How Women Are Finally Shaking Up the French Fashion Scene

In a parallel universe, here’s how this article would have started: with Hillary Clinton winning the United States presidential election. A woman would have broken what many perceive to be the ultimate glass ceiling. Segue from the White House to French fashion houses, and 2016 was a breakthrough year for female designers. Christian Dior and Lanvin appointed Maria Grazia Chiuri and Bouchra Jarrar as artistic directors, respectively. Not since Cristina Ortiz was the designer at Lanvin, from 1998 to 2001—and not ever in the case of Dior—has a woman helmed the powerful post.

Granted, presidents get elected, whereas designers are appointed. And Chiuri’s and Jarrar’s appointments are not without precedent; it would be unfair to hail them without acknowledging the ongoing talents of Phoebe Philo at Céline, Nadège Vanhée-Cybulski at Hermès and Carol Lim at Kenzo. (To be absolutely clear, in this context, we’re zooming in on heritage brands based in Paris, not the biz at large.) But maybe we can take some comfort in the fact that an industry as rarefied as fashion has taken two steps forward.

Floriane de Saint Pierre, president of her eponymous executive search firm, is considered to be among the industry’s leading headhunters. She dates this major wave of female designers back to when the French luxury goods holding company Kering (formerly PPR) named Frida Giannini as creative director at Gucci, its largest brand, in 2002, and then Sarah Burton as the successor to Alexander McQueen, in 2010.

If Chiuri and Jarrar succeeding men seems like a big deal compared to the constant achievements of women steering the direction of their own houses (Comme des Garçons’ Rei Kawakubo, Isabel Marant, Sacai’s Chitose Abe and Vanessa Seward, among many others), that’s because myriad Parisian brands that were founded by women during fashion’s golden age—Chanel, Schiaparelli and Nina Ricci—are currently overseen by men. A recent article in the Business of Fashion reported that female designers at Paris Fashion Week represent just 37 per cent of the calendar (slightly higher than Milan at 31 per cent).

Seward, incidentally, was Loris Azzaro’s right hand before he died in 2003, after which she was named head designer. Women in these roles can change the direction of a house in subtle ways. “The danger of designers is to forget the woman,” she explains. “And women designers, well, they forget less. There’s a more spontaneous relationship to the clothes. I think the houses are more interested in this because they might have gone to extremes with certain male designers who forgot the woman.”

It’s a theory that’s shared by Alithia Spuri-Zampetti, who spent six years under Elbaz at Lanvin as head designer for womenswear before Paule Ka brought her over as its artistic director. One year later, it’s clear that the polished Parisian brand has benefited from her focus, or what she describes as posing the right “wardrobe questions.” First, you have to resist the temptation to conjure up a fantasy. Instead you identify the gaps in the market, determine a garment’s function and then select the best fabric.

With the new Dior and Lanvin runway collections now arriving in stores, it will be interesting to see how customers respond: Will they buy in expressly because they can detect that Jarrar has put more emphasis on precisely tailored daywear or because Chiuri has juxtaposed bolder graphic elements with dreamily embroidered dresses? Will they claim allegiance to the brands’ predecessors, Elbaz and Raf Simons? Will they even notice a difference?

Ultimately, de Saint Pierre, who was most recently involved in the internal promotion of Alessandro Michele at Gucci, as well as Paul Andrew’s appointment at Salvatore Ferragamo as director of women’s shoes, points out that the sustained success of a global luxury brand is based on a spectrum of considerations—in other words, whether a designer is male or female is unlikely to make or break the house. “An appointment of a creative leader is about talent, alignment of purpose with the brand and empathy with the times, not gender,” says de Saint Pierre, emphasizing that this still doesn’t account for the disproportionate number of men designing womenswear. “Both genders must have equal visibility and career opportunities.”

At which point, we as shoppers vote with our wallets. And shouldn’t we feel proud to say “I’m wearing her”?