Women Leaders in the Business of Fashion

Yesterday evening I attended a panel discussion on the topic of women as leaders in the fashion industry, hosted by the London College of Fashion’s Fashion Business School and held at the Louis Vuitton Series 3 Exhibition space on the Strand. The panel was chaired by Professor Frances Corner, Head of London College of Fashion, and featured: Lou Stoppard from SHOWstudio, Vanessa Kingori from British GQ, designer Ada Zanditon and Jason Beckley from C&J Clarks International (both LCF alumni), and ASOS director Hilary Riva OBE.

The discussion began by questioning why, when the primary consumers of fashion (especially luxury brands) are women, are women not better represented in the fashion industry’s senior roles? Hilary got us off to an optimistic start with a ‘you can achieve anything’ attitude, but said she was wary of quotas as she would rather be on a board through talent instead of as a token woman. Vanessa said that, when she was promoted, she didn’t think about doing the job ‘as a woman’, she just thought about ‘doing the job’. In addition to her couture brand, Ada also runs a menswear brand with two men and discussed the different approach they have, but wondered if that was down to different personality types rather than gender traits.

Lou discussed the role that education has to play, with girls being directed towards design and boys towards business and technology. Women need to be viewed as leaders and so visibility in top roles is key, with quotas playing an important part in this. She also flagged that how we define leadership needs to change as currently more traditionally masculine qualities are viewed as vital for management, which is not necessarily true. Vanessa believes that quotas only work when they are used well and not simply to get someone who will ‘tick a box’.

London College of Fashion panel discussion on women leaders in the fashion industry, 7th Oct 2015Frances Corner then raised the issue of caring responsibilities, including childcare, which society still mostly views as a woman’s responsibility and can be tricky to balance with a career. Ada said that the one thing that all her successful couture clients have in common is drive and determination to let nothing stand in their way. She also then stressed that, as women with money, it is perhaps easier for them to afford childcare! Women further down the career ladder with less disposable income are the ones who suffer the most. Jason said that it should be made easier for women to get back into their jobs and careers after maternity leave, and that women shouldn’t have to be ‘more like men’ to get ahead – businesses should embrace difference.

Lou then raised what, for me, was one of the key issues of the discussion. Companies need to take responsibility for this as having drive and ambition isn’t enough for women – there needs to be structural changes. Hilary stressed that the more companies embrace shared parental leave and encourage men to take it, this will help normalise a view of men as primary carers.

The next discussion point touched on the fundamental economic reasons why gender equality is good for business. Diverse companies are more successful, with their boards more reflective. It was mentioned that a more rounded conversation happens when you include more voices. Lou recommended the Natasha Walter book Living Dolls for breaking down the assumption that men and women think and act in certain ways because we are inherently different. In her interviews, Lou hasn’t noticed any similarities in the way they work between people of the same gender. If you perpetuate gender myths, people will feel constrained by that perception of how they should act.

As we got towards the end, Hilary said that women have ‘just’ got to believe they can make it but Lou challenged her on this, saying that the system doesn’t afford everyone the same level of privilege. Vanessa then joined in to say that she didn’t think that women could afford to wait for systemic change. Ada spoke about her education – attending an all-girls school where she was told she could achieve anything, and then LCF where the student body was diverse and everyone was told they could achieve, regardless of gender or background. She then admitted that perhaps she has been living in her own little ‘bubble’ and that others may not be so lucky.

Overall, it was an excellent discussion covering a variety of aspects of a complex topic. The event was also being filmed, so I shall update this post with a link once that is available online.

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