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Why fashion must get hip to needs of its working mothers

Many cite difficulties of juggling a family with job demands and a lack of industry support

by Narges Mohammadi

A robot baby was an unlikely guest star on the catwalk at the Schiaparelli couture show in Paris earlier this year. Maggie Maurer, who had walked a few seasons previously while pregnant, and last year shared a snap of herself breastfeeding backstage, cradled the tot while wearing a defiantly baby-unfriendly, all-white outfit.

It was a surprisingly tender moment. “I had the ability to bring it to life because my own child is that size,” says Maurer, “to give it nurturing … came very naturally.”

While this baby was made out of Swarovski crystals, flip phones and other electronic waste, real-life ones were seen on the catwalk this season, both in utero and out. At buzzy French designer Marine Serre’s show, a model carried a baby in a sling branded with the label’s crescent moon. At offbeat New York brand Collina Strada, one model walked while 32-weeks pregnant.

But for some fashion professionals, the sight of babies on catwalks might “sting”, according to Natassa Stamouli, digital editor at 1 Granary. The leading global fashion education platform and creative network recently published new research laying bare how difficult it is to be a mother in the industry. They interviewed female designers and found that the majority cited the lack of support for motherhood as a prominent example of gender bias in fashion.

“We’ve spoken to head designers in luxury houses who hide the fact that they have children, for fear of being seen as not ‘dedicated enough’,” says Stamouli, “we’ve heard many stories of HR departments rejecting a skilled candidate because their ‘motherhood might distract them’.”

Stamouli sums up the industry attitude: “In luxury design studios, being or wanting to become a parent, especially a mother, is seen as a threat to the only acceptable working profile: the ultimately devoted professional whose life is fashion.”

Maurer found her experience of being a mother in the industry “incredibly liberating and incredibly supportive”. But she points out that is probably because she’s a model. “I just work for one day, if you’re a designer you’re working a job that requires going to an office every day. Every designer I’ve ever worked with is a workaholic because that’s what the industry demands.”

Stamouli says these expectations go beyond the top positions: “In styling, writing and independent brands, being a freelancer has become the norm, leading fashion professionals to a dead-end of instability and financial precarity. Becoming pregnant, going through a fertility journey, taking maternity leave, and becoming a mother demand free time, a calm mental state, and some financial stability. Most fashion jobs can’t offer any of these things.”

The research resonates with sustainable fashion designer and mother of two Amy Powney, who runs her own label, Mother of Pearl. She once had a recruitment agent reach out wanting to know her next steps. “Part way through I said, ‘I just want to reiterate, if an opportunity ever did come up, my kids come first and I won’t change that’. The tone of conversation changed after that.”

She believes there’s an expectation that “if you want to be a creative director of a big brand, you’ve just got to do the job, that’s it. I don’t think there is a conversation about how you could be supported and be a mother and have flexibility.”

It’s a shame, says 1 Granary print editor Aya Noël, “because many of the mothers we’ve spoken to say they’ve become better employees and creatives after having children. They manage time more efficiently or have more patience or empathy. Our industry shouldn’t lose out on these skills simply because we have an old-school mindset in the way we structure the studio.”

There are anomalies. Phoebe Philo is famously the first designer to take maternity leave when creative director of a luxury fashion house. Not long after, though, she left the job at Chloe to spend four years raising her family. This season, designer Molly Goddard and Chloé’s new creative director, Chemana Kamali, made special efforts to wave to their young children when taking their after-show bows – proving the juggle is, for some, possible.

Philo is often held up as a powerful example of a woman designing clothes for women, where male designers sometimes miss the mark. If the industry wants to retain this sort of talent, it seems sensible to make the system better suited to nurturing parents.

There is a wider point here, too. This fashion moment for motherhood coincides with the pay gap worsening. According to figures released last week, UK mothers earned £4.44 less an hour than fathers in 2023.

It is “interesting catwalks are glamourising the fantasy of ‘baby mama chic’ as birthrates among western women are rapidly declining”, says fashion and identity commentator Caryn Franklin. “Our gender-biased workplaces have never addressed the needs of its female workforce and, understandably, some modern women are choosing career progress over childcare stresses and career oblivion.”

What more could the industry do to support mothers? “We need a working mentality mindset shift,” says Noël. “Bring an end to the cultural myth that creativity and passion can only exist through sacrifice. We’re talking about mothers here, but this working culture affects everyone.”

Source: Guardian

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