Fashion: The power of women designers

Sandra Krim

By Sandra Krim08 mars 2022

International Women’s rights day is the opportunity to question women’s power and the central role it plays in all sectors. How is it so in the industry of luxury and fashion? We focus on three women whose designs go way beyond clothes.

DIOR Fall-Winter 2022-2023 Ready-to-Wear Collection. The scenography entitled The Next Era was imagined by the Italian artist Mariella Bettineschi (Laura Sciacovelli).

Recent fashion history is intertwined with women’s empowerment through the progressive decrease of sexual double standards, which still prevailed at the beginning of the 20th Century. The evolution of fashion has accompanied women’s empowerment, first through functionalizing women’s clothes, then through feminizing the power symbol represented by the male suit. More recently, empowerment relied on a desexualization of feminine wardrobes, as well as a claimed hyper-sexualization.

While conservative from an ideological point of view, Coco Chanel became a feminist figure, a liberator of women’s bodies. Her modern vision of feminine needs enables to offer them comfort and practicality, including by using male wardrobes.

Influential and commercial power

The T-shirt with the message "We Should All Be Feminists" marked Maria Grazia Chiuri's first show for Dior (Dior)

Since then, other creative women in the luxury world have become evolution initiators in the world of clothing, participating in women’s empowerment or claiming a certain type of feminism, as well as by doing particularly well in sales. Iconic artistic directors such as Miuccia Prada, Phoebe Philo or even Maria Grazia Chiuri have showcased both their influential and commercial power, through symbiosis of what female consumers expected from luxury fashion brands. 

This prescriber power of fashion luxury brands artistic directors expressed foremost through fashion, as well as through a societal and cultural perspective.

The most recent mechanism in terms of body empowerment, which goes way beyond gender transgression derived from appropriating the male wardrobe to favor a rather intellectual perspective on the body aiming at anatomy and clothing harmony is body desexualization. The designer Phoebe Philo particularly embodies this trend. From 2008 to 2018 for the Céline House, the British designer founded feminine power on an ascetic vision and a desexualized wardrobe by imposing refined aesthetics which strongly influenced fashion during that decade.

It is the first time that such a tangible type of feminism manages to standout in the fashion industry, which led Business of Fashion – a trade magazine of reference in the sector - to say that “she is the real feminist, simply because her political take is deeply embedded in the Céline recipe, in how magically welcoming and inclusive it is of female highs and lows, and the many idiosyncrasies of the female psyche.”

Her legacy at Céline by Hedi Slimane will in fact be lived as a betrayal by those whom the media named the “Philo-philes”.

Clothes are ideas

Miuccia Prada transformed a Milanese leather goods house into an international luxury fashion brand (Shutterstock)

From a political perspective, Miuccia Prada considers that “clothes are ideas” and has never hidden her deep attachment to the feminine cause, even claiming it by calling her 2014 Spring-Summer collection “feminist”. Also advocating an intellectual vision of clothing, Miuccia Prada doesn’t cease to explore feminism, women’s freedom, and their relationship to power, sexism and sexuality in her creations.

Nevertheless, the most iconic piece of the female wardrobe for luxury fashion brands over the past years is without a doubt the T-shirt exhibiting the message “We should all be feminists” which was a milestone during the first Maria Grazia Chiuri fashion show for Dior and which uses the title of a book by feminist author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie.

Maria Grazia Chiuri and Dior have teamed up with D-Air Lab, an Italian company specialising in the research and development of intelligent and protective clothing (Brigitte Niedermair)

The Dior artistic director owns up to this feminism which constitutes the essence of the entire creations for the House up until its latest collection presented beginning of march in Paris for the 2022-2023 Fall-Winter collection. Pushing further the boundaries of clothing functionality, Maria Grazia Chiuri and Dior are associated with D-Air Lab, an Italian company specialized in research and development for intelligent clothes which protect physical integrity to - according to the artistic director - “(…) open a feminist outlook on what we envelop our bodies in, and how that has the power to free”.

Under the impulse of Maria Grazia Chiuri, the luxury house often collaborates with feminist artists, promoting a feminine perspective”, and is engaged in diverse actions about feminine mentoring. The visibility and influential power of the brand, as well as her artistic director, enable this engagement to be culturally and socially anchored, even more so in a post #metoo era.

The success is also commercial, as even LVMH, who has not yet published detailed figures of its houses, has nevertheless communicated on Dior’s excellent results, partly due to fashion and feminine accessories under the artistic direction of Maria Grazia Chiuri. The year 2021 has even been exceptional, as Dior has reached “record levels of sales and profitability” according to the results of the group published in January 2022.

2019 Prada fashion show (Shutterstock)

This commercial power is shared by Miuccia Prada, who knows how to transform a Milanese leather goods house into an international luxury fashion brand, as well as Phoebe Philo, whose ten years at Céline has enable the house’s turnover to skyrocket by 350%. It is in fact this commercial potential which led the British designer to motivate LVMH to invest in the eponymous brand which will be launched during 2022. The power and aura of these three designers among female luxury fashion consumers is established by a sort of aesthetic and ethical meeting point which reinforces the symbolic power of the brands themselves.

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