Reem Acra & Valerie Steele Take on Gender Bias in Fashion

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A look from Reem Acra’s SS16 collection. Photo: Getty Images

“85% of FIT’s students are female,” began celebrated fashion historian and curator Valerie Steele at Tuesday night’s panel discussion during CUNY’s Global Fashion Capital Conference. “Yet if you go by famous names—the Armanis, the Marc Jacobs—more than half of them are men.”

The panel, which also included successful female designer Reem Acra, centered on women’s roles in the industry, as well as how the media and an increasingly global economy are helping to shape new fashion capitals.

Both Steele and Acra agreed there is still a baffling gender disparity among big-name fashion brands. “Women designers tend to not get as famous as male designers,” said Steele. “I think there’s this leftover idea that the next genius is going to be male.” Steele traces this idea all the way back to Charles Worth, an English designer who built one of the most successful houses during the late 19th and early 20th century and who is often credited with revolutionizing the business of fashion. “Before Worth, fashion was really this small artisanship—it was the dressmaker sitting humbly at the hem of a woman’s skirt,” said Steele, who noted that dressmakers and seamstresses tended to be female. “Worth turned it into this major business and art form.”

Still, after Worth, there were plenty of opportunities for women in fashion: Coco Chanel, Elsa Schiaparelli, Jeanne Lanvin (maybe you’ve heard of them) pioneered a golden age of female designers. “It really wasn’t until after WWII, when you needed a lot more money to start a fashion brand, that the men really took over,” said Steele.

Acra said it can be “tough” for women designers to make it for a few reasons, one of them being that “women have a lot more responsibilities back home, whether we want it or not. We’re still in that transitional period.” Acra, who has enjoyed thirty years of success at the helm of her brand, said she chose to stay single so she could focus on her work. “Had I gotten married, would I have been able to do what I have?” she asked. “Absolutely not.”

For Acra, the sacrifice has been worth it. Born in Beirut, Acra was inducted into fashion at an early age when her mother had the foresight (and luxury) to hire a live-in seamstress. “Since I was five I would design my own wardrobe,” said Acra. By 19, she had amassed a wardrobe that was practically couture and so, with the encouragement of her elders, Acra put on her first fashion show in 1982 at the American University in Beirut. 2,000 students showed up and Acra was hooked. “I thought, wait a minute, this is cool: 2,000 people–mostly boys–staring at me on stage,” she recalled. “This could be my career…why not?”

Shortly after, Acra moved to Manhattan, where she enrolled in FIT. At school, Acra was so devoted to her work that one of her teachers clandestinely gave her the key to the classroom so she could toil well into the night. New York City was fertile ground for inspiration and motivation. “This is the city that gives to you, if you want it,” said Acra.

It’s precisely that intoxicating and galvanizing energy that Acra hopes to foster in Dubai, where she serves on the Board of the Dubai Design and Fashion Council. In the coming weeks, she’ll also be filming a Project Runway-style reality TV show in Lebanon for Dubai TV. But though Acra thinks Dubai can—and will—have a bustling fashion community, both she and Steele agree that the “concept of the fashion capital” is changing, thanks to the growing importance of ecommerce and social media.

“I think four cities [New York, Milan, London, Paris] is already too much for editors to trek out to four times a year,” said Steele. “But I think if there is going to be a fifth capital, it will be virtual.” For instance, she said, Instagram, or a dedicated place on Instagram, could be the next fashion capital. Considering that most people today discover—and buy—the latest fashions online, she might be onto something. And the best part is: All you need is wifi to get there.

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