Female Empowerment & Fashion: Fake or Legitimate?

Female Empowerment – having or taking more control over all aspects of life as a woman, while acquiring power in society. This term, which has caused a lot of ink to flow lately, has largely exceeded its essentially political, educational, ecological and social vocations. But, besides spreading the word of empowerment for marketing purposes, does the fashion industry actually practise what it preaches?


Backstage at the Christian Dior Fall/Winter 2017 ready-to-wear show in Paris (by Anna Palermo for NOWFASHION)


At Paris Fashion Week, designers and celebrities are all about female empowerment - in all shapes and sizes. However this Fall/Winter 2017 season, only 37 of the 83 ready-to-wear brands showing in Paris are actually run by female designers. Which is rather ironic considering that the fashion industry's main consumers are women. Where are the Jeanne Lanvins, Coco Chanels and Elsa Schiaparellis who set the tone of fashion in the first half of the 20th century? They are still here, even if they are under-represented compared to their male counterparts.

In Paris, Céline's Phoebe Philo, Lanvin's Bouchra Jarrar and Dior's Maria Grazia Chiuri were the designers that established a strong femininity in their Fall/Winter 2017 ready-to-wear collections. Perpetuating the emancipating legacy of their peers, without forgetting Miuccia Prada who has yet to showcase her new Miu Miu collection on March 7. All these designers channelled seductive and masculine tailored silhouettes with exaggerated shoulders and an urban flair. Woven into the tailoring was a penchant for either seductive, figure-hugging evening numbers - enhancing femininity - or wide or flared cuts, that allow women to regain greater freedom of movement.

Having showcased her now famous "We should all be feminists" T-Shirts on the runway during her first Haute Couture outing, Maria Grazia Chiuri once again cited Nigerian author and activist Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie as a reference for her Fall/Winter 2017 show. Reinforcing this statement of intent, Chiuri gave show invitees a limited edition scarf featuring another feminist quote by Adichie. Dior's designer received some harsh criticism over this, including accusations that she was simply using and abusing a feminist mainstream statement concerned with helping low-income women, transforming it and making it bankable for the elite.

Adiche, in fact, seemed quite upset about these reactions and hostilities. “I’m already irritated,” the author told The Guardian earlier this week in an interview with editor Emma Brockes. “What’s the damage?” Adichie continued. “There’s a kind of self-righteousness to the ultra-left that is hard for me to stomach. Its approach to poverty can sometimes border on condescension. I often think that people who write a lot about poverty need to go and spend more time with poor people. This idea of feminism as a party to which only a select few people get to come: this is why so many women, particularly women of colour, feel alienated from mainstream western academic feminism. Because, don’t we want it to be mainstream? For me, feminism is a movement for which the end goal is to make itself no longer needed.


The Balmain Fall/Winter 2017 ready-to-wear show in Paris (by Guillaume Roujas for NOWFASHION)


This season, some male designers also presented ideas of a strong, empowered femininity: at Balmain, Olivier Rousteing turned top models Gigi Hadid and Kendall Jenner into fierce huntresses and gypsy queens, while Demna Gvasalia focused on an empowering shoulder and volume play at Balenciaga.

Earlier this week, in his second outing for Saint Laurent, Creative Director Anthony Vaccarello offered a radical feminine fantasy. At first sight his many leggy fetish cocktail numbers, and intense black velvet evening pieces, might not seem to fit with classic ideas of empowering feminist dress. However, upon closer inspection Vaccarello’s vision somehow seems more self-assured and provocative than previous Saint Laurent collections under former Creative Director, Hedi Slimane.

When speaking of empowerment, the outstanding impact Rei Kawakubo's designs have had on the perception of womanhood for the past 40 years cannot be ignored. In fact, Kawakubo - the mastermind behind the much sought after Comme des Garçons label - is the first living designer since 1983 to showcase a solo-show at the Met. She’ll also be the first living female fashion designer to exhibit solo at the museum from May 4 to September 4, 2017, with an exhibition entitled, Rei Kawakubo/Comme des Garçons: Art of the In-Between.

The Comme des Garcons Fall/Winter 2017 ready-to-wear show in Paris (by Guillaume Roujas for NOWFASHION)


In Paris, the designer's show for Fall/Winter 2017 was yet further proof that her work goes beyond the definition of fashion as we know it. Blurring the divide between contemporary art and ready-to-wear, it reflected on notions of female identity and spirituality, ultimately raising pertinent existential questions. Kawakubo's sculpted, curvy and surreal creations somehow recalled the same feeling that one might have when looking at one of French artist, Niki de Saint Phalle's many curvy Nanas. It was a reflection on how our own identity - mind, body and soul - transforms the perception we have of ourselves, forcefully deforming us with pressures from the outside world.

But female fashion designers are not the only ones causing a stir in Paris. Celebrities, such as the very outspoken and engaged Lauryn Hill, Rihanna, Alicia Keys and Nicki Minaj, were spotted at many shows and events. Barbadian pop-star Rihanna, for her part, is no longer satisfied with being just a front row fixture: the singer-turned-fashion designer already made a bold statement with her first, Marie-Antoinette inspired collection and is now showcasing her second, much anticipated collection with her Fenty line in Paris.

Having said that, there is still one main concern about the double-edged relationship between fashion and feminism: Moving away from the clothes to actual tangible female empowerment seems be the real challenge within the luxury industry. A process that would upset the status quo of fashion brands as we know it – in other words, more women in top positions at fashion houses, as well as a better and less judgmental treatment of female models are the actual way to go. This would be a (r)evolution that would empower women within the luxury industry. And that's a much more respectable achievement than any power suit or feminist branded T-Shirt.


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