Last month, it was announced that Hedi Slimane was to become creative director at French fashion house Céline, taking over from Phoebe Philo, who left at the end of 2017. After 10 years at the helm, Philo had revived the heritage brand through her simple, stylish, easy-to-wear aesthetic, which proved heavily influential on the British high street (those pleated midi skirts/skater shoes/pink coats/tunic dresses/slouchy trousers you bought in Zara? Philo is why). Be it the designer version, the high-street homage or even the inspiration from her own wardrobe, Philo has long been known for giving women the clothes that they *really* want to wear. By contrast, her replacement – the equally lauded (and equally replicated) Slimane – is known for a strong aesthetic of short, tight, skinny and rock ’n’ roll. During his four-year tenure at Saint Laurent (the position he held previous to the move to Céline), he revived fishnet tights and (for better or worse) the asymmetric neckline. He gave us leather – lots of it – and, almost every season, the minniest of mini skirts. Slimane’s woman is a different woman to Philo’s. Or, perhaps she’s more of a caricature of a woman – one who parties all night, sleeps all day and doesn’t need to wear something as mundane as a bra. Either way, he shifts clothes just as much as Philo, so clearly it has its fans. But sales figures and personal taste aside, the fact remains that a hugely influential fashion brand once ruled by the female gaze has been replaced by a very male one. Which is a shame.
When we talk about the female gaze in fashion, what does it mean? It means clothes that are designed not only to look good, but also to feel good. It’s the consideration of form but also function – are those heels walkable? Can you move in that skirt? Would it be useful if that dress had pockets? Historically, fashion has been dominated by a male point of view: Dior, Balenciaga, Saint Laurent, Lagerfeld and, more recently, Marc Jacobs, Rousteing, Tisci – these are the names who have shaped women's wardrobes. Of course, this is by no means a bad thing; after all, if it wasn’t for Yves Saint Laurent, we wouldn’t be wearing tuxedo suits to dinner. And, thanks to Kanye West, it’s OK to wear your Spanx and legwarmers to the shops – just call it Yeezy (I’m joking). But it’s worth remembering that while Coco Chanel liberated women from corsets in the 1920s, Christian Dior put us back in them in 1954. This isn’t to say that men cannot dress women or that women cannot enjoy clothes designed by a man. It is to say that, by and large, the male gaze dresses the idea of a woman, rather than the woman herself. A woman under the male gaze is a fantasy; a woman under the female gaze is a reality. And, in a male-dominated world, where the myriad issues facing women are all too much of a reality, the female gaze feels far more relevant and important.
A woman under the male gaze is a fantasy; a woman under the female gaze is a reality. And, in a male-dominated world, where the myriad issues facing women are all too much of a reality, the female gaze is important
Céline aside, the female gaze is being felt. Stella McCartney, Victoria Beckham, Isabel Marant, Miuccia Prada – all strong, women-led aesthetics. Women currently head up both Dior and Givenchy (Maria Grazia Chiuri and Clare Waight Keller, respectively) and, if rumours are to be believed, we shall see Phoebe Philo at Burberry soon. There is still an imbalance – only 40.2 per cent of big-name design-houses are helmed by women – but the influence of those who are shaping the fashion landscape is felt from high-end to the high street.
We are also seeing more of a female gaze on the high street itself, thanks to a number of affordable women-led brands. “Our purpose is to provide women with an effortless, easy and undeniably chic wardrobe that’s simple to style and very comfortable to wear. Whether that be with our fit, cut or fabrics, everything is meticulously crafted for her,” explains Baukjen de Swaan Arons, the Danish founder and creative director of eponymous brand Baukjen (she also founded maternity brand Isabella Oliver). Baukjen offers low-key, well-made clothes that serve the purpose of simplifying, rather than complicating, getting dressed in the morning.
Launched last year, KITRI (named after the female lead in Don Quixote), offers fashion-forward, thoughtful clothes at reasonable price points. “Fashion is very emotional for a lot of us – we know how we want to feel when we put our clothes on,” explains founder Haeni Kim, who considers the balance between the look and the feel of a piece of clothing of utmost importance. “We are exploring how femininity doesn’t always have to mean just girly or just sexy,” says Kim. Satin blouses, silky wrap dresses, tuxedo jumpsuits – there’s a lot of sexuality in Kim’s designs, but it’s a sensual version of sexy. A sophisticated version of sexy. It’s not boobs and bums, but rather textures and moods, and herein lies the difference.
There’s more: RIXO (the duo behind those dresses you’ve seen all over Instagram), Mih, Lollys Laundry, Hush, Miista, ME+EM, Ganni – all women-led brands delivering smart, thoughtful, stylish clothes to today’s woman. (Click on the edit below to read more about each brand and shop.)
“We are in a very exciting time of change and empowerment culturally and there is a real sense of sisterhood and acceptance among women in the industry,” says Kim. While there is undoubtedly still a dominant male gaze within fashion, we are seeing the female point of view gain serious momentum. But, as Baukjen explains, perhaps it isn’t a case of us vs them: “I don’t think it’s a question of ‘Is there enough female gaze?’ but 'How are we protecting, curating and nourishing that gaze?'” Well, we can start by wearing it.