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Women have always done the work fashion needs. They are the seamstresses, the washerwomen, the hands on the factory line and the feet on the store floor. That labor was (is) often under the control and influence of men: from Charles Worth, the 19th century's father figure of couture, to Bernard Arnault, the current CEO of LVMH, fashion tends to follow the minds (and more importantly, the money) of the masculine. There was a group of women-led design houses and famous female designers working in the years leading up to the second World War: Coco Chanel, Jeanne Lanvin, Madame Gres, Madeleine Vionnet, and Elsa Schiaparelli all achieved a certain level of fame and financial success, though today only a few of them have retained the same level of name-brand recognition, and none of the ones still in existence are run by women.
Recently, however, a pronounced number of women have been appointed to visible, powerful positions: Maria Grazia Chiuri, formerly co-creative director of Valentino (her design partner, Pierpaolo Piccioli, remains there solo), is the first woman to lead Christian Dior. Claire Waight Keller is the new artistic director for Givenchy, another heritage house bringing on a woman for the very first time. Keller will be replaced at Chloé, her former employer, by Natacha Ramsay-Levi, formerly Nicolas Ghesquiére's right-hand woman at Louis Vuitton. Rei Kawakubo, the subject of the current marquee exhibition of the Metropolitan Museum of Art's Constume Institute, is only the second living designer ever to have a retrospective there. They join the women already in positions they were appointed to, inherited, or created for themselves: Phoebe Philo, Miuccia Prada, Stella McCartney, Donna Karan, Mary-Kate and Ashley Olsen of The Row, and Diane von Furstenberg, to name a few.
This new movement in female-led design teams comes at a time of chaos—political, mostly. As women organize amongst themselves to fight the threats against their freedom, is the fashion industry trying to provide a parallel form of organization? Or is the fashion industry is referencing a certain kind of cynical, or perhaps just too literal, feminist principle: the feminism that believes anything a man does, a woman can and should also do?
The fashion industry is also experiencing its own moment of intense chaos, apart from the world around it: the turnover amongst designers and houses seems to move at the same pace of runway shows—which is to say, recklessly quick. Like the period in between the two world wars, when women like Chanel and Schiaparelli were at the height of their fame, we now only understand our lives as being between eras—between technologies and trends, leaders and losers, war and peace. Are these women being tasked with subverting the status quo in favor of something better, or with enforcing the long-standing rules? The meaning is still to be determined, but in couture, there are no coincidences.
MARIA GRAZIE CHIUIRI: THE ICONOCLASTIC ARCHIVIST
Dior, the man, knew just what fashion should do to—not for—women. His 1947 debut was a collection of "Bar" suits that were tight in the waist, flared in the hips, wide and open skirts—like some overly angular version of a woman's body, composed entirely of outlines. The collection, which he called "Corolle," suggests a different kind of idealization: "like a flower," in English. It was nature made perverse, or maybe the reverse, with a Freudian element tastefully obscured—like a vulva doesn't have the same je ne sais quoi—but looking at it again I see, simply or surreally, a tulip.
In any case, no one remembers the 1947 collection as a bouquet. They remember Carmel Snow's exclamation: it was, she said, such a new look! After years of wartime rationing, this deliberate abundance was provocative to supporters, and blasphemous to detractors. There were stories of women who wore Dior being attacked on the street by the women who saw his designs as an affront to their years of "make and mend." King George V allegedly thought wearing that much fabric during ration times was a bad look, and forbade the princesses Elizabeth and Margaret from wearing it, though excess that pretty looks far more conservative than subversive.
Dior was a superstitious man, and he never began designing a couture show without consulting his tarot card reader. He would have approved of Chiuri's debut collection, for Spring/Summer 2017, which featured sheer gowns finely stitched with the stars, moons, and signs of the zodiacs, so delicately poised they looked like they were floating above the translucent fabrics they were attached to. Like Dior, Chiuri is a romantic in her own way: she makes retrograde femininity perverse by taking it out of time. In the same show, Chiuri showed looks that seemed as though her inspiration was "fencing, but make it fashion": quilted and soft white armor, with radiating hearts on the breast, for aim.
A less precise target appeared on t-shirts printed with the words "We Should All Be Feminists," the kind of soft platitude that plays both sides; it takes from the title of Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie's book and speech – it doesn't go so far as to ask what feminism might mean to fashion, though a more generous reading might be that the responsibility to embody Adiochie's message is, literally, on the wearer. They were a massive success for Chiuri, prominently worn by pop superstars and Oscar winners: Natalie Portman wore hers to speak at the Women's March, and Dior pledged profits from the shirts to Rihanna's nonprofit organization, the Clara Lionel Foundation. Chiuri's skill, most recently seen at Dior's couture presentation earlier this month, is in the exquisite execution of 1940s-era rounded shoulders, cinched waists, and full skirts that define and preserve Dior's archive. When Chiuri was previously at Valentino, her work was frilly and floral, sweet and soft. She once said it was because she was working during "the Berlusconi moment in Italy." Like Dior's New Look suggested over half a century ago, overt femininity, she explained, was the proper response to power, corruption, idiocy, perversion, crime.
REI KAWAKUBO: THE CONTROLLED CHAOS
If the question of whether fashion is art only depended on the physical, then it would be much simpler to answer. But even having an entire department at the Metropolitan Museum of Art devoted to fashion hasn't provided a solution, so maybe it would be better to just stop asking. In the meantime, the crows devoted to Rei Kawakubo mix with the tourists passing through at the Commes des Garçons exhibition at the Met's Costume Institute. Under fluorescent lights, the exhibition appears expansive when you enter, and becomes increasingly claustrophobic with every step you take. Mannequins dressed in Kawakubo's most iconic designs are kept in pods of varying sizes, so that visitors have to peek in; some are hiding behind narrow hallways that look, perhaps, like areas blocked off to the public, so that everyone is craning their neck and taking tentative steps, waiting for someone to tell them they've crossed a line. With no set path to follow and, most disorienting of all, no captions accompanying her designs, visitors don't receive the sense of time, place, and context cultural institutions are expected to give. It looks quite like the department store Kawakubo runs, Dover Street Market, which she has described as having "an ongoing atmosphere of strong and beautiful chaos."
But Kawakubo is not an anarchist; she just has her own rules, which she isn't interested in sharing. In 2005, she thanked Judith Thurman for not asking her, in the course of writing a profile in The New Yorker, about her creative process. "I couldn't explain it to you," Kawakubo said. "And even if I could, why would I want to? Are there people who really wish to explain themselves?"
In the present, her work is being celebrated at the highest level of critical acceptance. In the past, before she was the most public (and most commercial) embodiment of fashion's avant-garde, her collections were criticized: critics have said she references Hiroshima, concentration camp survivors, and the homeless as inspiration. These associations are intended to shame her. Her time and place of birth—1942, in Japan—is taken as proof of a psychic burden, that the rips and tatters of her early collection must reference some "post-atomic" world. The striped pajamas of her Fall/Winter 1995 Men's show were presented the same day as the fiftieth anniversary of Aushwitz's liberation, and in the aftermath, Kawakubo apologized, withdrew the items in question, and rejected accusations of anti-Semitism. "There is no meaning," she said, in line with her preferred form of explanation. At the Fall/Winter 2009 Commes des Garçons show, in which ethereal layers of tulle quickly gave way to drab, vagabond-like layers in olive tones, Robin Givhan said that Kawakubo "appropriate[s] the few things that keep [the less powerful] from disappearing: Belongings. The rainbow of fabric in a Sudanese refugee camp, the piles of broken shoes in the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, a stack of jackets and parkas in a coat drive. We might not see the individual, but we see their plight. We see something."
Kawakubo does not need to explain in words; she does so in fabric. Death, disease, destruction—her clothing makes the unspeakable, for reasons entirely her own, visible. In denying them that power, her critics are only trying to avoid accepting the psychic shame her clothing reminds them of, for reasons entirely their own. How dare you bring us to Paris, they seem to say, and make us think about World War II.
When asked about the clothes full of holes, Kawakubo said it was lace.
CHANEL AND SCHIAPARELLI: THE WOMEN UNDER THE INFLUENCE
The last time female designers were so powerful at the forefront of fashion, there were no slogan t-shirts to unite them, and a world war was inevitable. Elsa Schiaparelli was, by turn, an artist and a comedian. Collaborating with Cocteau and Dalí and dressing the world's then-most notorious mistress, Wallis Simpson, in an organdy white frock defiled with a giant red lobster, her fashion frequently appeared to be the punch line to a joke she was telling: have you heard the one about the woman who wore her shoe as a hat?
Gabrielle Chanel was, by turn, a fascist and a liar. Have you heard the one about the fashion designer who shacked up with a Nazi? Unlike each other in any meaningful way—Chanel set trends, while Schiaparelli played with Surrealism, one tied to this world and the other looking to escape it—the facts of their sex made them, to onlookers, rivals. The more famous and successful they got, the more they circled each other for a presumed single slot.
Loyalty, honor, integrity: where other women had qualities, Chanel had men. Lovers and benefactors—sometimes one and the same—gave her the power and money to run her business, and the attention and approval she wanted above all else. Her handbags, then and now the most indelibly iconic artifacts of her brand, which are made of soft pebbled lambskin, hang by layered metal chains. The symbolism is barely concealed—her shackles, her choice. Her idea of freedom from restraints instead came in the shape of her clothes (no corsets; loose, straight lines on her shift dresses; flat, soft leather shoes) and the feeling (the breeze of jersey skimming the skin; bare arms under the sun).
Chanel was never quite sure what her relationship to other women was, or should be—did she use her clothing to free herself from other women, or to tie herself to them? When her lovers left her for younger women, she designed their wedding dresses; when her 4,000 female factory employees went on strike in 1936, demanding better hours and wages, one of her biographers maintains that the 1939 closure of her shops was retaliation.
Not content to be only immoral by normal standards, Chanel also aspired to cartoon villainy. She once, allegedly, tried to set Schiaparelli on fire. They were at the same party and Chanel asked her to dance. Chanel danced her right into a lit candle. The other guests doused Schiaparelli in seltzer water to save her from her contemporary. During the war, while Chanel was socializing with the SS, Schiaparelli was volunteering as a nurse's aide. The year that Churchill invited Chanel back from exile was the same year Schiaparelli went bankrupt. In 1953, driven by jealousy and contempt for Dior's vision of the ideal woman, Chanel returned with her first couture collection, and slowly regained her hold on Parisian consciousness.
Under the direction of Karl Lagerfeld, Chanel has been one of the most successful and recognizable brands for the past two decades. In the past few years, after several false starts, Schiaparelli, under the direction of Bertrand Guyon, has made a quiet return to the rarefied world of couture. Both lines are run by men.
MIUCCIA PRADA: THE EXTREME MAXIMALIST
Miuccia Prada, often considered Schiaparelli's heir apparent, is, like Kawakubo, well versed in nonverbal communication. She trained as a mime, for literality's sake, and her work at Prada and MiuMiu has always been cerebral, more about ideas than looks. Luckily, her ideas lean towards the beautiful, and the excessive. Why wear one necklace, when you can wear eight? Why have a coat made of a single texture when you could have fur, crocodile, leather, vinyl? Why choose one color, when you could have the whole rainbow? Her prints are funny: lips and lipsticks, bananas and other low-hanging fruit, daisies and simple florals. The swallows, cats, and dogs from her Spring 2010 show were a decade-defining look that became ubiquitous within the apex of street style photography and personal style blogs. She said she was questioning innocence and youth—concepts tainted by their attachment to naiveté as purity. Those high-heel rounded-toe Mary Janes, with their block heels; the slip-on satiny mules; the collars pointed extremely down and the pants had waists that went extremely up.
In her youth, she was an active member of Italy's Communist Party. Unlike her comrades, she never wore jeans. She wore Yves Saint Laurent to distribute leaflets. Profiling Prada for The New York Times, Andrew O'Hagan wrote that she worries that fashion is not compatible with politics. He called her a "curious capitalist philosopher with a brilliant instinct for modern desire." Why choose one ideology, when you can have many?
The statement behind her Fall 2017 show, where she was heard, backstage, talking about being an "old feminist" who could not believe she had found herself back where she started, or even worse off. A poster behind the runway held a mission statement: "We have decided to look at the role women had in the shaping of modern society, their political participation and social achievements."
CLAIRE WAIGHT KELLER: BREAKFAST WITH GIVENCHY
Hubert de Givenchy couldn't keep his Hepburns straight. When Audrey knocked on the door, he expected Katherine to be on the other side. Nonetheless, Audrey and Hubert went on to define Givenchy, founded in 1952, as the couturier for Americans who believe in the natural superiority of Paris, and Hepburn's choice to wear his clothes in films like Sabrina and Breakfast at Tiffany's established both of them as idols above icons. Besides Hepburn, celebrities such as Lauren Bacall and Elizabeth Taylor wore Givenchy; American royalty, which does not free itself from the idea of monarchy by rejecting it but rather by telling themselves that they choose it, liked Givenchy. Princess Grace of Monaco and Jackie Kennedy-Onassis were longtime customers.
After its namesake designer retired in 1995, Givenchy, under the ownership of Arnault, became a kind of LVMH finishing school for wayward boys: John Galliano took over in in 1996, and when he was promoted to Dior within a year, Alexander McQueen became creative director. More recently, Givenchy was run by Riccardo Tisci, who took the romantic lineage of Givenchy dressing American princesses and applied it to contemporary royalty. His designs were alternately Baroque and Gothic: he called it "dark romanticism." Ornate and ornamental, his patterns were rich and complex, his textures lush and dense. Beyonce wore him on red carpets and in carpeted hotel hallways; Rihanna wore him on tour, and Kim Kardashian West wore him to the Met Ball. He collaborated with Kehinde Wiley and Marina Abramovic. According to WWD, under Tisci, Givenchy's revenue increased six times over.
Claire Waight Keller's first show will be in October, during the upcoming Paris Ready-to-Wear Fashion Week. Her past work at Chloé has been described using the references of late 1960s to 1970s-era elegant bohemianism — Marianne Faithful, Jane Birkin, Fleetwood Mac have all been invoked — Laurel Canyon by way of Champs-Élysées. This is a major shift for the brand. Keller comes from Chloé, founded in 1952 by Gaby Aghion, an Egyptian raised in Paris, who designed clothes to capture the look and feel of the sand she remembered from the beaches of Alexandria. "The sand is the most beautiful sand I have ever seen. A rose-tinted beige. It feels like silk in your hands," she explained once. Since her retirement, the line has developed a reputation for turning its designers into stars: Karl Lagerfeld and Stella McCartney, along with Keller and Phoebe Philo, all took their turns trying a soft touch at Chloe. Hiring Keller seems to be a sign that Givenchy is looking to sand down the edges introduced by Tisci: but why, when the line was undeniably, or at least commercially, so successful? Keller will have to find her own princess to inherit her predecessor's thorny crowns.
PHOEBE PHILO: THE HUNTER AND THE HUNTED
Like Phoebe Philo, Keller comes from Chloé; like Philo, she'll be commuting between London, where both have raised their families, and Paris. Philo has spent the last seven years of her tenure as creative director of Celine commuting from London, and rumors of her departure seem to circulate at least once per season. Philo, a private person who prefers to let her clothes speak for her, does not dress for gossip. Every collection since her first, the 2010 Resort, has been beloved by critics and customers alike. Her preternatural influence on and in fashion is felt materially, with her use of textures. Her soft leather totes—shaped like a U, in a typeface with strong edges—became a ubiquitous staple for those who could afford it and, eventually, mall brands looking for a sure thing, a rare instance of a trend that deepens rather than dilutes through the democratic embrace of the masses. The leather t-shirts she showed for Spring/Summer 2010 are still seen on the racks of fast fashion brands that sit under the cool shadow she casts.
The women who wear Celine, drawn as they are to power, are probably not attempting camouflage. She declines to speak, but Philo's materials imply her elegance is earthy and solid. Her materials—fuzzy, furry, silky, and sharp—are what skin is to flesh: most beautiful when it's made less literal. Celine is sportswear, and in Philo's sights, the sport seems to be of the hunt.
Apparently her trips to Paris do often remind her of the war. Her Fall/Winter 2014 show, she said, was inspired by the photo of Lee Miller—a woman who pointed and shot her way through World War II—bathing in Hitler's bathtub. When Miller arrived, the story goes, the bathmat was white. In the photo, it's covered in the mud her boots tracked in from Dachau.
WHAT WOMEN WANT
When women design clothes, they do so with purpose, which is often but not always the same as utility. Their functionality is felt, rather than seen—from the simplicity of Celine to the complexity of Comme des Garçons, what they share is a commitment to making clothes that they want women to wear. Low on theory but high on their own ideas of beauty, all of the women working in fashion, now and then, have had their own ideas about what clothing should do, as a practical object and as a method of expression. In the past, they've replaced or repaired broken systems of design and distribution; they've rejected styles that don't suit their lives, and dressed themselves and their peers by their own standards. They have also enforced the same archaic and prescriptive rules for beauty, or repeated the same hollow political refrains for freedom, equality, and power, without any intention or thought into what that would actually look like, let alone mean. A woman in power is only as good as she chooses to be. The reverse can also be true. At this in-between time, there is no point in asking what fashion wants from its women. A better question is what women want—and get—from their fashion.