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Is the CFDA Biased to Male Designers?

Picture of Jill Di Donato
Fashion Editor
Updated: 6 June 2017
On June 5, the the Council of Fashion Designers of America (CFDA) honors excellence in fashion by awarding top honors to American designers in the global economy. But when you look through the nominees for top honors in womenswear and menswear, the majority of nominees are men. This begs the question: is the fashion industry, while still being considered a feminized occupation, biased towards men?

The CFDA is considered the Oscars of fashion, with nominations submitted by the Fashion Guild, a group of over 1,500 CFDA members, fashion editors, retailers, and stylists. Here’s a look at the nominees* for the 2017 CFDA Awards:

© Toa Heftiba/Unsplash

Womenswear Designer of the Year Nominees: Raf Simons for Calvin Klein, Lazaro Hernandez and Jack Mccollough for Proenza Schouler, Marc Jacobs, Mary-Kate and Ashely Olsen for The Row

Menswear Designer of the Year Nominees: Raf Simons for Calvin Klein, Robert Geller, Thom Browne, Tim Coppens, and Todd Snyder

*Find a complete list of nominees after the jump.

© Benjamin Lozovsky/BFA/REX/Shutterstock Raf Simons for Calvin Klein is nominated in both the womenswear and menswear categories

As you can see, the womenswear and menswear designer categories are dominated by men. Mary-Kate and Ashely Olsen for The Row (who won in this category in 2015) are the only female nominees, which is a bit troubling. (Last year Marc Jacobs took home the award for womenswear designer of the year, and Thom Browne won for menswear designer of the year.)

When it comes to fashion icons—the ideal to whom women consumers aspire—the CFDA appeals to a female demographic. Below, see Beyoncé accepting her 2016 fashion icon award.

But when it comes to the makers rather the consumers or icons, data paints a different picture. Statistics compiled in a quantitative study published in 2015 by Dr. Allyson Stokes, a sociologist at the University of Waterloo, show that between the years 1981 and 2013, 98 men have received an award from the CFDA, compared to only 29 women.

Why is fashion gender-biased?

Stokes says in an article published in the Business of Fashion that the idea of the artist being all-consumed with work leaves no room for women, who are still culturally associated with domesticity (in other words, need to spend time caring for house, home, and family, as opposed to being career-focussed). “Increasingly careers are requiring long work hours and being available all of the time. And [these expectations of commitment] seem to be intensified in cultural industries… There is an overwhelming idea of the artist being all-consumed and loving what they do so much that they don’t mind committing 24/7.”

What is the “glass runway”?

Although fashion is considered a feminized occupation, the business of fashion is still considered a boys’ club. Indeed, if you look at the houses under Kering’s François Pinault and LVMH’s Bernard Arnault (the two big name conglomerates that dominate the fashion world), you will notice that barely any of the fashion world’s head designers are women, according to an article in Man Repeller.

Why is this happening? Gender discrimination is not unique to the fashion industry, but is rather the plight of women in the workplace in general. UN Women Deputy Executive Director Lakshmi Puri explains in an op-ed for the UN, penned on March 6: “Women in all professions face what we call sticky floors, leaking pipelines and broken ladders, glass ceilings and glass walls.” In other words, although many women enter industries like fashion to find careers, they’re just not rising to the top like their male counterparts.

Stokes coined the term the “glass runway,” to refer to the glass ceiling that female designers hit when it comes to climbing the fashion ladder all the way to the top, or to receiving fashion’s top honors.

Looking to the future

It may not be that the CFDA or the fashion industry as a whole is sexist per se. However, argues Stokes in an article for Fashionista, “the way we’ve constructed our understanding of art; what it is, what makes art great and what makes a great artist or creative person,” is systemically sexist. So in order for more women to be honored, a more holistic takedown of what it means to be a designer deserving of excellence needs to be defined. While we’re at it, how about people reevaluate creativity, the business of fashion, and what it means to be a woman in 2017.


Complete List of 2017 CFDA Nominees and Honorees

Accessories Designer of the Year Nominees: Stuart Vevers for Coach, Irene Neuwirth, Rachel Mansur and Floriana Gavriel for Mansur Gavriel, Paul Andrew, and Ashley Olsen and Mary-Kate Olsen for The Row

Swarovski Award for Emerging Talent Nominees: Laura Vassar and Kris Brock for Brock Collection, Gabriela Hearst, Laura Kim and Fernando Garcia for Monse, Virgil Abloh for Off-White, Sander Lak for Sies Marjan