Robin Givhan: Designing for the Ladies at DVF, Victoria Beckham, Thakoon, and More

Photo: Imaxtree

Female designers are expected to solve problems. We assume they will strive to make the life of every woman simpler and more efficient when she opens her closet each morning. They should empathize, support, and empower. That is their burden.

In her collection for spring, Victoria Beckham played with spare shapes in generous proportions cut from substantial fabrics. She infused this modern minimalism with references to a more extravagant femininity, nodding to petticoats with sharply pleated, white underskirts that peeked from beneath dresses with side-swept hemlines. And while she avoided elaborate embellishments, she kept the eye entertained with diamond-shaped patchwork across the bodices of dresses and trimmed the patch pockets on her short-sleeve swing jackets with wide, grosgrain ribbons.

The collection called to mind the work of Phoebe Philo at Celine, the instigator of the current interest in big-shoulder minimalism which comes with a manifesto about what women really want and need in their wardrobe. Apparently serious women — real women — are yearning for spare, functional clothes that don’t require much brainpower to negotiate. For a busy working mother, superfluous buttons could compromise the juggling act of getting her kid to school on time and getting to a meeting on time.

If anyone needed evidence of Beckham’s empathy for such a jam-packed life, her husband, the soccer legend David, strode to his seat just before the show began holding their toddler daughter Harper, one of the couple’s four children. Beckham has spoken before about her motherly duties and the lives of over-scheduled women. Her collection aims to help them.

Efficient dressing is a modern conceit, perhaps embedded in our consciousness by designers like Diane von Furstenberg and Donna Karan. Von Furstenberg secured her place in fashion history with the utilitarian but feminine wrap dress —a garment that remains the de facto work uniform for a host of young professionals in fields such as politics and law. Karan debuted her brand in 1985, with a concept she called “seven easy pieces.” It was a mix-and-match wardrobe system meant to take the guesswork and the flailing out of getting dressed for the workday. Female designers have a history of empowering women with their aesthetics. Meanwhile, male designers who create clothes for women are allowed the freedom to simply make pretty frocks. And while they are sometimes taken to task for trussing a woman up in uncomfortable ways and then declaring her beautiful, they typically get a pass — in all but the most outrageous circumstances — because there’s something irresistible about the admiring male gaze.

Von Furstenberg’s collection for spring was filled with zebra prints, safari-inspired jackets, beadwork that mimicked mud cloth, and colors taken from a sunset on the African veldt. But over the years, von Furstenberg stopped selling mere clothes. She now sells glorious, swaggering womanhood. Since 2008, when she signed on as the face of American Express and equated a line of credit with financial independence and self-determination, von Furstenberg has been the fashion industry’s lady warrior. Her distinctive runway bow adds to the aura, of course: she doesn’t just poke her head out from behind a curtain; she strolls around her U-shaped runway happily basking in the applause. She’s been leaning in since Sheryl Sandberg was in elementary school.

Female designers who seem to make the most ripples are the ones who take on the extra burden of representing something about the female condition. (There are exceptions to this, of course, most notably Laura and Kate Mulleavy of Rodarte.) Carly Cushnie and Michelle Ochs have, with their sexy, razor sharp dresses, taken on the mantle of modern feminism in which a woman embraces her sexuality and is happily and unabashedly “hot.” As the perfect ambassadors for their brand, Cushnie et Ochs, they created a collection for a slender woman with a tight physique. As a model walked down their runway in a scribble-print skinny dress with a T-back, or a black mini-dress with a flared skirt and thread-thin straps, one could imagine each of the two designers in every garment. But by crafting clothes that adhere so strictly to their personal selves, they have left little room for other women to flex their individuality.

A female designer who simply deals in pretty clothes, fun or quirky ones, has a tough time getting widespread, industry attention, even if she has a sturdy business and the requisite celebrity following as proof of success. Tracy Reese’s floral print dresses, cha-cha skirts, and cropped trousers were inspired by Cuba. It was a delightful collection presented to a soundtrack of live drummers. But so what?

Perhaps such female designers are simply assumed to be talking to themselves. When Thakoon Panichgul put draped pearls and rhinestones on his tailored dresses and styled his models in over-the-thigh lace boots, one wondered: What is he saying by mixing iconic lady-like flourishes with the darker mood of fetishistic footwear? What does he see in that juxtaposition? How does this define him as a designer? In fact, his spring collection did not clarify his design point of view. The lace boots looked awkward. The pearl embellishments read as cheap. But at least his only failure was aesthetic. We can leave the salvation of the female psyche to the ladies.

Catch up on all of Robin’s reviews

Givhan on DVF, Victoria Beckham, Thakoon & More