At a recent cocktail party, an annual Toys for Tots charity drive that draws a crowd of mostly gay men, the designer Peter Som wryly observed that there were so many designers, retail executives and publicists present that if the pier collapsed, "there would be no fashion industry tomorrow."
Two months earlier, Tara Subkoff, the agent provocateur behind the label Imitation of Christ, had remarked during a public forum, with a great deal of irritation, that fashion "is a gay man's profession."
Subkoff was annoyed; Som was amused.
The difference between their attitudes toward the gay male dominance of the fashion industry, a peculiar and widely acknowledged circumstance, illustrates a growing tension between those who feel they are discriminated against and those who feel somewhat favored by a perception, largely unexamined, that men are better designers than women, and gay men are the best designers of all.
Subkoff's remarks, made during a panel discussion of Generation X Fashion at the New Yorker Festival in late September, landed like an incendiary device in the fashion world -- she also accused Anna Wintour, the editor of Vogue, of supporting only "young, gay men."
A debate has continued ever since on Seventh Avenue in New York over who is most likely to succeed in fashion and also on whether women, who make up most of the customers for this industry, face institutional barriers that limit their advancement on the creative side.
Many female designers perceive that their male counterparts have won more industry honors and are featured more prominently in magazines. On television, they note, advice on style and design is almost invariably sought from a vibrantly gay man -- witness Queer Eye for the Straight Guy, the new Isaac talk show with Isaac Mizrahi on the Style channel and Project Runway on Bravo, which began its second season on Wednesday night. Its cast of 16 includes eight male contestants, seven of them gay, a spokesman for Bravo said.
"A 30-year-old woman who is not very glamorous, but approaching fashion from a different point of view, maybe would not get the same attention as a young, cute and probably gay man," said Liz Collins, a knitwear designer who has earned several industry accolades but little commercial success.
"There are some really deep-seated tensions and resentment that have existed for a long time about gender in fashion and who gets things," Collins said. "A lot of those things are not necessarily real, or true, and they may be just suspicions. But you can look at certain examples of people who have had a faster rise to stardom, and the percentage of gay men is higher."
There is no way to accurately measure the success rate of designers based on sex or sexual orientation, or, somewhat speciously, to examine if men are more talented at design than women. As Valerie Steele, the chief curator of the Museum of the Fashion Institute of Technology, said: "There is no gay gene for creativity."
But circumstantial evidence is making some designers wonder about the disparities. Of the young US designers most embraced by retailers and celebrated in the fashion press in recent years, the roll call is almost exclusively male: Zac Posen, Marc Jacobs, Narciso Rodriguez and Som as well as Jack McCollough and Lazaro Hernandez of Proenza Schouler. Their female contemporaries have had a harder time breaking through, among them Behnaz Sarafpour, Alice Roi and Subkoff.