A new book by academic Giulia Mensitieri, laying bare the working conditions of stylists and young designers, has sparked controversy. Will it lead to improved conditions for those forced to work for clothes vouchers instead of cash?
Giulia Mensitieri takes little to no personal interest in clothes. So it is likely to have been an ugly surprise to the French fashion industry that her PhD now a book entitled The Most Beautiful Job in the World has opened up its secretive profession in such a dramatically public way. In France, the books findings that fashion, the countrys second-biggest industry, exploits most of the creatives who work in it were quickly picked up by the media when it was published earlier this year. The resulting headlines included: The ruthless world of fashion; Fashions dirty underside; and An extremely wealthy industry founded on unpaid work.
The reality of fashion was illustrated by Mensitieris chance introduction, eight years ago, to her subject matter. She met Mia, a successful Italian stylist who had moved to Paris: She was wearing Chanel shoes and carrying a Prada handbag, being flown across the world in business class. I never would have imagined that she was in the situation she was in. Mia couldnt afford to rent a room, so she was couch surfing at a friends house behind a screen in the kitchen. Sometimes she had no money for her phone bill. She was eating McDonalds every day. She never knew when she would be paid for a job and how much she would get. For example, for a weeks work, a very big luxury brand gave her a voucher for 5,000 (4,500) to spend in their boutique. True, Mia could have sold it (and, among hard-up fashion workers, there is a lively market in reselling luxury goods). But Mensitieri points out that working in fashion means being seen in a constantly updated uniform of beautiful, expensive clothes and accessories paid for by vouchers such as the one Mia received instead of a salary. This situation is nothing exceptional. Mia is just a paradigm of what is going on.
The book is lively from the start. Mensitieris analysis and case studies build up a fairly damning picture of her subject matter. One interviewee, a former fashion journalist at a glossy magazine, describes how she was dropped by her coterie of friends and colleagues one day. They just suddenly stopped taking her calls or responding to her emails. There was no explanation. This is the violence everyone told me about, says Mensitieri. Once youre out, youre out. There can be a trauma attached to such sudden ejection. All your social relationships are in that world. Theyre gone. From being exceptional, now you have transgressed in some unmentionable way. Or, simply, you are not special enough any more. Finding work in a new sector can be difficult because normal people behave so differently from what youre used to. Finding a job can be difficult, coming from an industry that those on the outside tend to look down on as fluffy and lightweight.
Mensitieri, an alumnus of cole des Hautes tudes en Sciences Sociales, one of Frances elite grandes coles, is in London to talk about her book, although it has not yet been translated into English. I was a little bit scared when it came out, she says, because its quite a strong renunciation, even though that was not my goal. Im an anthropologist, not a journalist. The books salient claim is that, when we think of exploitation in fashion we think of sweat shops abroad or sexual harassment of models. But thats not what I was interested in. I was looking at the creative side: stylists, makeup artists, young designers, interns, assistants. What I really want to make clear is that exploitation exists at the very heart of the powerfully symbolic and economic centre of the maisons de couture; the big luxury brands. But it is a different form of exploitation. In some cases, also barely legal.
Critics of the book complain that Mensitieri only interviewed 50 people for her analysis, all of them off the record. There are no statistics. Some took Karl Lagerfelds general view: Fashion is a total injustice. Its like that. And thats it. But no one, claims the author, has said that what Ive written isnt true.
The big brands generally do not like the idea of an objective outsider meddling, but it seems that the people who work for them do. They have written to Mensitieri to say they had never considered themselves exploited before they read her book, wrapped up as they were in the industrys glossy promise. They say that, now theyve read the book … they began to see the big picture and little fragments of their own experiences, says the author. And once they understand the big picture, they cant look at fashion and their job in fashion or themselves in the same way.
Jean Paul Gaultier, the only well-known designer to have commented on the book so far, brushed it off, saying fashion was like any other industry, that, [fashion] is like a family. Sales of Mensitieris books suggest that the general public doesnt entirely share Gaultiers views. When ID France published an interview with Mensitieri, it was its most-read article. Perhaps tellingly, journalists who have written about the book for commercial fashion magazines have had their articles dropped at the last minute.