“During the womenswear seasons of fashion week, it is always the public perception of what it means to be a woman that is most at stake,” according to the founder of the fashion blog Man Repeller, Leandra Medine. If this is true, the runway shows of 2018 surely made fashion insiders question what it meant to be a woman in fashion.
According to Medine, fashion tastemakers have previously been able to remove some of the politics from fashion, and take for granted the implications of feminism and empowerment in clothing designed for women. Medine credits a large part of this to the genius of Celine Creative Director Phoebe Philo.
For ten years, Philo helmed the design house Celine and is applauded for her oversized silhouettes, sumptuous fabrics and easy-chic aesthetic. Philo is one of the first women designers who understood what it meant to be a modern woman. She designs clothes for other women to look beautiful, to be comfortable and to feel empowered. Philo’s laid-back aesthetic is so lauded that she is credited with single-handedly bringing Birkenstocks and Stan Smith sneakers back into the fashion mainstream.
However, Philo’s legacy came into question when it was announced last year that she would be leaving the design house. Fans were devastated when it was announced that Hedi Slimane would take over Celine.
Slimane, the Creative Director, credited with saving the Yves Saint Laurent brand, is infamous for his darkly sexy clothing and dangerously thin models. Before his first collection premiered, fans of Celine held their breath to see if he would retain any semblance of Philo’s creation.
As many feared, Slimane’s first collection for Celine this past fall looked like a repeat of his previous Yves Saint Laurent collections. Philo’s ugly-cool footwear, cozy sweaters and healthy looking models were replaced with teeny sequin mini dresses, skeletal models and bored expressions. With the exception of celebrities who were fans of Slimane’s previous work (Lady Gaga being chief among them), the online fashion community was in an uproar over Slimane’s showing.
While people were upset that it looked nothing like the Celine brand, the bigger issue was that people felt like Slimane had regressed to an earlier era of fashion exempt from body positivity, feminist and diversity movements. (in addition to his other errors, there are only about seven models of color in a 150 piece collection).
In a post-Me Too, Times Up era, Slimane’s egregiously anti-feminist collection felt like a slap in the face. For many women, clothing provides an essential part of identity and freedom in an often misogynistically controlling world. Many felt like some of that was taken away by Slimane’s new iteration of Celine.
Despite the fumbles at Celine, 2018 was an iconic and important year for women in fashion. Between the blackout at last year’s Golden Globes, Serena Williams’ iconic looks on the tennis court, Janelle Monae’s vulva pants, countless brands integration of size and racial diversity and even Melania Trump’s “I really don’t care” jacket, we had to face fashion’s political implications and figure out what kind of sartorial landscape we wanted to exist in.
Fashion is powerful and can be used as an affecting tool for change. As Leandra said, fashion shows us what it means to be a woman in our society. While celebrities and creative directors will surely continue to make bold statements with their clothes, it is time for all of us to hold designers accountable for creating fashion that is inclusive, political and progressive.
While progress is always slow-moving, 2019 has already proven to be upending political norms. Right now we have the most women ever voted into Congress, a heavily women-populated Democratic running pool for the 2020 presidency and more women joining resistance movements. With all of the hurdles we’ve overcome, facilitating an intersectional feminist fashion landscape should be easy.