With visions of strong, powerful women dominating the Spring runways—along with feminist statements both explicit and not—Nandini D’Souza Wolfe ponders fashion’s lean-in moment.
You would have thought that in 2016, in an industry such as fashion—built, with no disrespect to men and children, on the glamour and drama of women’s wear and the bells, whistles, smoke and mirrors surrounding its shows—a female designer at the head of a major house would be no big deal. An assumption really. And yet last September, Maria Grazia Chiuri punched through fashion’s own glass ceiling with her debut collection at Dior—the first time in the storied house’s 70 years that a woman was in control.
And what was her message? “We should all be feminists,” which she printed on white T-shirts mixed with white fencing jackets, moto pants, ballet skirts, ethereal gowns, witty knits, blue jeans and an update on the iconic Dior Bar jacket. Tough, beautiful, much discussed. Just like women, eh? The quote, which became the hashtag of the season, was cribbed from the book title and sensational TEDx Talk by author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, who sat front and center.
While Chiuri said loudly and proudly what many in the audience had been thinking for a while—no doubt further heightened by the fact that the United States was in the final stages of a presidential election with its first female nominee from a major party—she wasn’t alone on the runway. Throughout the shows in four cities, designers discussing their inspirations namechecked strong female artists, writers and performers—even Jean Ker, an obscure courtier at the 17th-century English court who once undertook a secret mission to financially save England’s hide.
In New York, Prabal Gurung paid homage to two feminists of a different kind: his mother and Gloria Steinem. But Gurung didn’t blur or mix gender lines, toy with masculine-feminine motifs or trot out mannish suits, as designers so often like to do when talking about powerful women. In short, he did not put women in men’s clothes. Sticking to his ultra-feminine m.o. was in itself a statement. “The biggest tool women have is their femininity,” he says. “The biggest strength comes from embracing it and realizing ‘You’re enough.’ I didn’t want Spring to be bra-burning and men-hating.”
Crediting his early enlightenment to the influence of his mother, Durga Rana, a politically minded single mother managing her own business in Nepal, Prabal read Steinem’s My Life on the Road last summer and soon after ran into the author at a performance of the Broadway musical The Color Purple, no less. The two spoke during intermission, and it left an impression on the designer, who then devoured old videos of the activist. “There she was, so stylish. She never compromised on her look and yet was so fierce about standing up.”
Gurung sent out bias-cut silk dresses and statement T-shirts featuring sayings and speeches from such empowered women as Steinem, Susan B. Anthony and Emily Dickinson, either printed on ribbon trims or embroidered with exaggerated eyelash fringe. Subtle yet ever-present.
Slogans also crept onto the runways of Stella McCartney and Haider Ackermann. “Thanks Girls” was scrawled on McCartney’s refreshingly real world clothing—cotton jackets and paper bag–waisted pants, day dresses and relaxed denim. Meanwhile, Ackermann subversively layered T-shirts printed with “Be Your Own Hero” with his precisely tailored leather and silk jackets and fluid pleated skirts. It’s a message that works for women and men, young and old.
Gigi Hadid and Lauren Hutton at Bottega Veneta.
Other designers embraced fashion’s existing diversity. At Bottega Veneta, celebrating its 50th anniversary, Tomas Maier paired 21-year-old Gigi Hadid, 5’10”, with then 72-year-old Lauren Hutton, 5’7″, on the runway. In what was probably the biggest Instagram moment of the collections, the two walked out, arms linked, Hutton looking like elegance personified in a khaki trench, and Hadid appropriately awestruck in a trench reworked into pink separates. Point taken: Fashion, especially Bottega’s, transcends age, and also race, religion and any other classification. And a well-cut trench and shirtdress looks good on anyone.
At Céline, it was the ultimate take-your-kid-to-work day, as Phoebe Philo’s preteen daughter Maya stood with some friends against the undulating set, as models walked in Philo’s nonconformist, relaxed, luxurious clothes. Philo’s clothes are coveted by CEOs, artists and other powerful women the world over, and the simple act of having her child watch her presentation was a poignant symbol, deliberate or not, of finding personal work-life balance, a challenge any working mother faces. And Maya got an up-close view of the clothes as well as her mother’s work.
Throughout the shows, feminist messages were telegraphed both obviously and subtly. They showed up in the expected yet always chic plays of men’s tailoring balanced with feminine details and prints, in the right to a woman’s choice of mixing her messages (sporty, tough, masculine, rocker and so on), and in the hyper-femininity of frills, skin-baring confidence and unapologetic sex appeal. See the marabou-trimmed chinoiserie pajamas, bras, hot pants and jolie laide shoes at Prada, all of which subversively turn stereotypes and archetypes on their heads. At Rihanna’s second Fenty Puma show, the pink sporty lineup was inspired by Marie Antoinette, the guillotined queen of France who historians have fought painstakingly to reposition as the tradition-bucking feminist she actually was. (They’re not saying she was perfect, mind you, or a woman of the people even, but she did bristle and act against the established grain of what was expected of royal consorts, which by definition makes her a feminist.)
In the fashion industry, we pride ourselves on being open, inclusive, forward-thinking. We refuse stereotypes and barriers and offer a safe place to be comfortable or experimental. After all, in order to keep going, fashion has to be all things to everyone, pleasing the majority while also pushing it forward. “I strive to be attentive and open to the world and to create fashion that resembles the women of today,” says Dior’s Chiuri. “Fashion that corresponds to their changing needs, freed from the stereotypical categories of ‘masculine/feminine,’ ‘young/not so young,’ ‘reason/emotion,’ which nonetheless also happen to be complementary aspects.”
For Gurung, the significance of Chiuri’s appointment at Dior was not lost. “It was about time,” says Gurung, who believes that fashion can be joyful, fun, artistic and part of a responsible conversation. “She could have gone in any direction, and she chose to make a statement.”
Brandon Maxwell, the young designer who made his name working with Lada Gaga, showed a grown-up collection full of sharp tailored separates and fluid gowns with a sexy ’70s vibe. He recognizes that the Spring Collections hold the promise of certain norms being shattered. “There is a great deal we can all learn from the women in our lives,” he says, “and we would all be better off with more women in positions of power.”
Nandini D’Souza Wolfe has written and edited two books, Harper’s Bazaar: Fabulous at Every Age and New York Times best seller Tory Burch: In Color. Her work as appeared in New York, Elle, The Wall Street Journal, W magazine and WWD.
Cover photo: Gigi Hadid and Lauren Hutton at Bottega Veneta.