(Designers)

Meet the Next Generation of Women Shaking Up Menswear

The status quo is changing.

By Maura Brannigan

In 2021, menswear is still inseparable from the men who design it. Unlike womenswear, which heralds white, cisgender, and able-bodied male figures like Yves Saint Laurent, Christian Dior, and Hubert de Givenchy as legend, women designing menswear is — historically — not quite as common.

This isn’t to say that women have altogether been excluded from menswear when in fact, that’s far from the truth. Some of the world’s most accomplished menswear forces have been women, like Miuccia Prada, Donatella Versace, and Céline’s Phoebe Philo, all of whom, incidentally, create across the aisle for everyone, regardless of gender identity. But it is still a field largely dominated by men, with its history-making designers — think Raf Simons or Hedi Slimane — often using menswear as a launchpad for more robust ambitions to the tune of creative directorships at legacy fashion houses.

But today, there’s a new generation of female-identifying menswear designers working to bring the sector into a new, more innovative golden age. And they’re here to stay.

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Wales Bonner
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“For a long time, if you wanted to make your mark in fashion, you started with womenswear,” GQ Staff Writer Rachel Tashjian says of up-and-coming female design talent. “But now, you have these designers coming up over the past five-to-10 years who are menswear designers and are adamant that this is their identity as a designer, even as they trickle into womenswear or court female-identifying customers.”

Tashjian chalks up this shift to the fact that there’s more interest — and accordingly, more money — in menswear in general. With residual streetwear hype and investments helping to propel menswear much closer into the spotlight, independent creatives throughout all areas of focus are getting a lot more attention fresh out of the gate. This has become especially common among stratospheric male designers like Virgil Abloh and Kim Jones, both of whom have become household names despite, as Tashjian says, having long been idolized by menswear heads.

The numbers don’t lie: An October 2020 report from London-based market-research firm TechNavio showed that menswear is poised to grow by $153 billion between 2020-2024, progressing at a compound annual growth rate of nearly 6%. Compare this, then, to the current size of the sector, which as of 2019, Statista clocked in at $114 billion. There should be no quantitative question that menswear has legs — as do the flourishing designers behind the scenes of it all.

Feng Chen Wang.Tristan Fewings/BFC/Getty Images Entertainment/Getty Images

There’s also no question that a sizable portion of this growth is in the hands of those buzzy, female-identifying menswear designers, who are already pushing the status quo. Yet, it’s a bit of a chicken-or-the-egg situation, in that it’s not simply the designers at the forefront driving the ways in which gendered clothing is changing. Though women have long been conditioned to shop for menswear (such as, say, buying men’s sneakers in women’s sizes — which doesn’t always occur in a reverse sense), today’s female-identifying shoppers are still championing menswear in new and inventive ways.

Although LVMH Prize-nominated designer Feng Chen Wang started in menswear, about 30% of her customers are women. “I naturally bring out a style that’s unisex,” Wang tells TZR from Shanghai. “At the end of the day, the collections I design are genderless.”

The Chinese-born, London-based designer notably cut her teeth at the prestigious Royal College of Art, graduating with a master’s degree in menswear fashion. Today, her creations are inherently more futuristic than some of her menswear colleagues, and not simply because of the conceptual functionality that, in some cases, may be more fit for a spot on The Jetsons.

“At the beginning, lots of buyers didn’t have confidence to accept my styles,” she says. “They all said menswear colors need to be quieter, muted. But today’s generation is far more open-minded.” To that end, Wang — who has collaborated with both Converse and Levi’s — focuses not on any one gender identity, but instead on her own emotional experiences that are more universal than traditional gender lines may make it seem.

Bode. Estrop/Getty Images Entertainment/Getty Images

The same is true with Grace Wales Bonner, who, as the recipient of the 2016 LVMH Prize, is often regarded as one of the fashion’s most promising newcomers. Her work frequently centers complex and personal themes of sexuality and heritage, including her own identity as a mixed-race woman born to a Jamaican father and English mother. As British Vogue Editor-in-Chief Edward Enninful wrote in 2019, “Her influence extends far beyond fashion; not only does she have a growing ready-to-wear business, but what she's already done for culture would be impressive in someone twice her age.”

Bonner’s clothes are, to some degree, vehicles for her pristine craftsmanship, apparent on garments like long tuxedo jackets and lush, embellished tunics. This artistry is also shared by Emily Adams Bode, the New York design darling whose quilted clothing — repurposed from antique fabrics and textiles — began taking the American scene by storm immediately upon her debut in July 2016.

“With [Bonner] and [Bode] specifically, I think there's an essential tenderness and sweetness to the work,” Tashjian says. “Both have done a lot to make men think about beauty, and their work actively, though subtly, functions in contrast to the hype cycle culture that dominates a lot of menswear. They encourage their customers to think of themselves almost as stewards for wearable art or objects.”

Like Bode, designers Priya Ahluwahlia and Marine Serre are also tapping into upcycling to better combat fashion’s waste crisis. Ahluwahlia, another Londoner and the H&M Design Award’s 2019 winner, grew motivated to recover and reuse discarded textiles after a 2017 visit to “cast-off capital” Panipat, an Indian municipality 60 miles north of Delhi which is, impressively, home to an estimated 150-200 recycling mills.

Indeed, upcycling matters: The average consumer bought 60% more clothing in 2014 than in 2000, according to a 2016 McKinsey study, but kept each garment half as long. While it's certainly not fair to claim that female designers, and female designers alone, are spearheading innovation to combat the climate crisis, female designers like Ahluwahlia and Serre are, indeed, committed to a healthier, more circular planet — and that's inspiring a generation of creative talent to do the same within menswear, and beyond.

Marine Serre.

Paris-based Serre — whose ubiquitous crescent bodysuits are just a fraction of her business — has been working with fabric waste a decade before her fashion week debut in 2018. “I started wanting to do fashion when I was around 14 or 15, but then I was living in the countryside,” she told W Magazine last spring. “I started patching pieces together, embroidering them, mixing jeans with really old puffy lace tops.”

Serre is adamant that upcycling is more than just a trend, but sometimes, there’s nothing wrong with trends, especially when London-based Martine Rose has originated a number of them. Rose is heavily influenced by ‘90s-era rave and hip-hop culture, which she then references to reinterpret even the most mundane of menswear staples. “You can trace nearly every recent men’s movement, from ugly sneakers to oversized tailoring to sexy menswear, back to her,” Tashjian says.

Of course, it’s not simply men Rose’s forward-framing vision is impacting. Designers, editors, and consumers alike have long indicated that the future of fashion is genderless. To be sure, gender-fluidity is by no means “new” — queer and nonbinary designers have always been carving out inclusive communities through their clothes. Yet certain female-run brands, whose products once largely catered those who identify as female, are now landing in male wardrobes, too.

It’s happening for labels like éliou, a cult-favorite statement jewelry collection, launched in 2018 by best friends Cristina Mantilla and Duda Teixeira who shared a love of the ocean and its marine life. Harry Styles, famously, is a fan: The glam-rock popstar is rarely seen without his freshwater-pearl pendant, which the brand has since renamed the “Harry Necklace” since he first started sporting it last year.

“We had styled men in our pieces before, but this was a real moment for us,” Mantilla explains to TZR. “We felt an alignment between his energy and our vision about personal style right now. Harry Styles’s point of view seems to be a lot like our own — let people express themselves, be who they are, and the way we dress is just one way to do that.”

It’s with this perspective that menswear is only going to grow into a bigger, more lucrative business for female-identifying fashion designers, but also for those across all gender identities. The status quo — that of men’s clothing designed by and for men, and men only — is becoming increasingly tired, leaving room for a new modus operandi. Women, as usual, are on the forefront of what’s next.