by Noah Jonson
Men and women shared the runway at Public School's Fall '15 show. Photo: Matteo Prandoni / BFAnyc.com
Never mind supposed androgyny and so-called gender fluidity, there is a war going on between the sexes in fashion.
Menswear is growing. Like a toddler at the heels of his big sister, it’s growing fast, even faster than womenswear. A recent report found that growth of men’s clothing sales is outpacing both computers and beer; another showed that menswear grew faster than womenswear in 2014—4.5 percent versus 3.7 percent. But like any little brother, it may never catch up. As a $662 billion business, women’s is the main event. Men’s, at a mere $440 billion, is still—if you’ll allow me to mix metaphors here—the JV of fashion.
Still, as women’s fashion trends have become less agenda-setting of late—some pundits have even suggested that the new trend is no trend at all—menswear is in the midst of a creative boom. The young designers who have made the biggest impact in fashion over the past couple years—Jonathan Anderson, Shayne Oliver, Craig Green—all started as menswear designers. Why then, historically and presently, do all menswear designers eventually defect to design for women? Sure, most of them continue to do a men’s line, but the women’s collection inevitably garners the lioness’ share of the designer’s and the media’s attention.
Rag & Bone cofounder Marcus Wainwright started out designing clothes for himself to wear. Soon his wife wanted some, too. “You quickly realize that the women’s business is way bigger. Way faster. Like, a totally different model in terms of trend,” he says. “The men’s market, particularly in the higher-end price points, is not big enough to be able to support a growing brand and to support the cost of shows, any type of advertising that you want to do, or just general running costs to build a company.”
A women's look on Tim Coppens' Spring '15 runway. Photo: BFA
Ovadia & Sons, the CFDA/Vogue Fashion Fund-nominated menswear brand run by Brooklyn natives Ariel and Shimon Ovadia, has considered those costs. “We’ve had the conversation about doing women’s many times. Obviously the women’s market is much larger than men’s, so there’s opportunity to do a lot more business quickly. It seems like a natural growth strategy, and everyone wants a piece of that pie, but it does come with more competition,” they said by e-mail. “We’ve gotten advice from people in the industry telling us to think about women’s or asking when we’re launching women’s. It doesn’t happen overnight. We can’t give away too much just yet, but we’re working on a project which includes designing for both men’s and women’s—it’s a start, so we’ll see what happens from there…”
Another nominated menswear designer, Tim Coppens, has already let a few women’s looks infiltrate his collection, but he’s been careful in his approach. “It can be very challenging, especially now that menswear is more important and it is growing—I think it’s important to not do too many things at the same time,” he says. “But the reality is womenswear is a bigger part of the business. So there is a business element that is very interesting.”
The young British designer Craig Green has been received as a menswear messiah, but don’t get too attached. His hard-to-pin-down creations have already been co-opted by stylish ladies like Susie Lau and FKA twigs, and as a likely contender to take home the 300,000 euro LVMH Prize, Green said in an interview with Style.com that he hopes to “delve into womenswear in a year or so’s time.” He’s got a very bright future ahead of him, and it seems unlikely that Green will be remembered solely as a menswear designer.
FKA twigs wearing Craig Green Spring '15 at Coachella, and a look from Green's Spring '15 Runway. Photo: Getty Images; Yannis Vlamos / Indigitalimages.com
Maxwell Osborne and Dao-Yi Chao of Public School, members of the New York fashion elite who have wooed influential celebs and editors alike, celebrated winning the $300,000 CFDA/Vogue Fashion Fund in 2013 by launching their women’s collection in 2014. Now they’ve got Anna Wintour in the front row and 23 of the 43 looks they showed for Fall ’15 were women’s.
Jonathan Anderson, “the most influential designer working today,” got his start designing menswear. Two years after launching his eponymous collection, in 2010, he took a first crack at women’s. “He probably tired of well-meaning souls telling him he’d be better off doing womenswear. Fact is...: His boy-girls were simply more interesting than his girl-boys,” wrote Tim Blanks of J.W. Anderson’s Fall 2011 offering.
Many of these young designers are just following in the footsteps of menswear’s godfathers.
Hedi Slimane established himself as a menswear oracle at Dior Homme. In his five years at the helm there, he “created one of the most identifiable and influential vocabularies in menswear,” wrote Blanks in a review of his Spring 2007 collection. Slimane didn’t design a women’s line until he took the reins at Saint Laurent in 2012. Since then, the house has seen profits double, and Slimane’s stock as a designer has only been on the rise.
Raf Simons spent 10 years making menswear at his eponymous label before he designed his first women’s collection for Jil Sander in 2005. Now he presides over all things women’s as the artistic director of Dior. Try watching Dior and I without getting misty-eyed and tell me the guy wasn’t put on earth to be a fashion designer. His menswear collections are the stuff of legend, but it seems his talents would have been wasted had he not chosen to branch out.
“Some of these design aesthetics translate better for women.”
Any young menswear designer working today, like it or not, does so in the shadows of Hedi and Raf. Who wouldn’t want to follow in their footsteps? Starting out as they did in menswear, unfettered by the demands of a behemoth market, can be a good way to go. And perhaps it’s because there are so few successful men’s-only designers that the creative outliers are able to flourish. But sooner or later, for designers with promise, the opportunity to expand will present itself, thanks to substantial fashion awards like the LVMH Prize and encouragement from influential editors and buyers. Menswear just isn’t able to keep the talent it nurtures to itself.
“I do know from personal experience,” says Wainwright, “that if you offer guys clothes that are largely very fashion-based, there’s a finite number of guys that are going to get it. And that you need to either figure out women’s or you need to figure out a line within your line, or a certain type of product within your line, that is really going to resonate with a lot of people. Women’s is a much bigger market; it’s much faster. Some of these design aesthetics translate better for women.” For designers who are ready to make the leap, says Wainwright, it’s not that hard to get into. “You’ve already got the relationships with the stores, you’ve probably got a loyal social media following, you’ve got e-commerce—you know, you’ve got everything in place. You just need to figure out a woman’s fit and woman’s aesthetic. It’s a relatively obvious step.”
Surely Kanye isn’t the only guy who’s considered wearing Céline.
In the end, of course, it’s churlish for guys to begrudge a label the chance to grow just because we want to keep the clothes to ourselves. Perhaps the best we can ask is that they pay us equal attention, and designers like Riccardo Tisci at Givenchy, Ralph Lauren, and Rick Owens have shown that you can create just as much excitement around your men’s line as your women’s. (The video Rag & Bone made with Mikhail Baryshnikov and Lil Buck to promote its Fall 2015 menswear collection is a case in point.) Plus, there’s another way to look at it: If this boom really is all it’s cracked up to be, maybe the road between men’s and women’s will become a two-way street for designers. There are a few women’s-only labels I’d like to see take on the men’s wardrobe—surely Kanye isn’t the only guy who’s considered wearing Céline. Demna Gvasalia, design head of Vetements, the most-buzzed-about women’s label of Fall ’15, told Style.com that he’d be considering a men’s line if Vetements takes the LVMH Prize this year. That would be a step in the right direction.