Take a look at the Council of Fashion Designers of America’s nominees for this year's awards and you can’t help but notice how few women are in the running. No women are nominated in the Womenswear Designer of the Year category, the Menswear Designer of the Year category, the Accessory Designer of the Year category or the Swarovski Award for Menswear (for emerging talent). Ashley and Mary Kate Olsen made the cut with their label The Row in the Swarovski Award for Womenswear category, while jewelry designer Pamela Love is up for the Swarovski Award for Accessories. In other words, just two out of the nineteen nominated this year are women.
Don't think this is a fluke: Last year, also, only two women were nominated, and the same was true in 2009. In 2008, women made up 16.7 percent of the nominees; in 2007, 5.6 percent (only Kate and Laura Mulleavy of Rodarte were nominated in a single category); and in 2006, 22.2 percent. All in all, these would seem to be rather startling numbers for an industry set up in large part to appeal to the needs and desires of women.
The Issue is Bigger Than the CFDA
It’s hard to blame this gender disparity on the CFDA. Nominations for the awards are submitted by the CFDA Fashion Awards Selection Committee, which includes all CFDA members along with a group of fashion retailers, journalists and stylists. It’s a pretty gender balanced group. Furthermore, when talking about the CFDA, one can’t forget that Diane von Furstenberg, who has long been a champion of women’s issues, is the current President of the organization. (Both Diane von Furstenberg and CFDA Executive Director Steven Kolb did not respond to requests for comment.) Because it’s hard to blame the CFDA, or those making the nominations, one can’t help but wonder what the deeper issue here really is.
Valerie Steele, Director and Chief Curator of The Museum at the Fashion Institute of Technology [FIT], and author of Women of Fashion offered up some perspective.
"Women historically have been the one’s making clothes," says Steele, "but the situation changed in the late 19th century when Charles Worth entered the picture and became the most famous couturier in the world.” According to Steele, while it was initially shocking that a man would be involved in fashion, the tides then began to turn and more and more men started becoming designers at that time.
The pendulum swung back in the 1920s during the flapper era, however: "The thought during that time was: Who better than a woman to design for the modern woman,” says Steele. Following World War II, the tide shifted again, as fashion swung in a more conservative direction. “Businesses were more expensive to set up and you needed backers. Men like Christian Dior and Cristóbal Balenciaga -- they were considered artists. And the thought was, they are the ones to put money behind.” In the 1960s and 1970s the big designer names continued to be male says Steele, and while certain designers like Donna Karan came into influence in the 1980s, the trend never accelerated. Today, says Steele, “The structure of the industry has completely changed and you are no longer dressing an individual, you never meet the designer. The new young cool male designer might just be considered more marketable at the moment. I don’t think it’s conscious.”
Venture Capital Barriers
Despite the reality that less women than men are receiving accolades in the fashion world, women actually continue to dominate enrollments at fashion schools. FIT is comprised of 85 percent women. The New School, which includes Parsons, is comprised of 71 percent women. Yet there aren’t many women in fashion who, in the last ten years, have launched a brand that means big business : The exceptions, of course, are Stella McCartney and Tory Burch. Other women who have advanced in recent years -- including Phoebe Philo at Céline and Sarah Burton at Alexander McQueen -- are not entrepreneurs, but rather are tasked with continuing the legacy of a pre-existing brand (with pre-existing financial muscle).
The struggle for women to make it as fashion designers with their own label isn’t that different from the issues most women entrepreneurs face today. While women launch nearly half of all new businesses in the United States, access to capital remains largely out of reach. Of the $17.6 billion in angel investment in 2009, only 9.4 percent went to women entrepreneurs according to the 2009 angel investor report from the Center for Venture Research at the University of New Hampshire. Research shows that women are twice as likely to use debt rather than equity or self-finance to get businesses going. And venture capitalists are overwhelming men.
"Venture has been like a club, where people basically band together with their friends or acquaintances to do deals, and tons of networking applies. Since it was a business started by guys, I think they haven't gone out of their way to accept women," says Annette Campbell-White who runs her own venture capital firm. "Women haven't really had advocates in VC to help push against the glass ceiling."
This lack of access to capital might begin to explain why women are falling behind their male counterparts in the fashion world. The other explanation, of course, is the long-ingrained believe that men just make better designers -- or, as Tom Ford told Interview this year: "I think gay men make better designers."