Five Questions, Five Girls: Fashion Week's Female Designers on Dressing Women

Girl power! We asked five lovely ladies at the New York shows to spill their design secrets.

It's a man's world—or so they say, anyway. From Proenza Schouler's dynamite dressmaking duo Jack McCullough and Lazaro Hernandez and celeb-adored Jason Wu to industry fixtures like Marc, Oscar, and Tommy, the fashion world is chockablock with male designers so famous they can go sans surname. That said, when it comes to knowing what women really want to wear, girls seem to know the real deal. Last week, I was bowled over by the number of talented ladies showing at Fashion Week, particularly when it came to the season's fresh new faces. To wit, I caught up with five females (well, six, as label-to-know Cushnie et Ochs is designed by duo Carly Cushnie and Michelle Ochs) to get their opinions on women's impact in the style world—from the A-listers who consistently stun on the red carpet to the fash-pack heavyweights who have changed the face of the industry.

What does it mean to be a female working in fashion today?

Jenni Kayne: I'm lucky to be surrounded in my everyday life by incredibly stylish women. So when I'm designing a collection, I really think about my own friends and family, and what they'd want to wear. They're the women who inspire me, and they're the ones I'm really designing for.

Carly Cushnie & Michelle Ochs: We have an advantage—we're able to put so much of ourselves into each collection, knowing what women want in terms of looking beautiful and sexy. Our collection's about being a woman, having and doing it all. You can be sexy while being a mom and a working woman! We just want our women to be comfortable and strong—and own their look!

Kaelen Haworth: I think women approach the design game from a different angle. It's less about the garment itself than what that garment does when you're wearing it: how it's constructed, how it moves, how it plays on the body.

Jen Kao: I feel like there's always been that "men do it better" stereotype, but nobody can understand a woman's body like a woman! A common question I get is, "Who is your muse?" But it's not really about a specific style of girl—it's about a person who knows what they want and knows how to wear it. It's more of a sensualized female spirit, really.

Kelly Wearstler: First of all, I tip my hat to any guy who designs for a female, because that's got to be hard. As a woman, I certainly can't imagine designing for a man! I personally want to give women the tools to take risks, to mix and match. But I also know that clothes have to be comfortable! Women are busy, and they want to look great but also feel good.

Tell me a bit about what inspired your spring 2012 collections.

JK: This season was about the idea of a city girl going to a country club on the weekends, so it's country-club chic mixed with a bit of athleticism. And I was also inspired by the [French New Wave] movie The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie—the characters' amazing outfits and just their overall attitude.

CC & MO: We started by talking about when we first met as children, playing house and imagining what it would be like to grow up and be "ladies." It's about the idea of the modernized housewife.

KH: I wanted this season to look ethereal and light. There's an innocence about it, but there's a darker undercurrent I wanted to come across. Like those feather crowns I made with my stylist...they look a little mischevious! The collection's tonal and airy, but there's something natural about it. It's a little wood-nymph, a little Stevie Nicks.

JK: It all started with the idea of lucid dreams—something I used to have all the time when I was younger, dreams filled with these awful sinister monsters. I always try to turn a negative into a positive, so I turned this idea into a love story for the purpose of my collection—numbing, paralyzing love. To create a backdrop for that intoxicating feeling, I went to the poison garden in Alnwick, England. So all the flowers we used in the collection are ones that are beautiful, but fatal!

KW: I love and collect art, so that was what inspired me most—the graphic nature and texture of art. I especially love Victor Vasarely and anything from between the 1940s and 1960s.

What one wardrobe item should no woman be without?

JK: A great collared shirt--that's kind of my uniform, especially now that I'm a mom!

CC & MO: Anything in leather! A leather skirt, leggings, or jacket. Or a leather bra! [laughs]

KH: A two-tone pleated skirt.

JK: A gorgeous printed kimono! I love the idea of something that can be a dress, or that you can tie up into a shirt. It can completely change an outfit.

KW: A great jacket...and after that, maybe a T-shirt.

Let's talk celebrities. Who would you say is the best-dressed lady in Hollywood these days?

JK: I always love Anjelica Huston. Most people wouldn't think of her as a fashionista, but she has such great taste and always looks timeless and amazing.

CC & MO: Penelope Cruz...or maybe Jennifer Connelly. They do everything: they're gorgeous, they're moms, and they prove that you really can have it all.

KH: I love Florence Welch and Lykke Li. Music is my second love, so I gravitate towards musicians for inspiration. They tend to have such a strong sense of style, and really have more of an influence on me than celebrities do.

JK: Florence Welch. Any woman who can wear Givenchy couture like that is, well, to die for. And she's not a typical beauty, which make me love her even more.

KW: I think Penelope Cruz is so chic—and Gwyneth Paltrow, too.

Which of your fellow female designers, past or present, do you think has made the largest impact on the industry?

JK: I would say Diane von Furstenberg—just because of the empire she's built. She's such an amazing woman, both for her designs and for heading up the CFDA! She's a powerhouse.

CC & MO: Donna Karan-—talk about having it all! It's nice to have female designers to look up to.

KH: Electric Feathers [designed by Leana Zuniga] is absolutely amazing—I think she's doing really interesting stuff right now. It's different, and I love that. And Isabel Marant reaches that same level of effortless cool that's not overdone.

JK: This might seem like a strange answer, but I love Tsumori Chisato. She doesn't care about what others think, and she creates such an identifiable world of her own. Her work isn't commercial, but I find that so inspiring.

KW: I'd probably say Sonia Delaunay. She was an amazing artist who also worked in fashion. She hand-painted such amazing textiles. I also think Sonia Rykiel's use of color is so dynamic and beautiful.