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Image: laiamagazine

Eight years ago author Giulia Mensitieri met an Italian fashion stylist. The stylist – who despite “wearing Chanel shoes, carrying a Prada handbag, [and] being flown across the world in business class” – was travelling the world “never knowing when she would be paid for a job and how much she would get.” On at least one occasion, “For a week’s work, a very big luxury brand gave her a voucher for €5,000 to spend in their boutique.” As a result of this encounter, Mensitieri set out to investigate the business of fashion. She spent four years conducting research and interviewing industry insiders. What she uncovered was “an extremely wealthy industry founded on unpaid work.”

As Mensitieri – a PhD scholar, professor, and an objective industry outsider – sets out in her book, The Most Beautiful Job in the World, there is a lot more to the fashion industry than meets the eye. The book’s most salient claim, according to the Guardian, is that, beyond the obvious exploitation that exists in the fashion industry, namely, the sweatshops abroad and the sexual harassment of models, there is “exploitation at the very heart of the powerfully symbolic and economic center of the maisons de couture.” 

While Mensitieri focuses exclusively on the fashion industry in France, the practices she addresses are global in nature, and are pervasive in other major fashion capitals, including New York, London, and Milan. In fact, they are part of a much larger scheme of exploitation, which involves the systemic underpayment for work. But more fundamentally than that, it has to do with what fashion is selling. 

Fashion is in the business of selling “dreams,” as Mensitieri puts it. In an interview with i-D this spring, she said that while “fashion [is technically] making material products – bags, clothes, cosmetics,” what it is really selling is an image of glamour, a certain level of social status, and a relatively accessible point of entry to the “must have” lifestyle that has been normalized by celebrities on social media, reality television, and the like. 

“Capitalism needs this dream,” Mensitieri says. “It is what fuels fashion … from the point of view of consumption.” Yes, fashion brands’ practice of selling carefully curated brand images and messaging – and thus, dreams – attracts consumer dollars to their latest “it” bags (the massive influencer marketing campaign of the Dior saddle bag comes to mind) and seasonal wares. But there is more to it than that.

These “dreams,” according to Mensiteri are also integral to “the point of view of the worker,” and they are instilled “starting in fashion school. The students there know they will be exploited but they don’t see themselves as exploited.”

Realistically, the selling of fashion as an industry may start even sooner than that, though, due to the attraction of fashion as a potential source of exciting and lucrative employment for young men and women. Young people are romanced by the industry’s outward facing image, particularly in the digital era, where designers are often pictured on private jets, in glitzy locales, and alongside some of the world’s most famous figures.

The perception that jobs in the fashion industry – in much the same way as jobs in Hollywood, media or sports, etc. – are glamorous, exclusive, well-paid, and hard to land – has spawned a willingness amongst young people (usually, interns) to work for free in order to get their feet in the door.

The result is an army of individuals that are routinely working in a largely unpaid or underpaid capacity – or more or less, for “trade,” i.e., in exchange for free clothes – in hopes of “making it” and/or advancing their careers in fashion. This sees them doing jobs that they think will “give [them] a social status [in the industry] and [ultimately], strong monetary remuneration, but that is something that happens very rarely,” per Mensitieri.

This dynamic has also created a larger shift in the approach to compensation across the board and an often-met expectation that students and other industry newcomers – who should be happy to have the opportunity – will do entry-level work for free. “The message is, you don’t have to be paid because you are lucky to be there at all,” Mensitieri  says.

In reality, fashion, according to Mensitieri, “is ruled by a contradictory rule: the more a job can [help an individual] accumulate prestige, the less it will be paid.” And the reverse is true, as well, with more commercial (and less “fashion-y” jobs), such as styling Nordstrom’s e-commerce looks or shooting a campaign for Zara, being some of the more lucrative. They are, however, not viewed in the same way as styling or shooting a campaign for a high fashion brand, of course.

Pair this with fashion’s larger “escape [from] the regulation that is established law in other industries,” such as wage and labor laws – an imbalance that Mensitieri has found “is often maintained by the workers themselves,” who, as “creative fashion workers do not want to identify with the average worker” and their “strong obsession with wage-earning” – and you have a more accurate picture of what it looks like to work in fashion and the abuses that come with it.

“Who, then, are the exploiters?,” the Guardian’s Stefanie Marsh asks. Well, “LVMH, the French leader of the world’s luxury goods market, owns 70 luxury fashion brands, including Louis Vuitton, Christian Dior and Fendi,” is, for one. “It saw its net profits rise 41 percent in the first half of this year. Owners of the big brands make billions. Alain and Gérard Wertheimer, who own Chanel, paid themselves a $3.4 billion dividend last year – four times the company’s profits.

Further down the chain, Mensitieri calls into question the “the responsibilities of top designers, whose annual salaries can run into the millions.” Karl Lagerfeld, Chanel’s creative director, for instance, “has an alleged net worth of $200 million. Surely a well-paid designer is making a morally questionable choice by not paying workers more?”

But Mensitieri lets designers off the hook on this point. “They are all part of a larger system,” one that can only be changed, she says, by “looking beyond fashion, or whatever industry you’re in, and talking to people in different fields who are working under the same conditions.”