Fashion’s most visionary women are taking the language of femininity to new heights and depths, with the volume turned up to the max.

Portrait of Tammy Strobel

Fashion’s most visionary women are taking the language of femininity to new heights and depths, with the volume turned up to the max.

Fall/winter 2020 looks from (clockwise from left) Prada, Fendi, 4 Moncler, Comme des Garçons, Simone Rocha and Alexander McQueen



Just a few seasons ago, the streetwear craze peaked and the pendulum swung back towards a more dressed-up sensibility, manifested as an updated take on ’80s power dressing: boxy jackets, statement shoulders, Wall Street suiting—all codes borrowed from masculine convention. Who could forget that seminal moment when the Democrats took back the US House of Representatives in 2018 and all its new female members showed up in white pantsuits for their swearing-in? For the longest time, for a woman to telegraph power and seriousness, it seemed that she had to renounce the signifiers of femininity. When was the last time a man in a position of power was questioned over his hair, shoes or the colour of his suit?

Well, no more. This season, some of the most intelligent, inventive female designers working today have decided to reclaim the tropes traditionally associated with femininity and realign them with an image of strength. Frills, ribbons, volume, fringe, beading, the colour pink—these all featured heavily in some of the most exciting collections of the season. And the way they came off was far from twee, precious or girlish. These were women—proud, strong and unapologetically feminine.

The most striking realisation of that vision happened at Fendi, where both the runway and most of the collection came in a delicate shade of blush, but the women were anything but. They wore a lot of lingerie, and dresses in lace and velvet—many with beaded tassels—but the overall vibe was more femme fatale than damsel in distress. The poofy Juliet sleeves were this season’s rendition of the ’80s shoulder— power pads became muscled-up arms, showing women’s strength to lift the fashion discourse. These were clothes built for the wearer’s pleasure, not the male gaze.

Silvia Venturini Fendi emphasised her embrace of powerful womanhood by putting 

the clothes on an age- and size-diverse cast. The supers of a previous generation—Karen Elson, Liya Kebede and Carolyn Murphy—looked especially arresting, hard-won lines, curves and all, in their fitted dresses traced with the imprint of corsetry. Venturini Fendi also highlighted the beauty of the fuller figure through Jill Kortleve in a bustier dress and Paloma Elsesser’s buttercup tailoring.

“I wanted a feminine attitude, but women have so many facets and I wanted to represent them all. That’s why I chose to have a cast of different women that don’t answer to a prefixed idea of the ideal woman—that to me does not exist,” says Venturini Fendi on her inclusive casting. As for the collection itself, the designer wanted to twist that femininity on its head. “The starting point was exploring the old codes that have been dictating feminine wardrobes for decades, and opposing them to new codes that represent today. I started from the biggest cliché: Pink, because ‘pink is for girls’. But the women I dress are powerful, strong and free,” she explains of her driving impulse.

Elsewhere in Milan, Venturini Fendi’s fellow visionary Miuccia Prada was also toying with what she called the “clichés of femininity and the contrasts between what it is perceived to be”. On the runway, the clichés and contrasts came fast and furious: A skirt of fine, swishing fringe was worn with a sharply tailored blazer, crisp shirts and ties were paired with sheer organza skirts, chunky cosy knits were embellished with jet beading, high-tech nylon was sculpted into old-school couture shapes, and sports jerseys were elongated into neo-flapper dresses.

In Prada’s hands, all the things once viewed as signs of frivolous femininity were recontextualised and given new meaning. Here, glamour is not a dirty word. “Glamour is something that makes you optimistic—it lifts you up,” the designer explains. Right in the middle of her show space was a cardboard statue of Atlas lifting up the world. Prada surrounded it with a different vision of strength: Her parade of women, looking glamorously womanly and ready to take on the world. “Atlas was a man who carried the world on his shoulders. Women have to deal with the lightness of life. This is my way of saying you can be strong and feminine at the same time.” 

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Fall/winter 2020 looks from (clockwise from left) Prada, Fendi, Prada, Simone Rocha, 4 Moncler, Simone Rocha, Comme des Garçons and Sacai

Prada wasn’t the only one ruminating on the strength to be found in the feminine this season. The equally intellectual but more esoteric Rei Kawakubo also found herself fascinated by the convention and tropes of femininity. The Queen of Black opened her latest Comme des Garçons show with a burst of hot pink and followed that up with a series of bulbous looks with exaggerated curves that brought to mind a certain yonic suggestion—amplified by the scale to which she blew them up. Most of these were topped with giant lace headdresses, further alluding to and subverting a kind of femininity that has been depicted all throughout fashion and art history.

Lace was also on the mind of Kawakubo’s former protégé Chitose Abe. Her latest Sacai collection was distinctly dressier and more streamlined than previous outings, and while she opened and closed the show with menswear-centric looks, right in the middle was a pair of outfits that stood out for its graphic interplay between the masculine and the feminine—and the grace and strength that tension exuded. Two white lace blouses—one trailing a one-sided silk train—were worn with satin opera gloves and slouchy black tuxedo trousers; the bride and the groom in one look, perfectly encapsulating the constant pursuit of duality that Abe has made a cornerstone of her career.

Combining the fierce with the fiercely feminine has always been at the core of what Sarah Burton does at Alexander McQueen. Her latest collection, which she called “a love letter to women”, was inspired by Celtic traditions and folklore, but the end result was thoroughly modern. Razor-sharp suiting found its counterpoint in dresses that exploded in pleats and ruffles—both looking equally commanding. “The woman is courageous, grounded, bold, heroic,” says Burton of the character she had in mind.

Pale pink—a colour she lifted from traditional Welsh petticoats—was transferred onto figure-accentuating coats and dresses. Elsewhere, Burton played up comfort and community—qualities associated with the maternal and the sisterly. “There is a sense of protection in the clothes, of safety and comfort, evoked through quilting and blankets,” she says. “The hearts are a symbol of togetherness, of being there for others.”

Simone Rocha is another designer who has always centred on the pluralities of womanhood in her work. She put models of all ages and sizes on her runways way before diversity became a hot-button issue and as a result, has drawn a tribe of loyalists to her brand of romanticised reality. Season after season, she reworks her signatures of gracefully flowing dresses and gently enveloping silhouettes—softness and strength all in one poetic package. Rocha’s fall/winter 2020 collection looked at rituals, with nods to papal, wedding, funeral and christening garb—the sense of pomp alleviated by her deft layering of both fabric and narrative, and her innate understanding of the needs of the modern woman who wants a wardrobe, not a costume.

Rocha’s take on femininity has clearly resonated. Elizabeth von der Goltz, the Global Buying Director of Net-a-Porter, notes that the brand is a hot favourite with its clientele. Of the latest collection, Von der Goltz says: “It was one of our favourites from the brand to date. The beautifully embroidered romantic dresses are super easy to wear and make an impactful statement. This season, Rocha also translated them into shirt dresses, offering even more choice for customers. And the brand has worked hard to develop knitwear, which we saw in the beautiful cable knits with all the signature Simone Rocha embellished details.”

Fashion may love to say that it no longer sees gender, but the truth of the matter is that gender codes are still heavily loaded with centuries of preconceived notions. It is exhilarating to see some of the most brilliant designers today reclaiming these codes and imbuing them with new meaning.