Looking at the fashion industry from the outside, it might seem as though sexism wouldn’t be as pervasive as it is in other fields — fashion is an industry that is still most strongly associated with women. But in fact, there’s a surprising paucity of female representation, both in head design roles and on the business side. And fashion still tends to prefer boy wonders over young female talent; not much has changed since Robin Givhan noted in the Daily Beast four years ago that “while there seem to be countless young men in the fashion pipeline who have been anointed as the next great designer, the women who are their contemporaries seem to be quietly plugging along, without much fanfare and certainly without the labels of ‘darling,’ ‘wunderkind’ or anything else that suggests they have some kind of genius struggling to escape.”
Yet, sexism in the fashion industry — the kind that’s more subtle than much-ballyhooed skinny-mannequin controversies or misogynistic ad campaigns, the kind that affects the people actually working in it — rarely gets an airing. As designer Jonathan Saunders admits, “It’s very easy to slip into the mind-set where you feel like you’re working in a very liberal environment where men and women are treated equally, where there doesn’t seem to be any kind of gender preferential treatment. So it’s easy to kind of neglect it being an issue.”
Saunders’s comments come from a new video that British Vogue released with U.N. Women Goodwill Ambassador Emma Watson, who is extending her campaign for gender equality to the fashion industry. Three other U.K.-based designers also weighed in on the issue, with Stella McCartney (one of the rare female designers heading up a European luxury house, along with Céline’s Phoebe Philo and Hermès’s Nadège Vanhee-Cybulski) advocating for gender parity in child care: “We need to allow for both maternity and paternity leave.” Saunders mentions the need for fashion-world imagery to empower women, “as opposed to making them look weaker and more fragile.” Bella Freud spoke about equal pay, while Erdem Moralioglu discussed how growing up with a twin sister shaped his feminism.
Watson, who has lent her star power to the U.N.’s HeForShe campaign, says in the film, “I have big hopes for gender equality in the fashion industry. I’ve seen some very positive steps … but I think there’s still a lot of racism, I think there’s still a lot of sexism.” She adds, “I’d really, really love to see a more diverse representation of women and men in any way that makes them feel empowered.” It’s the kind of thorny problem that won’t be solved by one slickly edited four-minute video, of course, but good on Watson for kicking off the discussion.