Raf Simons sat down with Vanessa Friedman of the New York Times‘ to discuss his work at Calvin Klein. In their interview, Simons discusses the importance of art over fashion, his interest in Andy Warhol, and valuing positive and negative feedback equally. At a time when women’s fashion is currently mourning the loss of a great female-led brand (Celine, née Céline), Raf Simons represents a group of male womenswear designers who stand behind women.
Male womenswear designers, and men in general, are under a lot of scrutiny right now—some deservedly, some not. The Hollywood Reporter compared Hedi Slimane, the new creative director at Celine, to Donald Trump because of his seemingly misogynistic collection for a brand that used to embody modern feminism. It is a stretch to conflate Trump and Slimane, but still, when Phoebe Philo left Céline, she also left a gap in the market for a similar female-led brand. This sentiment is expressed as “Old Céline” (aka Pre-Hedi Celine) and has been immortalized as an Instagram account filled with Philo-era images from the brand.
It’s impossible to ignore the political landscape’s effect on fashion. The Kavanaugh hearings were taking place in America around the same time that Hedi debuted his inaugural collection for Celine during Paris Fashion Week. At a time when sexual assault has become such a prominent human rights issue, Slimane’s iteration of the brand was painted as sexist and singular. Slimane’s Celine was not what Philo-philes wanted. The Business of Fashion told a story about a legion of Old Céline fans that gathered before Hedi’s show to pay tribute to the former brand. This group of women prized Céline for what it once represented: sophisticated womenswear made by and for the female gaze.
But where Slimane has decided not to adapt, Raf Simons has done so with impact (the designer launched “Women,” Calvin Klein’s first flagship fragrance in years). But then again, comparing the two designers is like pitting apples against oranges. Simons is known for exploring themes and ideas more explicitly in his work, forgoing any personal attachment to a singular style or “aesthetic,” unlike Hedi who tends to focus on a more specific woman, which he conveyed at Saint Laurent and has continued to do through Celine. There’s nothing wrong with that, but it’s easy to understand why the fate of male womenswear designers is left hanging in the balance, viewed as a well of grotesque creeps dictating how women should appear.
But to write off all male womenswear designers seems a bit unfair. Damaging, even. There have been many trailblazing male designers over the decades who create empowering clothing for women: Oscar de la Renta, Ralph Lauren, Christian Dior, Raf Simons, and Marc Jacobs, who is the latest designer to spearhead female empowerment. Last week, Lady Gaga wore a slouchy brown suit by Jacobs to Elle‘s “Women in Hollywood” event. Fashion critics lampooned the look, but Gaga spoke of the strength it imbued upon her.
“So, after trying 10 or so dresses, with a sad feeling in my heart, that all that would matter was what I wore to this red carpet, I saw an oversized Marc Jacobs suit buried quietly in the corner. I put it on to a resounding view of eyes glaring at me in confusion,” Gaga said in her speech. “This was an oversized men’s suit made for a woman. Not a gown. And then I began to cry. In this suit, I felt like me today. In this suit, I felt the truth of who I am well up in my gut,” she continued, before opening up about her own experience with sexual abuse.
It’s a designer’s ability to create empowering or inspiring clothing that makes them great, not their gender. While Hedi Slimane will never replace Phoebe Philo, it is important to acknowledge the harm in lumping together male designers or to blindly decry: clothing for women by women. Yes, supporting female-led brands is paramount to creating more diversity and representation across all industries. But approaching everything with a filter that omits male creatives actually creates a deeper divide, which only emphasizes the work that needs to be done in order to mend the gender gap.