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The Era of Female Designers: Meet the Women Changing the Face of Fashion

There have never been more female designers – or more questions about why they sometimes still need to fight for their place in fashion. Vogue celebrates a global cast of women whose work and influence speak for themselves.

Sarah Burton, Alexander McQueen

female designers

Liya Kebede wears jacket, pants, Alexander McQueen. Photo: Bibi Borthwick

Last October, Burton departed the label she oversaw for 13 years with a show that was a glorious tour de force, underscoring her strengths: scalpel-sharp tailoring and exquisite artisanal effects.

Nadège Vanhée-cybulski, Hermès

Doutzen Kroes wears jacket, top, pants; Hermès; earrings, Ana Khouri. Photo: Bibi Borthwick

You likely won’t know her because – as always with the storied French house – the team comes first. But her impeccably made clothes resonate with intimacy and intelligence.

Louise Trotter, Carven

female designers

Kroes wears parka, shirt, Carven; pants, Zero + Maria Cornejo. Photo: Bibi Borthwick

For Trotter’s 2023 debut for Carven (founded in Paris in 1945 by Marie-Louise Carven), she played to her own strengths and that of the house: fashion and functionality, writ large.

Rachel Scott, Gaëlle Drevet, Aurora James, Emily Adams Bode Aujla, Catherine Holstein

Designers and mannequins wear fashion from female designers including Diotima, The Frankie Shop, Rodarte, Marina Moscone, Brother Vellies, Bode, and Khaite. Photo: Tess Ayano

“I struggle with the concept of a woman designer,” says Diotima’s Rachel Scott, “because then that’s all you are. Men can be geniuses, but women are ‘collaborative.’  ” The New York–based Scott’s work is almost always described in the context of Jamaica, where she’s originally from, and in relation to the communities she works with for some of her crochet. “But I actually think that’s more indicative of what it is to be a designer: people working together.” Scott is part of a cohort of designers whose fantasy is to dress our reality, our everyday. Such is the case of Emily Adams Bode Aujla, who helped redirect contemporary menswear with her distinctive nostalgic and lived-in sensibility, which she’s since expanded into womenswear. Ditto Aurora James of Brother Vellies, whose work with African craftspeople for her New York–based accessories label, and subsequently through her nonprofit organization, Fifteen Percent Pledge, helped draw a blueprint for creating sustainable, community-first impact through fashion. See also Catherine Holstein’s Khaite and Gaëlle Drevet of the Frankie Shop, who have given new shape to the wardrobe of the contemporary woman. Both separately and together, these designers have defined today’s generation of American womenswear as both expansive and considered.​

Words: José Criales-Unzueta

Gilda Ambrosio and Giorgia Tordini, the Attico

female designers

Gilda Ambrosio (left) and Giorgia Tordini had no work experience in fashion studios when they launched The Attico with a collection of retro slip dresses and boudoir-ish robes in 2016. Despite the attention they’d garnered on social media, the skepticism that greeted their debut suggests that the fashion industry is more than a little bit sexist. “It’s a paradox,” they say. “Who more than women know what women want, feel, and need?” Eight years later, their line—comprised of everything from vintage-inflected party frocks to tomboy cargo pants and sweeping duster coats—is stocked in 250 stores worldwide; last September, they staged their first-ever fashion show on a street in Milan’s chic Sempione neighborhood; and Dua Lipa and Hailey Bieber have both been seen wearing pieces from the label’s spring collection.

Words: Nicole Phelps

Donatella Versace

Anne Hathaway wears dress, Versace. Photo: Annie Leibovitz

Beyoncé in sculpted chain mail at the premiere of Renaissance; Amal Clooney in glittering bronze paillettes at the Fashion Awards in London; Anne Hathaway—up next in The Idea of You, early this summer—seen here in this liquid gold tank dress: Nobody understands evening glamour quite like Donatella Versace (even if the woman herself prefers tailored black jackets and pants of the sort she’s selling in the new Versace Icons collection, which, she told Vogue, was “a little reminder about who is in charge”). Donatella has led Versace for over a quarter century—few women designers working today can lay claim to that kind of longevity (with the exception of her fellow Milanese visionary, Miuccia Prada; see page 170). Perhaps it’s because of her close relationship with her late brother Gianni that she doesn’t see the world—or the design studio—in strict binaries. “Obviously, anyone who identifies as a woman understands a woman’s body differently than a man does,” she says, “but all designers have different strengths. For me it’s about a strong and confident point of view. We have to ensure that female voices are listened to, promoted, and championed.”

Words: Nicole Phelps

Victoria Beckham, Isabel Marant

Kroes wears a Victoria Beckham jumpsuit; Kebede wears an Isabel Marant jumpsuit. Shoes from Dear Frances. Both holding a coat from The Row. Photo: Bibi Borthwick

One is a former pop star who’s now an established designer; the other is a rock star of a designer. What got them there was their own look and attitude projected with confidence on to their clothes.

Alberta Ferretti, Gabriela Hearst

female designers

Kebede wears Alberta Ferretti; Neiman Marcus. Shoes from Dear Frances. Kroes wears Gabriela Hearst. Both holding a jacket from Stella McCartney. Photo: Bibi Borthwick

They might seem like poles apart—the romantic (Ferretti) and the realist (Hearst)—but where they meet is the strongly held belief to always put women first.

Phoebe Philo

female designers

Kebede wears Phoebe Philo jacket and pants. Photo: Bibi Borthwick

She’s back—and how. It’s fashion (and a business approach) on her terms: Make it special and unique, and in smaller, more sustainable numbers. Yet again, she catches the moment.

Rei Kawakubo, Comme Des Garçons

Photo: Getty

When Comme des Garçons’ Rei Kawakubo burst upon the scene in 1981, the fashion world had never witnessed anything like it: Her clothes didn’t depend on darts and seams, and employed fabrics—rumpled and frayed, some glowing with the sheen of cheap polyester—entirely new to the Paris runway. And they were almost always black. Perhaps more than any other woman designer, she has radically rethought assumptions about femininity and upended conventional ideas of “sexiness.” If we now accept without question a genderless playbook that flaunts unfinished hems, asymmetry, and overblown silhouettes, we can thank Kawakubo—who has long since graduated from that early didactic black to prints and pieces that embrace, with a heavy dose of irony, proto-feminine polka dots and brocade blossoms. “I never intended to start a revolution,” Kawakubo (seen here in Paris in 2023) once said, in a rare public statement. She just wanted to create, she said, “what I thought was strong and beautiful. It just so happened that my notion was different from everybody else’s.”

Words: Lynn Yaeger

Tory Burch

Emily Ratajkowski takes a coffee break in dress, earrings, bracelet, Tory Burch. Photo: Tess Ayano

In the dozen or so years that Tory Burch has been doing fashion shows, there have been few minidresses. Pencil skirts and full skirts with sweeping Claire McCardell–like volumes, yes, but rarely anything above the knees. That changed for spring 2024. “I’m not personally wearing the short hoop dress,” modeled here in pink viscose jersey by her friend Emily Ratajkowski, Burch says, “but I wanted to really believe in it and love it, and I spent a lot of time challenging myself.” Hoops of this sort were once used for crinoline rings; Burch said she likes the idea of turning what, once upon a time, held women back into something freeing. “Where women are today,” Burch says, “they’re coming into their own idea of their own sexuality, their individuality, and when you think about the landscape of how you address those needs, you need to have diversity.” Thus, it wasn’t all minis on her spring runway: Burch also showed leg-elongating pants in a coated jersey and nylon taffeta zip polos—pieces as utterly unencumbered as that little pink dress.

Words: Nicole Phelps

Maria Grazia Chiuri, Dior

female designers

Photo: Viviane Sassen

For Maria Grazia Chiuri, leading a fashion house doesn’t mean anything if you only ever put yourself at the center of it. “From the beginning, the idea was to show how much fashion is a big community,” says Chiuri, seen above in Dior’s Paris atelier. “I needed to have other voices to speak about femininity, about feminism, about values.” From that first collection for spring 2017, with its clarion call of We Should All Be Feminists (emphasis on we), she has rejected the industry’s deification of the solo designer voice in favor of a choir. In her time at Dior she has worked with, and lionized, everyone from artist Judy Chicago to designer Grace Wales Bonner to choreographer Sharon Eyal—not to mention legions of artisans and makers from her native Italy, as well as Mexico, India, and across Africa. For spring 2024, Chiuri looked to witches for inspiration: their wisdom, their intuition, their connection to nature. “Knowledge was something that patriarchal society had to take from women,” she says. The parallels with today’s insidious assaults on women’s agency and freedom aren’t lost on her. “Fashion is political because it works with the body. There is no other way to think about it—and that’s central to my work.”

Words: Mark Holgate

Mary-Kate and Ashley Olsen, The Row

Liya Kebede wears The Row. Photo: Bibi Borthwick

Whether they’re feeling minimalist or maximalist, what’s always right about the Olsens is their instinct to make it chic—and to do it with conviction.

Virginie Viard, Chanel

Louisa Jacobson wears dress, jewelry, Chanel. Photo: Norman Jean Roy

Gabrielle “Coco” Chanel opened her first boutique in Paris in 1910, long before women in France even had the right to vote. By the time they finally won suffrage more than three decades later, she’d built a fashion empire that liberated women from the trussed-up silhouette of the era. In many ways, her exacting approach to dressing—unfussy, unadorned, and unequivocally chic—is right in step with the current mood, even a century-plus later. That’s not lost on Chanel’s artistic director, Virginie Viard, the first woman at the helm of the house since its trailblazing founder. “Of course Karl raised me,” says Viard of her longtime friend and mentor Karl Lagerfeld, with whom she worked for 32 years. (He famously called her “my right arm…and my left arm.”) “But more and more, I find myself rediscovering Coco. That sense of freedom and modernity—it feels like her moment now.” Since she took on the role in February 2019, Viard has shown a keen sense of how stylish women want to move through the world—witness actors Phoebe Tonkin (above) and Louisa Jacobson (at right). “When a woman tells me that she feels good in her clothes,” Viard says, “that they give her strength and confidence, it’s really the best.”—

Words: Chioma Nnad

Originally published in the March 2024 issue of Vogue Arabia

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