Wonderwomen - it is not just a tribute to the film series of the same name starring Gal Gadot as a superheroine, which set box office records with the latest installment so far, “Wonder Woman 1984”, the first flick in the Marvel empire to be directed by and starring a female. In this case, the very fitting title refers to those women who, thanks to their brilliant talent, their razor- sharp minds and also their perseverance, have earned their place at the top in the world of fashion and beauty.
A world in which the leading roles have been filled by men since the days of Charles Frederick Worth (designer and father of haute couture, editor’s note). With few exceptions, such as Rose Bertin, Marie Antoinette’s female Minister of Fashion, the 1920s and 1930s, when the genius of Madeleine Vionnet and Jeanne Lanvin eclipsed the competition, or Chanel and Schiaparelli, although the direct competition was often the focus for them, it was primarily men who entered into the history of design. Women, on the other hand, were usually credited only with commercial success. This should not be misinterpreted - after all, the talent of grandees such as Paul Poiret, Christian Dior, Yves Saint Laurent, Yohji Yamamoto, Issey Miyake, Azzedine Alaïa, John Galliano, or Alexander McQueen cannot be denied. Nevertheless, there is no doubt that the system of fashion, media, and society tends to favor gentlemen over ladies.
Behind the shiny facade
For a long time, the same was true in the fragrance industry, which only wanted to accept women in the role of customers. Perfumer Christine Nagel still well remembers not being admitted as a woman to the Firmenich perfumery school in the early 1980s. And although many of today’s most prestigious brands were founded by women and their outstanding personalities received great recognition, especially in the media, the scene seemed to be dominated by men here as well. Examples include Germaine Cellier, a perfumer in the 1940s of “Fracas” for Piguet and of “Vent Vert” for Balmain, or Olivia Giacobetti. Even today, the top-selling brands have solely male directors in the lead. The situation is similar in the decorative cosmetics segment, an area that was driven by independent women in the early years. Only relatively recently have women again been found in top positions as creative directors here. Chanel, for example, appointed Lucia Pica as creative director in 2015, and Estée Lauder and L’Oréal Paris crowned Violette (Estée Lauder) and Val Garland (L’Oréal Paris), respectively, as artistic directors in 2017. Only Giorgio Armani has relied on female leadership from the very beginning - first with Pat McGrath and since 2010 with Linda Cantello. At Lanôme, too, female creative directors have been at the helm since 2003: Gucci Westman until 2015, followed by Lisa Eldridge, who continues to serve in the same position to this day. A similarly sad balance can be drawn for the work at fashion shows. Pat McGrath was one of the first makeup artists to conquer this field for her colleagues. Incidentally, with almost insane success - after all, as the leading makeup artist, she supervised up to 60 shows per season.
Into the Spotlight
The number of female designers and founders of brands with prestige and commercial influence has multiplied - in addition to the designers we will be presenting in more detail in this and future issues, we should also mention names such as Chitose Abe of Sacai and Grace Wales Bonner, as well as their colleagues who have been appointed to the artistic direction of brands with historical heritage. Among them, for example, Virginie Viard, the “logical” successor to Lagerfeld at Chanel, described Viard as “my right arm and my left arm”. Or Sarah Burton, who during her ten years at the helm of Alexander McQueen was able to develop the genius’s legacy with autonomy and consistency. Even if designer Clare Waight Keller has closed her chapter at Givenchy after just three years, more and more women are stepping up to make history again with the resounding traditional brands.
Leading by example
The perfect example of this is Maria Grazia Chiuri, who is largely responsible for Dior’s recent successes. When asked if she feels she has broken a “glass ceiling” by being appointed to the top of an institution like Dior, the Roman designer replies, “My appointment was certainly a break with the history of the Maison, which over the years defined a precise idea of femininity through the masculine design of the creative directors who preceded me. Femininity, also Italian charm, although there was another Italian before me, Gianfranco Ferré - that allowed me to better understand the qualities of Italian fashion culture in relation to French and to intertwine this knowledge”. Chiuri is also responsible for introducing fragments of feminist culture and conversation, respectively, into Dior collections and shows: media moments of global impact. “I was called by Dior at a particular moment in my life when I became aware - through a series of readings, first of all the works of author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie and the comparison with my daughter Rachele - of the complexity of being a woman. But also of the beauty of being one. I thought that running a fashion house like Dior would give me the opportunity to work for other women and focus on a project that reconciles the idea of femininity with that of feminism. But for me, femininity is not a theme that is first developed in the collections. It’s a way of looking at and reflecting on our times, it’s a guiding principle in my work for women, it’s a way of making known and giving space to artists, studios and activists who, thanks to the audience that a brand like Dior enjoys, can communicate and amplify their project and message in an extraordinary way.”
“A circumstance that can be attributed to their special bond: “We had our own identities and points of view, but we also knew how to exchange them. She had a very strong sense of duty: Backstage at the fashion show, it often happened that we rehearsed for 12 hours straight. When we showed signs of fatigue, she would say, with her unmistakable grace and calm voice, ‘We’re here to improve!’ From my mother I also got my motto, ‘Shaping the future, every day,’ and the joyful, consistent and coherent approach to the inexhaustible search for the dress that doesn’t yet exist.” It’s a work ethic that can undoubtedly be attributed to Lavinia as well, and one that has undoubtedly been passed down through the generations, “My mother taught me the importance of having a vision. She taught me that fashion can build bridges between different worlds because she believed that it is possible to communicate and share ideas also through beauty. Fashion is a universal language, but Laura Biagiotti’s particular style made it to being recognized all over the world. Today they are called iconic garments - designs like ‘L’Abito Bambola’ or ‘Bianco Biagiotti’ remain in the memory and will continue to inspire my collections.” Carolina Castiglioni, on the other hand, worked for Marni, the free-spirited cult brand founded by her mother Consuelo, for 13 years before launching her own label called “Plan C” in 2018. A natural, or rather “physiological” evolution assimilated by growing up alongside a woman whose style is both eccentric and poetic. “I’ve always experienced fashion in a ‘feminine’ way, growing up with my mother and observing and internalizing the work of Miuccia Prada and Phoebe Philo at Céline. The basic aesthetic of Plan C is my own. Every piece of clothes I make is clothes I would wear myself, whereas in my days at Marni I wouldn’t have worn the entire collection. I’m an active person, I ride a moped, I like special but not banal things, and I wouldn’t go out on the street in the morning in high heels and a long skirt. I would describe my personal style as creative. For color combinations, I take inspiration from art or my children, starting with my daughter Margherita’s drawings, which I’ve been using as graphic motifs since the first collection”, Castiglioni explains, saying with a wink, “Maybe the third generation of Castiglioni stylists is already getting ready!”
First the supermodels of the 90s, then Madonna and Jennifer Lopez ... What do the women of Versace have in common? Strength, ingenuity, confidence, charisma and also the desire to break the rules. Madonna, for example, is unique. We’ve known each other all our lives and have always been friends. From her I learned what strength you develop when you firmly believe in what you’re doing. She also taught me the meaning of “never give up” like no other. I love the strength, passion and dedication to work that Jennifer Lopez has, but most of all I admire her as a person and as a mother. She is one of the most authentic and undoubtedly beautiful women I have ever met, and it makes me proud every time she wears a Versace dress.
Which of your designs are you particularly proud of?
The Jungle Dress. I designed it for the spring/summer 2000 collection and it became an icon. - Can you actually say that about something you’ve designed yourself? The whole world had the same reaction right then: it was amazed! Millions of people then searched the Internet for Jennifer’s photo. The jungle dress thus went down in history and also inspired the team at Google to introduce a new tool: Google Images.
What were the key figures who contributed to the “Versace myth”?
It would take an encyclopedia to list them all. Starting from photography geniuses like Richard Avedon, Helmut Newton, Iriving Penn, Bruce Weber to Steven Meisel and Mert Alas and Marcus Piggott. The supermodels were born with Gianni when I suggested that they not only walk the runway, but also participate in photo shoots: Naomi, Cindy, Claudia, Stephanie, Linda, Carla, Kate, Giselle and then on to Gigi and Bella, Kendall, Vittoria, Kaia ... The list is really long, but what unites all these people who belong to the extended family of Versace is the fact that they have managed to leave an impression on society that goes beyond fashion. At that time they were real celebrities, whose look people wanted not only to copy, but also yearned to know, for example, where they spend the vacations.
What were the most important moments for the brand under your leadership?
The “Tribute Collection” (spring/summer 2018 collection in homage to Gianni Versace, editor’s note) was certainly a turning point for the brand and for me personally. It was a difficult challenge, a sometimes painful but at the same time liberating journey. To be honest, I didn’t expect success, not because I don’t trust my intuition, but because you’re always a bit critical of yourself, especially when you’re dealing with the work of a genius. And I can’t forget the moment when Jennifer (Lopez, editor’s note) walked the runway in September 2019: it was the closing of a circle that began in 2000 and triggered indescribable emotions in me. The past fall/winter 2020/21 collection was also a fundamental moment because for the first time we merged the men’s and women’s collections. I decided to do this in order to emphasize more the values of inclusivity and equality that underlie the Versace DNA.
Fashion is in a period of great change, it is rethinking seasonality, number of collections, the issue of sustainability is becoming stronger. What are the main changes taking place at Versace?
Many things need to be rethought, and we are in the process of making the first changes. I don’t want to indulge in any explanations, because it’s really a delicate moment, a moment that no one of us has experienced before. We are rethinking everything, because concepts that were taken for granted until six months ago now seem meaningless: the seasonality of the collections, how extensive they should be, what they must include. If fashion is the mirror of society, and society is changing, fashion will change too. Sustainability and authenticity will play a fundamental role, as will the digital world.
You have always been an advocate for the LGBTQ+ community, including the fight against AIDS.
I believe in the power of change and that we as people and as a society can build a better world for ourselves and for those who come after us by supporting each other and accepting that we are not all the same and that our differences make us unique. Even with the smallest gesture of kindness, we can create that change. We are going through a difficult time, and only by sticking together can we hope for a better future for all. We have just rediscovered how important it is to be kind to each other, to help each other, to be a true community. For this reason, I have always supported several institutions and in particular I am committed to the LGBTQ+ community: this year I celebrated the anniversary of my appointment as Ambassador for LGBTQ+ Rights Equality and worked with the organizations „Pride Live“ and „Arcigay“ to support their fight for rights.
You have been working with Steven Meisel for a very long time, including numerous productions for Vogue Italia, a number of them during Franca Sozzani’s (former editor-in-chief of Vogue Italia, editor’s note) golden years.
Meisel is a living legend - the greatest fashion photographer of the past and the beginning of the century! We have always worked together in a symbiotic way. Thanks to that, I invented the “MatteTrance” lipstick, for example. Before, it took me ten minutes and seven products to get a perfect matte lip result - but we didn’t always have the time and luxury to try different makeup options. Now I just have to apply my hyperpigmented lipstick for a wow effect.
You are equally famous for the extremely natural looks you create as well as for the more extravagant ones.
I have “incorporated” my minimalist style into my makeup line, so I only use the “Sublime Perfection” products as a primer, foundation and powder, as well as the lip balm and the “Fetisheyes” mascara. For a spectacular and subversive makeup I use my “Lightning Astral Quads” and Swarovski crystals.
When you created Armani’s foundation, many industry colleagues were thrilled. The same thing happened when you worked for Dolce & Gabbana. Have you managed to go even further by creating your own brand?
The “Skin Fetish Sublime Perfection” foundation is a condensate of my backstage expertise, which I made available to the public. I wanted it to work on every skin type, for every skin tone, at every age and in every climate. And of course, it had to act as a hybrid between makeup and skincare, so it covers blemishes and moisturizes. Although the result is really extraordinary, it can’t be compared to what I do professionally: that’s why I created a complete line of products.
Your Instagram profile is an encyclopedia of references: Serge Lutens, David Bowie, Diana Ross, Cher, Jerry Hall, Jean Shrimpton, Avedon photos, Diana Vreeland, Thierry Mugler, Kate Bush, Edie Sedgwick, Grace Jones, Tamara de Lempicka, Hedy Lamarr and the great fashion photographers of the 70s.
They are all my obsessions. I only post pictures that I really like.
The account is as much an ode to liquid gold, textural glitter and dramatic eyeliner.
I’ve always been fascinated by the extremes. Whether it’s the extreme of “no makeup makeup” that I’ve managed to pull off with extreme precision using a whole range of neutral shades, or the opposite extreme of the most colorful and fanciful makeup. One of my first covers for “Glamour” in France was with Amber Valletta. I contrasted the barely made-up skin, which gave a glimpse of imperfections, with an exaggerated metallic eye makeup. This was a look that I have since reimagined and reinvented hundreds of times. For John Galliano’s Dior shows, we came up with three-dimensional looks, recreating the faces of ancient Egyptian pharaohs and applying metallic gels to the face.
Beyond the hype, what sets your products apart from the competition?
It took me years to develop colors, formulas and textures that ensure the products I use have the perfect finish and coverage.
What were the stylistic features of the brand Genny?
The label was known for femininity, colors, embroidery - think of suits with perfect cut and clear silhouettes. Many ladies still have a piece of clothing from Genny in their closet, which even after many years still reflects the spirit of the time.
What does it mean to reinterpret the brand’s heritage? Which elements remain? And what is new?
I have drawn on the femininity that makes Genny so special and also on the shapes to create harmonious designs of sophisticated elegance. My vision is of a woman who travels and is independent, who is socially engaged - she must have a look for the office and for travel that always fits perfectly. Even when she wears jeans, she combines them with a silk blouse. So these are clothes that follow fashion, but never in an over-the-top way. And it has to make the woman who wears it feel good. For this reason, I also try every fabric sample that arrives and check if I like it and feel comfortable in it.
Can you tell me something about the creative process?
It starts with a feeling, an idea, a wish. For example, the past collection was inspired by the Orient Express. I was in an antique store and discovered some brooches from the 1920s made of platinum with diamonds. Hairpins and Poirot films came to mind. That’s why I bought the movie and watched it again. I was inspired by this elegance and the idea of a woman who travels and chooses a special look for her wardrobe.
How much of an impact did your studies in sociology have on your work?
It’s studies that teach you to stay open to the world. Small messages, words, help you understand what others want. I respond to needs, but they are always interpreted through my stylistic research. The same happens with the materials and the knitwear.
Does the female creative vision influence a brand in a particular way?
I don’t think so. I’m thinking of the really big ones - Valentino or Versace, for example. As soon as there’s a genius at work, there’s no difference.
And what about entrepreneurial vision?
Again, there is no difference, though I would separate the two roles. The creative director works on aesthetics, on what catches your eye, what excites you. An entrepreneur deals with numbers and accounts.
How do you define innovation in fashion?
From a strategic point of view, it’s about knowing how to extend the brand - not only in terms of the product, but also in real life.
Does it have anything to do with sustainability?
Very much so. A few years ago we started a project on sustainability, also in terms of the values we represent and not just in terms of materials. Last winter there were also three fabrics in the collection that were very much in line with the theme: silk, “Prince of Wales” and a pinstripe made from recycled wool. In addition, a label is used to indicate exactly which materials have been processed, in order to provide information to the customer. Our garments are made in Italy, the style, the tailoring, the embroidery are done by our seamstresses. Sometimes we take it for granted, but it is important. You always have to work on the brand with respect and trust your conscience. These are values that I have brought to the company.
Why do you think Hermès chose you?
Pierre-Alexis Dumas (artistic director of Hermès, editor’s note), said he expected boldness and creativity from me. And then I think they chose me because of my sensitivity, because I am a “tactile” nose, and at Hermès the sense of touch is fundamental. The characteristic feature of Hermès is the centrality of the material, the obsession with details, to the point that even the inside of the garments is as perfect as the outside. Again, what distinguishes Hermès is the essential style: in perfumery, Ellena has taken this concept to the extreme, creating formulas with few raw materials and without redundancy.
What is the fundamental quality of a good fragrance for you?
It has to melt into the skin, I hate flat fragrances.
How do you create your perfumes?
If you do something similar to what already exists, you will please many, but that doesn’t interest me! I want to surprise. For example, with “Eau de Rhubarbe Écarlate”, my debut at Hermès, an eau de cologne without citrus, where the typical freshness is created by an herbaceous plant. In general, I like to make fragrances that are very different. For what later became “Un Jardin sur la Lagune”, I was looking for an English garden, and at some point I heard about a secret Venetian garden on the island of Giudecca that was closed to the public and belonged to an English resident, Frederic Eden, which is why the garden was later called “Eden”. I wrote to the foundation in charge, and they allowed me to visit it. The first time I was there in winter, the air was saturated with salt, the atmosphere was so special that it moved me. I returned two or three times, in different seasons, to capture other facets. I like to think that for those who can not enter this garden, it is as if the perfume opens the gate to them.
And as for sustainability ...
Hermès is not a swanky brand, it does not declare everything it does - but of course attention is paid to the issue, for example, when it was forbidden to export “Bois de Rose” from Brazil, because it was a cause of deforestation, we replaced it with the certified Peruvian one. We put great emphasis on the conservation of resources, and for us the quality is the first priority.
Do you have any particular favorites when it comes to raw materials?
Soft woods, or rather the woods that I like to modify until they become such. Maybe the substance I like most is patchouli, because I’ve never managed to process it. And then I like the family of chypre fragrances. One of the great fragrances I would like to have created is “Feminité de Bois” by Serge Lutens - it’s an extraordinary chypre fragrance.
What can you already tell us about the next creation?
It will be bolder than anyone has imagined so far. The older I get, the freer I feel - and the more freedom I allow myself.
You worked with great perfumers.
Who had the greatest influence on you?
The one who influenced me the most was undoubtedly Almairac. He taught me to work in a reduced way and to focus on the essentials. I was his student in Geneva, he was in Paris, I used to send my creations to him, and he would ask me, “Christine, why did you put this together?” and as a result I kept reducing....
In Mane, you ran the perfumery school, and today Hermès sponsors the “Ecole Superieure du Parfum” in Paris. What do you look for in students?
Personality, creativity and courage. Technology can be learned, and perfumery today needs a jolt.
A few months ago Hermés launched a new métier, Beauté, a line of lipsticks whose fragrance you created. It’s a very special blend of sandalwood.
Will it be a kind of olfactory thread for future creations?
For lipstick, you have to follow the specific guidelines that apply to food. I wanted to create a special scent, so not a rose, violet, raspberry or even vanilla or praline as usual. For me, lipstick is the fragrance of beauty. When other products come out, I will think about other solutions.
What do you wish for the future?
That I can continue to arouse emotions. Perfume is a passion for me: even today, when I discover a surprising scent on a person in the street, I still can’t resist stopping people and asking what they’re wearing.
Why did you choose tulle as your signature material?
I’ve always liked it, I think it makes the colors “explode” like no other material. It’s so light that you can use an excessive amount of it without the dress drowning. And I like the transparent fabrics because with them you can see the construction and the work behind it.
Has your personal look influenced the style of your collections?
I have always sewn my own clothes. I think I became a designer because I was interested in wearing things that I couldn’t buy or that I couldn’t already find in the stores. I started doing that when I was a girl, going to clubs on the weekends: I would come home from school on Friday night and sew a dress in a couple of hours, maybe it didn’t have a hem, but I was excited to wear something I created myself.
One of your dresses was on the cover of “Love” magazine right after the launch of your brand, the collection you designed for Central Saint Martins students was published by the English edition of “Vogue”. Did the British fashion system support you in a special way?
The “BFC - British Fashion Council Newgen” program gave us the opportunity to participate in runway presentations and panels with industry personalities. Meetings that were instrumental in understanding industry expectations and how insiders perceive my fashion. The “Center for Fashion Enterprise” was also very helpful in learning how to run a business from a financial and business perspective.
What are your favorite designers?
I have always adored Miuccia Prada. I remember how excited I was as a girl when I discovered the images of each collection - so strong and conceptual. I’m also obsessed with John Galliano, I interned with him in Paris. I could watch hours of videos of his shows to understand how he designed for Dior. A true genius! I also find the work he does at Margiela interesting. And I really like Rei Kawakubo. I’m lucky enough to be invited to her shows, and I always leave in a state of excitement, waiting to see how the clothes I’ve seen will materialize in the stores.
You did a book with Tim Walker, a walk through your archive.
Tim and I have been friends since he photographed me for “i-D” magazine. I love his work and decided to ask him if he wanted to work with me on a portrait series. It was an extraordinarily collaborative process. We both had our muses, my clothes, and my sister Alice did the styling.
What is your favorite piece among all the dresses you have designed?
I change my mind all the time, but I would say the “Robbie” model from the fall/winter 2020/21 collection with blue taffeta and black velvet bows. It’s innovative and traditional and funny at the same time.
Many of your dresses are full of historical and pictorial references, from Watteau to Spain in the 1500s.
I do a lot of research and get a bit of inspiration everywhere. That’s why I spend a lot of time in libraries, reading books, old magazines, I like to go to vintage stores and museums. When I’m working on a collection, I have hundreds of images on my walls that connect in a very clear way for me, like a t-shirt from the 70s and a Picasso painting.
Where do you see yourself in ten years?
I want to continue creating clothes that mean something, that people see as valuable, so valuable that they want to keep them forever.
The brand was born with your uncle, and with the exception of Charlotte Olympia Dellal, the vast majority of shoe designers are men. As a woman, do you think your perspective and way of working is different?
I believe that female designers create the accessory also from the perspective of functionality, while men think only about the aesthetic effect. How long can I last in these heels? Can I walk comfortably in them? Can’t I bend my knees to keep my balance? And it’s very much about the way we do business: First and foremost, because of the role we’ve been taught, so we’re always trying to be responsive to the people around us, to create a welcoming environment that allows personalities to develop. And then I think we have a greater ability to look at things from above, from different angles. We hardly end up, as prisoners of mental tunnel vision, unlike men ...
From your point of view, what were the most important moments in the development of Jimmy Choo?
The first prêt-à-porter collection in 1997, the opening of the New York store the following year, the opening of the Los Angeles store in 1999, a very small space where all of Hollywood went crazy for our shoes, from Halle Berry to Sandra Bullock, from Natalie Portman to Cate Blanchett. Then the series “Sex and the City”, which definitely opened the way to the Red Carpet, the first bag, 2004, which had to be instantly recognizable, Michelle Obama wearing our shoes on Inauguration Day, the collaboration for Fall/ Winter 2018 collection with Off-White ...
From feminine pumps to ultra-sexy sandals to graceful flats or boots, what’s your favorite?
Personally, I love boots, but I think in the collective brand vision, it’s probably the stiletto heeled pumps. Also, the models decorated with crystals and those with animal prints are definitely characteristic. I think that wearing shoes with crystals is a consistent way to convey positivity and lightness. In our DNA there is elegance, glamour, cheerfulness and all the know-how of Italian craftsmanship. Our models are geometric, but always in a balanced way, they are never overdone. A few years ago “ugly” shoes and bad taste were very fashionable. From a conceptual point of view, I was very interested in them, but I was not going to give up the Jimmy Choo femininity trademark.
What are your favorite designers?
Those of the 90s in London: John Galliano, Alexander McQueen, Hussein Chalayan and Antonio Berardi.
What do you think are the personal qualities that brought you to where you are today?
When I worked with my uncle, he made all the models by hand. So there is no technical difficulty that I would accept as a “no”.