In Fashion, Who Really Gets Ahead?
By ERIC WILSON
Published: December 8, 2005
AT a cocktail party at Chelsea Piers on Sunday night, an annual Toys for Tots charity drive that draws a crowd of mostly gay men, the designer Peter Som wryly observed that there were so many designers, retail executives and publicists present that if the pier collapsed, "there would be no fashion industry tomorrow."
Two months earlier, Tara Subkoff, the agent provocateur behind the label Imitation of Christ, had remarked during a public forum, with a great deal of irritation, that fashion "is a gay man's profession."
Ms. Subkoff was annoyed; Mr. Som was amused.
The difference between their attitudes toward the gay male dominance of the fashion industry, a peculiar and widely acknowledged circumstance, illustrates a growing tension between those who feel they are discriminated against and those who feel somewhat favored by a perception, largely unexamined, that men are better designers than women, and gay men are the best designers of all.
Ms. Subkoff's remarks, made during a panel discussion of "Generation X Fashion" at the New Yorker Festival in late September, landed like an incendiary device in the fashion world - she also accused Anna Wintour, the editor of Vogue, of supporting only "young, gay men." A debate has continued ever since on Seventh Avenue over who is most likely to succeed in fashion and also on whether women, who make up most of the customers for this industry, face institutional barriers that limit their advancement on the creative side.
Many female designers perceive that their male counterparts have won more industry honors and are featured more prominently in magazines. On television, they note, advice on style and design is almost invariably sought from a vibrantly gay man - witness "Queer Eye for the Straight Guy," the new "Isaac" talk show with Isaac Mizrahi on the Style channel and "Project Runway" on Bravo, which began its second season on Wednesday night. Its cast of 16 includes 8 male contestants, 7 of them gay, a spokesman for Bravo said. …
But circumstantial evidence is making some designers wonder about the disparities. Of the young American designers most embraced by retailers and celebrated in the fashion press in recent years, the roll call is almost exclusively male: Zac Posen, Marc Jacobs, Narciso Rodriguez and Mr. Som as well as Jack McCollough and Lazaro Hernandez of Proenza Schouler. Their female contemporaries have had a harder time breaking through, among them Behnaz Sarafpour, Alice Roi and Ms. Subkoff.
"Gay men stick together like a band of brothers," Ms. Subkoff said in an interview. "It's more common for a man to bring up a younger assistant" who is male "and be proud of that," she added, "whereas a woman would be threatened" to promote another woman.