Donna Karan, building her own style—a black "scarf: skirt, 3/4 length sweater coat, body suit, Donna Karan New York. Skirt, about $140; body suit, about $180; coat, about $300... Jacqueline de Ribes' dinner dressing: trousers, sparkle chiffon T-shirt, redingote. Turnout, about $5838... Jackie Rogers' definition—of "dinner": jersey, draped. Dress, about $725... Top, wide-leg pants, the deepest green velvet: Carolina Herrera's pyjama. About $2800... Solid-gold sparkle: Gloria Sachs, a tartan lame long skirt, beaded and quilted lame check jacket. Skirt, about $400; jacket, about $950... Mary McFadden's dress: softly pleated, banded in embroidery, about $3200.
As fashion month passes I'm always surprised by how few women are at the helm of the major design houses—and particularly how few new major houses have been founded by women in recent years. While Bouchra Jarrar taking over at Lanvin (of course founded by a female, Jeanne Lanvin) is a welcome change, for the most part the top houses are all designed by males (excepting Philo at Celine and Waight Keller at Chloé). The fashion design field is more cluttered with new designers than ever but there seems to be a real difficulty in young female designers making the shift from small scale production to major, international sales or to taking over top creative director jobs. Looking back at an article on female designers in 1985, at that time more female designers were gaining respect and attention—seeming to suggest that the field was opening up. While none of the designers here were working at the top international houses (at that time totally a boy's club), all of these women founded their own highly successful companies; a completely remarkable achievement. For the most part they were all slightly older women, who came to designing after other types of work—McFadden was a PR for Dior and an editor at Vogue, Sachs a painter, Herrera a socialite—bringing with them an understanding of women's lifestyles gained through experience. Unfortunately only two of their companies survive today—Donna Karan and Caroline Herrera—though de Ribes was the subject of a major exhibition at the Costume Institute last year and Rizzoli published a book on McFadden a few years ago. These designers, and the female designers before them, are remembered for dressing women for themselves—clothes that are comfortable, easy-to-wear, yet powerful and sensual.
Photos by Duane Michals for Vogue, September 1985.
Chanel, Vionnet, Schiaparelli, Claire McCardell: great designers all, and women designers, they were anomalies of their times—and they stood alone. In '85, women are cutting the banner headlines—cutting them again and again, with as diverse styles as can be found in our times—at the hands of a Jean Muir, Norma Kamali, newcomer Carolyne Roehm, or Liz Claibourne. As a phenomenon, "It's not just happening among women designers," says Donna Karan—who, this fall, has moved from Anne Klein to her own signature Donna Karan line. "It's the surge of women coming at last to the forefront of every profession."
Their ways of getting to this championship season are as varied as their lives at the cutting edge: Venezuelan Carolina Herrera and Paris's Jacqueline de Ribes evolved from fashion consumers-with-style to sure-handed clothes creators. Jackie Rogers acted in Federico Fellini's classic 8 1/2, modeled for Chanel, and owned her own shops on Madison Avenue. Women designers, today, are business-women: Gloria Sachs, a watercolorist who studied with Fernand Legér in Paris, recently bought her own knitting mill in Ireland.
In a season of body dressing, women are coming to the fore: At their best, with an ability to zero in on clothes with a sense of softness and fluid line, a personal point-of-view that's still accessible to other women. Says Jackie Rogers, "A man's mind is different when it comes to design. He feels line and sensual elegance from an abstract approach. I drape the collection on my body." What's new? Women, in fact, are designing for themselves. And from that, for others.
Their points of view: varied, very individual; what today's standout women designers share, seemingly, is a regard for softness, for the body. Left to right: Donna Karan New York dressing that starts with a base in black. Body suit, about $185; trousers, bout $265; skirt, about $190. Over it all, tailored jacket. About $410... Softest fur—golden sable: Carolina Herrera for Revillon; easy pants, jacket in herringbone. By Carlina Herrera. Coat, about $67,500; suit, with paisley shirt, about $3335... Petaled, the prettiest dress: Jacqueline de Ribes glamour. About $3500, in black silk mousseline... Signature Gloria Sachs starts with glorious Bessarabian paisley wool challis. Coat collared in sable-dyed fox, about $1100... Mary McFadden's long column, curved to the body, banded in beads. About $3385... More for night, from Jackie Rogers: jersey dress knotted at the midriff: a dress with form, a woman's style. About $580.