Five Women on Being a Female Menswear Designer

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Roni Ilan S/S19

Ahead of the menswear shows, we caught up with five women designing for men and asked them about their latest work

The co-ed fashion runway – a presentation showing both men and women’s collections concurrently – has never been as popular and relevant as it is today. At long last, definitions of gender are increasingly recognised as fluid, subsequently reflected in the way people want to dress and the clothes that designers and brands produce. 

“What I think is going to happen is you’ll see men’s shows now having women’s collections, you’ll see men’s and women’s together, you’ll see men’s going into women’s...” the British Fashion Council’s chief executive officer Caroline Rush told Business of Fashion a few years back. “I think we’ll find ourselves not even saying pre-fall, fall, resort anymore, but going with what some brands are already doing: Collection 1, Collection 2, Collection 3.”

Ahead of London Fashion Week Men’s, which begins tomorrow, we spoke with five female designers who work under the umbrella of menswear: Phoebe English, Bianca Saunders, Pariah Farzaneh, Bethany Williams and Roni Ilan. Each shared their stories of what it is like to work in menswear in 2019, and are producing new collections befitting of the future that Rush predicted. 

Phoebe English

“Being a woman working in menswear can be quite difficult at times! I didn’t train as a menswear designer – I trained as a knitwear designer – so it’s been a real adventure for me. The approach is completely different from when I’m doing womenswear. I base my menswear design in reality and most of what I design is inspired by my boyfriend, Sam. In fact, there is an essence of all my closest male friends in my designs, really. For A/W19, we have really focussed on sustainability. We’ve used silk made from bamboo offcuts; we’ve been working with someone who makes buttons out of milk protein; we’ve looked at fabrics that are made out of excess wine. And also fabrics that are made from excess orange juice. We looked to traditional Welsh wool mills for flannel, and organically tanned leather to make some shoes for the first time in collaboration with a shoe brand. For me, menswear is about creating something in a beautiful fabric, in a great cut, made in the UK. Something that will last. But it’s really for everyone to wear.”

Bianca Saunders

“My A/W19 collection is a continuation of exploring feminine ideologies within menswear. My menswear has a ‘feminine’ edge to it and I get asked about this a lot, particularly as a woman working in menswear too. I think there’s been a massive shift with designers such as Craig Green becoming such an integral part of London men’s fashion; there are more flourishes and interesting shapes in collections, that we didn’t see before. I’m trying to be a part of this newer aesthetic. For A/W19, I have also made some research films of me interviewing male friends and the women who know them in their bedrooms. One particular pair I spoke to was the stylist PC Williams, and she speaks about her very good friends the filmmaker, Akinola Davies. In the film, she describes how Akin is a tactile person with everyone he meets, which can be unusual for a black straight man. So he is very comfortable in himself and in his masculinity.”

Paria Farzaneh

“I think fashion is really oversaturated at the moment. So this season I have created a collection that reflects my feelings towards this. Fashion is too fast as well. It’s such an ask that designers are required to come up with something new four times a year – or more – and are expected to be innovative and inspiring each time. I specialised in menswear because I like the idea of a woman dressing a man. I never saw the clothes I liked in womenswear for myself either, so every time we make something in the studio I ensure that I try it on myself as something I would wear. I really think that in 2018 it doesn’t matter anyway; the boxes in terms of gender and fashion are not black and white anymore. Sometimes I will have people ‘sliding into my DMs’ on Instagram saying ‘Hey bro! Love what you’re doing’ – they assume I’m a guy. At first, it was funny, but then I thought about it and it really irritated me that people would assume I am a man just because I’m working in menswear.”

Bethany Williams

“I’ve created a collection in collaboration with a charity called Adelaide House, which is based in Liverpool. They’re one of six organisations in the country that provide female-only safe spaces and sheltered accommodation for homeless women, survivors of domestic violence and women coming out of prison. I worked with an illustrator and we went up to Liverpool and met the women who were living there. We engaged in drawing workshops and also made drawings of the women. The city of Liverpool became an inspiration for the new collection, as it was the first place in the UK to have social housing and a lot of female MPs who champion social reform have come from there. I was also inspired by a rehabilitation centre in Italy that supports women, who made hand-woven fabrics with waste. So we worked with the Liverpool Echo newspaper and made fabrics out of the pages. I’m donating 20% of the collection’s profits to Adelaide House: I just like the idea that men are going to purchase these pieces and they can consciously or subconsciously be supporting these organisations.”

Roni Ilan

“I’m currently creating a lookbook and a collection that we will now present during the next womenswear season, as my work is really moving towards being ‘unisex’. I started off working in menswear specifically because I was really interested in tailoring. Also, it was kind of outside of me; it was more like artwork or a sculptural practice. My graduate collection was quite abstract and I made a lot of sculptures from aluminium that were then worn on the body. I think menswear is a lot more open than womenswear, so I felt being able to do something new and innovative within it felt more accessible. I think there is such potential; shirts and tailored jackets can be so classic but also can be experimented with in so many different ways.”