International Women's Day: A season of powerful women in fashion, both on and off the catwalk

Fashion, even in the 21st century, is still an industry dominated by women

In fashion terms, International Women's Day kind of happens on the catwalks of Paris of a Monday, when the schedule is dominated by women – Stella McCartney, Chitose Abe of Sacai, Nadège Vanhée-Cybulski of Hermès, Julie de Libran of Sonia Rykiel, herself another strong woman. There's something about that dynamic of women dressing other women that surrenders intriguing results. It's embedded in traditions of French fashion, for a start: in 1675 Louis XIV established the all-female Parisian seamstresses' guild, which gave rise to Rose Bertin, Marie Antoinette's infamous “Minister of Fashion”. Fashion was an arena in which women could officially assert their power and influence. I wound up thinking about that a lot while watching Rei Kawakubo's compelling Comme des Garçons show on Saturday, of 18th-century volumes and rebel attitude, fit for a tearaway teenage queen longing to chafe at the restraints of royal life, and unaware it would lead her to the tumbrels. 

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Designer Stella McCartney

The approaches of these women are all individual – you couldn't get more different than Kawakubo's gargantuan mountains of fabric and Rykiel's slinky “poor boy” striped tricot sweaters. In the studio before her show, Julie de Libran was surrounded by women: her stylist, Camilla Nickerson, her design team, her fitting models (I saw her two days before her show) and plenty of women printed on the clothes – she's collaborated with the artist Maggie Cardelus to create dresses patterned with drawings of women affiliated with the collection and with the Rykiel label. They include Sonia, her daughter Nathalie, her granddaughter Lola, and de Libran herself, repeated in multiple. “It's about a conversation between women,” said de Libran, flicking at the print on a tie-necked, tiered and ruffled maxi dress. “And that's a conversation I have every day with the house.”

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Label founder Sonia Rykiel in 2013

It's also one that feels relevant as the season closes, a season strong on strong women, on strong statements for dressing a woman for the vagaries of the 21st century. Even Vetements, that current bellwether, has a female close to the helm: the stylist Lotta Volka, who collaborates with Demna Gvasalia at Balenciaga. She opened the Vetements show in an abbreviated chorister's outfit, clutching a posy of flowers. I can't think of a stylist who's ever done that. 

The fascinating thing is the transformation of Volka into Vetements' female avatar, its idealised woman. You could argue that de Libran is the best advert for her clothes, and Miuccia Prada and Phoebe Philo for theirs. Their fashion works because it addresses real-life needs in their real lives. And because fashion, even in the 21st century, is still an industry dominated by women. And as Freud could have hypothesised, the only women who really know what women want are women.

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