Though it seems all feminine, fabulous tulle, the fashion universe can be as much a man’s world as any other profession. In 2008’s documentary The Last Emperor, Valentino Garavani, one of the 20th century’s archetypical designers, struts around imperiously in a shiny suit. Roaming his atelier, tanned and fresh from his yachting trips and visits to French mansions with Gwenyth Paltrow, he sketches pretty pink dresses and nitpicks misplaced sequins while a staff of modestly dressed little old ladies work tirelessly to do the actual labor of sewing and stitching the designs. It’s a typical scene—a man dictating the length (and morality) of hemlines and cleavage or how painstakingly tall a woman’s heel will climb while women are left to do the job of actually making those styles work, whether they’re squeezing into tight waists or pinning taffeta until their fingers bleed.
Even with a dearth of women designing for women, it’s even rarer to find Valentino’s analog, a woman designing for a man. And who’s to say women shouldn’t have some say in the way men dress? In the past decade or so, men’s high fashion has taken on an increasingly important role in the style business. Once an addendum to women’s shows, they are now a pageant all their own. About a billion blogs have sprung up dedicated to the study of denim quality and Vibram-soled workboots. So much of this new interest, though, has focused on clothes that are traditionally, narrowly masculine, new brands making updates of old-fashioned workwear and old brands succeeding by returning to their roots, reissuing the sunglasses that Steve McQueen wore or the overalls that cowboys wore to rustle steer. Men’s fashion in 2011 sells the image of the hardworking American male, even while so many of those hardworking textile jobs have been shipped overseas for cheaper labor. Nostalgia is almost never honest.
In sharp contrast to the harsh realities of fashion, we were very excited to find four women from around the world whose current fantasies for men have nothing to do with cattle-ranching. The princely caftans and delicate silk scarves in Siriorn Teankaprasith’s line, Painkiller, from Thailand possess more soft pride than hard-edged toughness. Y’OH’s Kara Messina has turned classic streetwear on its head with wildly colorful, vibrant African prints she finds around London fabric stores. Oslo-based Camilla Bruerberg makes shredded, see-through sweaters and neon accessories that show what an androgynous, mutant future might look like. And New York’s Lizzie Owens’ Highland guy loafs around with stoners and hacky-sack players more than Alpha-dogs. Interviewing these four designers, we uncovered plenty of ideas about what it means to dress a man, and be a woman, in the 21st century.