Balenciaga, Balmain, Galliano et al - there's no doubt male designers have dominated the women's fashion scene and the new generation is no exception. Is this because they have a better eye for what looks good on the female form? Fiona Killacky talks to five rising stars about the reasons why.
Tom Ford's announcement in 2005 that "men are often better designers for women than other women" was about as shocking to the fashion industry as Diane von Furstenberg including a printed wrapdress in her latest collection. A quick glance at the fashion archives shows it's a collection authored, predominantly, by men. From Cristobal Balenciaga, Hubert de Givenchy and Pierre Balmain through to John Galliano, Alexander McQueen and Bernhard Willhelm, the swing tags that adorn our frocks are, more often than not, stamped with a man's name. Style is not biologically determined, so why then do so many top women's wear designers share an XY, rather than an XX, chromosome? Can a male designer bring a level of objectivity to women's fashion that escapes his female colleagues? Are men better judges of what looks good on a woman's frame? Or is fashion just like most other high-profile industries, dominated by a largely male workforce? We caught up with five of the world's most successful young male designers to discuss fashion, fame and the female form.
Redefining the traditional frock and bringing feminine fashion back to the fore, Erdem Moralioglu's designs reflect the flavours, textures and colours of his cosmopolitan background - and impeccable CV. Born in Canada to a British mother and a Turkish father, he grew up travelling between continents, spending the majority of his time with family in Istanbul, Montreal and Birmingham. After completing his fashion degree in Toronto, he moved to London, working as an intern with Vivienne Westwood before receiving a coveted spot in the MA course at the Royal College of Art. Then, after graduating, he worked with Diane von Furstenberg before launching his own label in the UK in 2005. Each Erdem Moralioglu collection is saturated in colour, each garment carved flawlessly from luxurious materials. Obsessed with fit, he creates structured dresses that merge the classic elegance of a bygone era with the edgy appeal of contemporary couture. In addition to "feeling confident and beautiful", Moralioglu stresses his female customers must feel, at all times, comfortable. "That is really important," he says. "Confidence is helped greatly by feeling comfortable in what you're wearing." While quick to point out the "amazing" work being done by his female peers, Moralioglu says that the question of why so many top designers are male is a difficult one to answer. "There is enough distance between a man and a dress to give him a different perspective and different point of view," he adds. He says he designs with women's [body] proportions in mind, but believes his pieces compliment all women, utilising intricate detailing, finishes, prints and textures to create more a work of art than a simple dress. His attention to detail has been noted by more than a few fashion icons, and Chloë Sevigny, Claudia Schiffer and Keira Knightley are among his growing list of admirers. Despite the hype surrounding him, Moralioglu remains down to earth and focused on his craft. In addition to his own collections, he will collaborate with UK luxury labels Cutler and Gross, Globe-Trotter and Smythson on a range of optical goods, luggage and stationery. "I'm doing a lot this year and it's incredibly exciting," he says.
Turning down a job with Versace is not something most fashion graduates would consider. Then again, Christopher Kane is not most people. With a plethora of design awards and a CV bursting with sales figures and media attention to rival even the most established fashion houses, Kane has proven himself a force to be reckoned with. And all in just three short years. His upbringing is about as far from the glamour of international fashion as one can imagine. As the youngest of five children, Kane spent his formative years in Newarthill, a small village on the far outskirts of Glasgow. Imploring his mother to buy the latest fashion magazines, Kane began to develop his innate sense of style, shape and silhouette. At age 18, he won a place at the prestigious Central Saint Martins College in London to study fashion design. There, he was noted for his uncanny ability to transform fabrics and patterns usually reserved for bargain basement sales - leopard print, neons, bleached denim - into cutting-edge couture. For his MA graduation show, Kane created a collection that picked up the Harrods Design Award and came to the attention of Donatella Versace, who hired him as a consultant for the label's Atelier collection. In 2006, he went on to launch his own label with his sister, Tammy. On the prevalence of young male designers, Kane says: "There are so many amazing and inspirational female designers - Donatella Versace, Miucca Prada, Rei Kawakubo, Stella McCartney, Roksanda Ilincic- Men may offer a different point of view, but it's important to remember that all leading men work alongside strong, opinionated women; Gianni Versace and Donatella, Karl Lagerfeld and Amanda Hirsh." When interviewed, Kane is always quick to praise his sister, Tammy, claiming the two are inseparable and their connection imperative to the success of the label. In addition to running much of the business behind Christopher Kane, Tammy also acts as the in-house model, allowing Kane an insider's view to the way clothes fall on a woman's shape. In his collaboration with the British high-street chain Topshop, his sizes range from UK size 6 to 16. "For practical reasons I work on a mannequin size 8. However, my designs can change from season to season. I can be body conscious one season and trapeze the next." Rather than designing with a particular size or shape in mind, Kane claims his female muse is "aware of fashion and art. She is always looking to be directional. I want women in Christopher Kane to feel beautiful, special, knowing that they have something that was made with a lot of consideration and love." This year is set to be the biggest yet for Kane. He is creating a range for Versace's Versus line, developing his next collection and a unisex line of T-shirts. "I want to build more depth in each collection, cash flow permitting," he says. "I want to learn and experiment with the craft of making clothes. After all, I have only been doing this for three years. I feel I am still learning every day."
If there was one designer who dominated the fashion press in 2009, it was Richard Nicoll. Born in London, raised in Australia and schooled at Central Saint Martins, Nicoll is synonymous with quality construction, stunning prints, sensual sculpting and modern tailoring. In 2002 he sold his MA graduate collection to Dolce & Gabbana and, three years later, worked alongside Marc Jacobs as a fashion consultant for Louis Vuitton.
Nicoll launched his self-titled label in 2005 as part of London Fashion Week. He received the British Fashion Council's Fashion Forward Award for three consecutive years from 2006 and his garments have adorned the pages of Russian, Italian, British and US Vogue and the wardrobes of every style starter from Björk and Kylie Minogue, to Sofia Coppola and Diane Kruger. In 2009, he was appointed creative director by the Parisian fashion house, Cerutti.
"Designing for the opposite sex, there is an objectivity and, therefore, a freedom that doesn't exist if you are designing for yourself or your own sex," Nicoll says. "It can become too subjective and founded within the limits of what you would wear yourself." He rarely designs with just one body shape in mind. "It's more an ideal of a woman; usually a hybrid of lots of different women that I know and/or admire, who have different body shapes. I try to design a product that is versatile. Our biggest seller this season has been a big silk geometric T-shirt shape that suits just about everyone."
Nicoll urges women to experiment. "Women always look stronger, more interesting and confident in menswear and I am feeling a bit bored of the number of party dresses around."
Most male designers design what they want to see, rather than female designers, who design mainly what they want to wear," says Canadian-born designer Todd Lynn. "I'm not saying one is better than the other - and, of course, this is a generalisation - but men design with power and aesthetic in mind. Women design with function, comfort or a particular body shape in mind - usually, their own." Eliciting a powerful aesthetic through dress is a trait Lynn has become famous for with his structured rock 'n' roll-inspired pieces worn by the likes of Mick Jagger, PJ Harvey, Bono, Courtney Love and Janet Jackson. After graduating with an MA from Central Saint Martins and working as a cutter for Roland Mouret, Lynn went out on his own in 2006. The following year he presented his collection to a star-studded audience at a London gallery and ignited a global yearning for powerful silhouettes and razor-sharp tailored suits. "I have stuck with what I know," says Lynn of his signature style. "I create strong sculpted pieces that start from an androgynous place and are tweaked and altered for the female form." Maintaining an androgynous look is part of Lynn's appeal. He says it is time women cast off the gender stereotypes of dressing. "I understand, because of society, many women feel more comfortable in a dress at certain events but it's time they moved away from the traditional women's party frock - they're everywhere. People say fashion is not essential to survival, but fashion changes your mindset like few other things can. A strong, tailored outfit can empower a woman, even for half a day and, in these troubled times, that is an amazing feat." Lynn says a woman's style runs parallel to her inner confidence. "It's one and the same thing. If a woman feels good, it shows. I want my clothes to enhance what is already there. I want people to say, 'You look amazing', not 'that's an amazing jacket-'"
He may be one of fashion's fastest rising stars but within moments of speaking to Nasir Mazhar, it's obvious his feet remain on the ground. At just 26, the east Londoner has achieved a level of success veteran designers dream about. Starting out as a stylist with hairdressing legend Vidal Sassoon, Mazhar swapped hot irons for headpieces, and in 2008 launched his self-titled label. "There wasn't a specific thing or person that led me to start a career in fashion design," he says. "I was just curious about creating and I knew I wanted to be my own boss. I grew up in Leytonstone in London and I didn't want to go back into an academic education once I'd finished school." His curiosity paid off. Mazhar's headpieces - cutting-edge wearable art - caused a sensation on their debut at London Fashion Week in 2008, and last year he won the coveted Topshop New Generation Award. Since then his creations have been worn by Madonna, Lady Gaga and Agyness Deyn on numerous magazine covers. Yet, despite the celebrity following, Mazhar says it is the characters in his mind that inspire his creations rather than any particular real-life muse. "I sometimes have a particular woman in mind when I design, but more often than not, I make a piece because I want to see an idea in reality and a lot of the time there's a character in my mind that would wear it." He is puzzled by the imbalance of male to female fashion designers. One thing he is certain of is what makes a woman stand out. "I think stylish women are not completely infected by the media and have their own sense of individuality. They know how to accessorise and have a total look." While his star is on the rise, Mazhar says success has not come without its share of sacrifices. "No one is going to hand success to you on a plate. You have to get up and work for it. It's nice to have the following but my greatest achievement so far has been getting out of Leytonstone, setting up my studio and being able to do something that I really love."
* All photos courtesy of the designers