Five Women Who Have Changed Men’s Style
Ms Rei Kawakubo. Photograph by Mr Thomas Innaccone/REX Shutterstock
We celebrate the female designers who’ve had a lasting influence on menswear.
It’s not uncommon, in the world of fashion, to find men designing for women. In fact, this is the setup at many of the world’s most popular brands. But for whatever reason, fewer female designers focus purely on menswear. Which is a shame, because, when they do, the results are often spectacular. Perhaps it’s because of their relative distance from their intended customers. Perhaps it’s because they’re coming to the subject fresh. When it comes to menswear, our favourite women designers have a rigour and a staying power that is unmatched in the industry.
In honour of International Women’s Day, therefore, we thought it time to celebrate them. Here are five female designers who, season after season, have exerted an enduring influence on menswear.
Ms Chitose Abe
Ms Chitose Abe at Paris Fashion Week, 2015. Photograph by Ms Laura Stevens for The Washington Post/Getty Images
Many designers have a look. They’re defined by an atmosphere or a garment, some of them head up a movement. Ms Chitose Abe’s brand Sacai hasn’t been around long enough to establish that kind of standalone aesthetic. But there are few men’s brands more relevant right now. Sacai is part of a new generation of Japanese menswear brands that have invigorated the landscape not just with an obsessive approach to detail and production, but with an irreverent approach to collaboration that mixes the traditional with the contemporary.
Ms Abe, an alumna of Mr Junya Watanabe’s design team, launched Sacai in 1998 as a women-only concern, only adding menswear in 2009. In that short period, she has shown herself to be at the forefront of men’s style with her intuitive understanding of performance clothing and streetwear, as demonstrated by hybrid garments such as her drawstring-hem shirts, technical coats and jackets. At this January’s menswear shows, Sacai – which has worked with Hender Scheme, Nike and Birkenstock – was far from alone in collaborating with The North Face on a range of jackets (Junya Watanabe seems to have struck up a similar partnership). And the fact that such behaviour is being aped by Louis Vuitton, which has partnered with streetwear giant Supreme, demonstrates how influential Ms Abe has been.
Ms Jil Sander
Ms Jil Sander at her SS04 show in Milan. Photo by Mr Arthur Elgort/Condé Nast via Getty Images
Few designers have owned a look as much as Ms Jil Sander. Together with Mr Helmut Lang, she came to embody the minimalism that dominated the 1990s. She created a new, sophisticated business wardrobe that mercifully did away with the extravagance and opulence of the 1980s, and nailed that understated, uncomplicated approach to clothes that men love. Even more impressively, she managed to repackage her particular design ethos for the high street, via her hugely successful Uniqlo +J line, which was available from 2009 to 2011 (and reissued, briefly, in 2014). Why did it work? Because hers is a style defined by simple wearability where less is more, and that never gets old.
Ms Phoebe Philo
Ms Phoebe Philo at her Céline AW12 show in Paris. Photograph by KCSPresse/Splash News
As creative director of Céline, Ms Phoebe Philo has ruled the catwalks since taking up the reins in 2008. Yes, we know what you’re thinking: Céline is a womenswear brand – how is that relevant to men? The fact is Ms Philo’s influence – and her bold, simple approach to style – has been so pervasive, the brand itself such hot property, that even men have been tempted by her wares. And influential ones, too. Witness Mr Kanye West wearing one of the shirts from Ms Philo’s SS collection at Coachella in 2011. Or Mr Pharrell Williams stalking around in a pink Céline coat in 2014. And Mr Kevin Hart slipping into Céline high-tops in 2014. Then there are the many men (including Mr Tinie Tempah) who have chosen Céline’s retro, cat-eye sunglasses. Such counter-intuitive adoption – as well as the fact that, as a taste-making designer, Ms Philo’s ideas inspire brands across the style spectrum – has made her a progenitor of men’s trends without even trying. Which, you have to admit, is impressive.
Ms Rei Kawakubo
Ms Rei Kawakubo at the opening of her Comme des Garçons shop, New York, 1983. Photograph by Mr Thomas Innaccone/REX Shutterstock
There is no one else like Ms Rei Kawakubo. The Japanese designer has a knack for creating clothes that require imagination and courage to be worn. Her flagship men’s line, Comme des Garçons Homme Plus, deconstructs the history of the traditional male wardrobe and questions its fundamental purpose. Her garments, even in their more palatable variants such as in the Comme Des Garçons Shirt line, often feature a detail – be it colour, shape, fabric, print or an attitude – that challenges most of us at the core. It’s this constant desire to think outside the box and never fit in that drives her designs, 48 years on from Comme’s incarnation. Add to that the incredible designers that she has mentored, including Mr Junya Watanabe, Sacai designer Ms Chitose Abe (see above), Mr Fumito Ganryu and Russian wunderkind Mr Gosha Rubchinskiy, and it’s difficult to deny Ms Kawakubo is one of the most crucial figures in menswear.
Ms Margaret Howell
Ms Margaret Howell in her London studio, 1991. Photograph by REX Shutterstock
In many ways, Ms Margaret Howell is the complete opposite of Ms Kawakubo. She started her career in fashion in the 1970s by perfecting one of the cornerstones of the male wardrobe – the shirt – and built her brand into a £100m business from there. She focuses on sartorial calmness and produces garments of impeccable quality with an enduring, timeless look. She creates “everyday uniforms” for people who prefer style to fashion. The collections never change too much – they don’t need to – and stick to soft, muted colours, sturdy natural fibres and tried-and-tested pieces such as the peacoat, cashmere sweater and striped T-shirt. The Margaret Howell look is based on a love of fabric and a soft, slightly oversized silhouette that is as relevant now as it was when she opened her first store in 1977. She supplied men with an entirely new way of stocking their wardrobes that was at complete odds with the in-out rhythm of the wider fashion world. And by launching womenswear in 1980, she ushered in a new era of smart, androgynous business dressing.