AP Fashion Writer, New York

A quick flip through the racks at any department store shows the disparity: For every Donatella Versace and Miucchia Prada there’s a Tom Ford and Thom Browne – and Ralph Lauren, Joseph Abboud and John Varvatos.

But a handful of female designers have achieved success, and ironically, it may be the feminine touch that proves to be their secret weapon.

"I’m not sure that men always understand how sexy, elegant and glamorous menswear can be," says Versace. "As a woman I appreciate how good men can look, and so my menswear is really designed to make the wearer look – and feel – incredibly attractive. This is my main concern. I am aiming to make the Versace man look fantastic. And if he looks fantastic, he will feel great too."

Still, unlike in womenswear, where many of the best-known designers are men, the sight of a woman designing a three-piece suit can still feel revolutionary.

At her first runway show for Nautica, creative director Mirian Lamberth says she heard a tiny collective gasp from the audience when she took her bow because people were surprised to see a woman. Paulette Garafalo, head of Hickey Freeman and Bobby Jones, among other brands, recalls her first executive meeting at the company a decade ago, when she talked to "a room full of men in suits."

Lamberth and Garafalo are now among the best-known women in the world of menswear. To Tom Kalenderian, Barneys New York executive vice president of menswear, female designers seem to have a more artful approach to men’s clothes.

"At the risk of sounding trite, I wouldn’t like to say that women who design for men know better how a man should look," says Kalenderian. "I would say there probably is more awareness of a man’s aura."

Where a female designer often embraces a comprehensive head-to-toe look, you’ll find her male counterpart concentrates on individual elements, perhaps a luxurious fabric or the craftsmanship, Kalenderian explains

"I think men as designers are more technical than conceptual, I feel that women as designers for men are more conceptual – it’s not a positive or negative – but they’re different positions to approach it from," he says.

But the greater difference may depend on the gender that launched a designer’s career. Giorgio Armani, for instance, started in menswear and is a master tailor even when he creates a woman’s evening gown, while Versace, whose trademark is a liquid silk gown, can sew sultry movement into a man’s suit.

Hermes designer Veronique Nichanian says the more restrictive tailoring of menswear requires some creative thinking.

"I like combining fabrics that do not necessarily always complement each other. It should present an element of surprise, a subtle discovery – and a personal detail that reveals a little about the wearer," Nichanian says.

Lamberth has helmed Nautica since January 2007. Menswear was always her first love, she says, but most of her design school peers found womenswear to be more glamorous and sexy.

She is attracted to the structured nature of men’s clothes, even for women. Her personal style icons include Marlene Dietrich and Diane Keaton’s "Annie Hall" because she sees intelligence and strength in their style.

"There are no feminine hints on our menswear line while I’m here. Personally I have a hard time with this `metrosexual’ look," she says. "I’d rather have a guy maybe not dressed to perfection but have a sense of ease."

While women can borrow styles from men, the reverse is harder to pull off. Messenger bags and boat shoes look just as good on a woman as a man, Lamberth says, but the same can’t be said about clutch handbags and silk scarves.

"It’s not that they’re wrong but they’re not happening in my world. That’s not my guy. I like the iconic masculine look – James Dean. He’s groomed but not overgroomed. He is clean and fresh and showered, and he wears jeans, a T-shirt, nice shoes and a watch."

Finding a look that appeals to women is important, since women do a fair share of men’s shopping. Women make almost half of men’s sportswear purchases, but men tend to buy their own suits and other tailored clothing, according to Garafalo, CEO and group president of manufacturer Hart Schaffner Marx Luxury.

Garafalo thinks what sets her apart from her male colleagues is that she’s more willing to change the product, change the look, change something – and that’s definitely a feminine quality.

"In the men’s business, they have done things a certain way for a long time and they’re not quick to embrace new ideas. There was a panic when people started wearing leisure clothes," she says. "I’ve worn all the trends: high heels, low heels, balloon skirt, short pants. We are in the fashion industry and women tend to embrace change more than the average man."


Photos coutesy of the fashion spot forums.