the equation, where the industry’s most highly-ranking positions are male-dominated.

The recent(ish) appointments of Bouchra Jarrar at Lanvin and Maria Grazia Chiuri at Christian Dior – the latter being Dior’s first-ever female creative director in the Paris-based design house’s 70-year long history – signal a degree of advancement. Such appointments serve – at least in theory – to challenge the status quo of male designers’ power at the helms of the crown jewel brands of luxury conglomerates’ portfolios.

Looking at the bigger picture, consider LVMH Moet Hennessey Louis Vuitton’s 15+ fashion and leather goods brands, and Christian Dior, which LVMH does not technically own but in which its chairman Bernard Arnault holds the ownership stake. (For simplicity’s sake, we will group Dior with the brands that directly fall under the LVMH umbrella).

Only 4 of those brands are currently led by female creative directors: Chiuri at Dior; Phoebe Philo at Céline; Carol Lim at Kenzo, a position she shares with Humberto Leon; and Silvia Venturini Fendi, creative director for accessories & men’s for Fendi. It is worth noting that for several decades, Donna Karan served as creative director for her brand, and until recently, Danielle Sherman was the creative head of EDUN; LVMH holds a stake in both of those brands.

And at rival conglomerate Kering? Stella McCartney, the creative director of her eponymous label, and Sarah Burton, who is at the helm of the Alexander McQueen brand, are the only two women in the primary creative role for the 8 fashion brands.

Richemont, which owns Alaia, Chloé, and Van Cleef & Arpels, boasts a single female: Clare Waight Keller, the creative director for Chloe – who is slated to leave her position with the house at the end of March.

There are certainly anomalies in the system, such as Miuccia Prada, Rei Kawakubo, Tory Burch, Angela Missoni, Donatella Versace, and Consuelo Castiglioni. These women either ascended to the top by taking over a family business, or built their empires from the bottom up themselves (Castiglioni, however, who falls into the latter category, announced plans in October to step down). There is also Goga Ashkenazi, who took the top spot at Paris-based house Vionnet after she purchased the entire brand and appointed herself to the role.

At the other end of the spectrum, there is Nadege Vanhee Cybulski, the creative director for Hermès, a company with which she had no founding role or nepotistic connection.  Also consider Waight Keller, who, if the rumors are true, is expected to be succeeded by Natacha Ramsay-Levi, the second-in-command to Louis Vuitton designer Nicolas Ghesquiere.

So, a question emerges: Have luxury conglomerates given a fair chance to female creatives in the upper-most echelon? Gucci will certainly answer “yes” on the heels of Frida Giannini’s tenure, which lasted from 2006 to 2014. But what about similarly situated houses? It seems improbable.

The Business of Fashion

On the business side of the equation, the imbalance persists, if not worsens. Industry-wide, women only make up 25% of board-level positions in publicly traded fashion and luxury goods companies. Initiatives aimed at increasing gender diversity are being imposed in some countries, including France, where a 2011 law requires that all companies listed on the CAC 40 must show that women account for at least 40 percent of their board membership.

In 2015, more than 74% of the LVMH workforce and 73% of graduate in-take was made up of women. Of those numbers, only 4 out of 17 accounted for executive or board level management positions. LVMH attempted to address this disparity by way of EllesVMH, a diversity-centric initiative it launched in 2009; however, the current proportion questions the effectiveness of this strategy.

It is worth noting that in terms of non-creative roles, Laudomia Pucci – a Pucci family member – is the chairwoman of Emilio Pucci; and at Louis Vuitton, Delphine Arnault – daughter of LVMH chairman, Bernard Arnault – serves as Director and Executive Vice President.

Kering is only slightly ahead with 4 out of 14 of its executive members being women.  One of those women is Francesca Bellettini, who took the role of CEO of Yves Saint Laurent in 2012. Until relatively recently, Isabelle Guichot served as CEO at Kering-owned Balenciaga, and Sarah Crook at Christopher Kane, another brand in which Kering has an ownership stake.

Maureen Chiquet long maintained the CEO role at Chanel; she left late last year.

The Problem with the Media

The widespread gender disparity is intensified thanks to the media. Not only is this issue not being discussed on a frequent or consistent basis, the press is exacerbating the divide. In fact, instead of working to level the playing field, fashion awards and press coverage largely seems to disproportionately favor male designers. 

This is a particularly interesting phenomenon, as women largely sit in the top roles of the industry’s most celebrated fashion publications – save for Stefano Tonchi, who is the editor-in-chief of W magazine; Kullawit Laosuksri, who is the head of Vogue Thailand; and Ariel Foxman, who presided over InStyle for many years; among a few others. Despite this makeup, male designers reign supreme in terms of press coverage.

In 2016, for example, American Vogue covers were dominated by male designers/creative directors. Of the 12 monthly issues, the covers’ stars were dressed in male designers on 10 of 12 times. The lineup was as follows …

December (Michelle Obama) – Carolina Herrera

November (Emma Stone) – Michael Kors

October (Lupita Nyong’o) – Chanel by Karl Lagerfeld

September (Kendall Jenner) – Gucci by Alessandro Michele

August (Gigi Hadid) – Versace by Donatella Versace

July (Amy Schumer) – Dolce & Gabbana

June (Margot Robbie) – Michael Kors

May (Taylor Swift) – Saint Laurent by Hedi Slimane

April (Rihanna) – Tom Ford

March (Adele) – Burberry by Christopher Bailey

Feb (Ben Stiller and Penelope Cruz) – Ralph Lauren, Dolce & Gabbana

January (Alicia Vikander) – Louis Vuitton by Nicolas Ghesquiere

Fashion awards, such as those handed out by the Council of Fashion Designers of America (“CFDA”), reflect a similar story, where female winners frequently trail behind their male counterparts. Between 2004 and 2014, the CFDA/Vogue Fashion Fund prize was awarded to only two females. Of the male winners, three (Joseph Altuzarra, Alexander Wang, and the boys of Proenza Schouler) are primarily womenswear designers, and a couple of others design both womenswear and menswear (such as Rogan and Greg Chait of the Elder Statesman). During that same ten-year time period, of the recipients of the CFDA Awards for Womenswear Design and Emerging Womenswear Design, there were 11 male and 8 female winners.

Within the past two years, the Womenswear Designer of the Year Award winners have been evenly split in terms of gender: Marc Jacobs won in 2016; and Mary-Kate and Ashley Olsen took home the prize in 2015. Yet of the total winners in 2016, 8 of 11 were men. Out of the 24 nominated brands, 15 are run primarily by men.

The year before, 6 of 11 winners were men, and of the nominees, 16 of the total 24 nominated brands are those run primarily by men. These are not terribly inspiring numbers for female designers.

Explaining the Gap

Arguments have been made that the lack of women in high-level management roles is due to the concentrated interest in the “glamorous” side of fashion, including design, marketing, and buying, and not as much on its technical aspects of finance and operations.

Is this a gender-stereotyped argument? It seems so, especially given the fact that some of the industry’s largest and most attractive employers (LVMH, Kering, Richemont, etc.) establish relationships with leading business schools around the world – including ESSEC Business School, HEC Paris and London Business School – to source their talents. Of recent graduate-level academics, nearly seventy-five percent were females.

With this – and the gender statistics in terms of role at the fashion industry’s most esteemed brands – in mind, the future for even highly educated women is arguably not particularly promising if the reigning governance and power structures remain static.

Yet, change may be under way. There is the positive trend of women creative directors being appointed to helm the industry’s multi-billion dollar houses, such as Dior; heritage brands like Lanvin, Céline, and Chloé; and more recently established names, including Alexander McQueen. Similar efforts will ideally permeate the C-suite, especially given the institution of legally-enforcable policies by a number of European countries that acknowledge the urgency of this matter.

This article was written in conjunction with Skolastika Derridean, a management student at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland.