While women are often the carriers of sustainable messages and are frequently the backbone of their social initiatives in the denim industry, of the 93 exhibitors at Bluezone in Munich, Germany last week, none were led by female CEOs.
Lucie Germser Wröbel, Monsieur T head designer, delivered that statistic at the trade show, where she and Sportswear International editor in chief Sabine Kühnl hosted a panel of female designers, sustainability experts and executives to help raise awareness of how far women have come and still need to go in the industry.
Here, female leaders from all segments of the denim supply chain share their experiences working in a traditionally male-dominated industry, and why equality is a work in progress.
Claudia Szerakowski, a circular fashion consultant for Eco Intelligent Growth, works in an office that is 90 percent female, but many of her clients are men from patriarchal countries in the Middle East. Culturally, she had to adjust to gender disparities, especially in the boardroom. Although her role is to help companies find circular solutions, Szerakowski said she sometimes has to fight to be heard.
“I definitely had to learn how to assert myself,” she said. “Being talked over was something that I was never used to.”
And the disparities are often closer to home. Coming from Italy, Silvia Rancani, owner of the Amsterdam-based show room, The Denim Window, said she’s noticed differences between Southern Europe and Northern Europe.
“In Italy, I’ve been always told that women are the delicate [gender],” she said. “Living in Amsterdam is teaching me that, actually, women are the same as men, and sometimes even stronger.”
Sustainability is an important subject for everyone nowadays, but Rancani said the topic lends itself better to the female “sensibility.”
Feminine qualities like compassion and listening, Szerakowski said, are often “squashed in patriarchal, capitalistic systems,” but they are valuable traits to have in the sustainability sector. The ability to listen to all stakeholders is a key step in pushing forward any innovation or change for good, she said.
However, Szerakowski said women are often struggling between balancing femininity and passive qualities, which have a negative connotation. “And I think that’s something that is very misconstrued—that being emotional or soft or gentle is weak. I think [those qualities have their] own strength.”
Climbing the ladder
As a fashion designer, Anne Oudard said she has been surrounded by women during her education and throughout her professional career.
“When you go to fashion school, you have probably 90 percent women and 10 percent men,” she said. But then something changes in corporate settings. At big brands, she said high level positions like artistic director are split “50-50” across men and women, meaning as a [female] designer, getting to the higher level is more difficult.
The reality, Oudard noted, is that men and women are still tied to traditional gender roles. Women see themselves as being pretty, nice and quiet, she said, while men are seen as strong, goal oriented and less scared.
Adhering to stereotypes wasn’t part of Ebru Debbağ’s career trajectory to becoming Soorty’s executive director of global sales and marketing. “I was somewhat different,” she said.
Three decades ago, she began her career at the denim mill, Orta, as a “very junior” managerial candidate. On her second day on the job she was discouraged to wear a skirt because she was drawing too much attention.
“But I was very insistent,” Debbağ said. “There was attention and I tried to make it positive. Women are not only sexual figures that draw attention. We have many more attributes we can offer, so I came along as a coach rather than as a manager. That’s the difference that I think women in the industry can make.”