The other week, I had the privilege of sitting down with one of the most exciting up and coming fashion brands in Europe right now – De Bonne Facture.
The founder of the company, Deborah Neuberg – and I sat down and took the opportunity to discuss the gender norms of fashion.
They also sent me some of their range to try out, so you get to see some artsy pics of me interspersed throughout.
Hi Deborah, first of all – could you tell us about yourself & De Bonne Facture?
I’ve always been interested in clothing and fashion since I was a very little girl. I went to business school because my parents didn’t let me study design! I had a pact with them that I would do what I wanted afterwards.
I think my father was hoping I’d just work in finance and change my mind, but I didn’t ! I went to fashion management school and then I started working at Hermès in product development for Silk accessories.
Then I moved to Shanghai to work for a French underwear retail chain, working between style and production factories. I quit that job and decided to start my own thing, see where I took me.
What inspired you to develop the brand?
At the beginning it was going to be more like a label, collecting the best of the craftsmanship of regional specialist ateliers into a menswear line. I was really keen on reconnecting clothes to quality manufacturers, when the fashion industry was making it more and more about image and marketing and less and less about quality, responsibility, sustainability.
I didn’t want it to be a designer brand in the classic sense of the word. I started touring makers in France, just phoning them and showing up to visit their ateliers. I discovered most were just manufacturers and didn’t have collections. And gradually, I started developing my own designs with them.
I wanted it to be timeless pieces made with high quality and natural fabrics, simplicity and high quality, just something you can keep in your wardrobe for a long time, that will age well in time.
As a female at the helm of a menswear brand, have you experienced any prejudice, set-backs, etc?
I’ve been treated in a sexist way a lot of times. People assimilate courage and strength to maleness a lot, so I’ve been told the usual sexist metaphors, for example being told “I have balls” like it’s supposed to be a compliment. Metaphors of strength and courage are focused on maleness, while it has nothing to do with it. Of course there have been #metoo moments too.
Do you think there are still stigmas when it comes to the men’s fashion industry and men taking pride in pushing the boundaries of style?
Yes, I think there is a lot of stigma on people who identify as men and like to express themselves in a more so-called “feminine” way. It’s very repressed in our patriarchal societies.
It’s more difficult than being a woman expressing more masculine aspects of her gender or personality, in my opinion, because femininity is so inferiorized within patriarchy, and masculinity is seen as the positive virtue.
Do you take this into account when designing the DBF collections?
Yes, I’m hoping to express a kind of masculinity that is softer, more tender, and open, less in the stereotyped injunctions of masculinity like aggressivity, dominance, and repressing emotions.
During your time in the industry, have you seen patterns or shifts when it comes to gender perceptions of fashion?
Yes, I think the LGBT movement has helped redefine gender and question people about the way they perform their masculinity or femininity.
What do you think we can do to continue to improve attitudes and stereotypes towards the industry?
I think it’s good to keep conversing about the man / woman binary and the ways it limits us to explore our whole identities and find our own masculine/feminine balance within ourselves.
Industry-wise, I think avant-garde designers like Jonathan Anderson have been exploring different aspects of masculinity for a long time, and it’s helping redefine the conversation. But Phoebe Philo might have also been doing the same thing for femininity at Celine.
I was also looking at Bettina Rheim’s “Modern Lovers” series from 1990 that questioned gender, I think all this work is valuable and there are references to study from all periods of time that have been invisibilized. All of this art is helping us question and progress.
It’s also important for men to have conversations between them and hold themselves accountable for the patriarchal culture they enforce or interiorized and work on their own stereotypes for masculinity, just as women have been breaking out from stereotyped and limiting gender roles through feminism.
Is there anything you’d like to add about the relationship between masculinity & style?
Well I think masculinity is a construct, and so is femininity. So there is an infinity of styles that can be available to anyone wanting to express masculinity.
Thanks for your time Deborah, it’s been a pleasure.
A very interesting perspective – some thought provoking answers in this interview and a few things in there that have definitely made me think twice about how we labels things, talk to people, etc.