This article titled “Chanel shoes, but no salary: how one woman exposed the scandal of the French fashion industry” was written by Stefanie Marsh, for The Guardian on Sunday 2nd September 2018 14.00 UTC
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 book’s findings – that fashion, the country’s 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”; “Fashion’s dirty underside”; and “An extremely wealthy industry founded on unpaid work”.
The reality of fashion was illustrated by Mensitieri’s 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 couldn’t afford to rent a room, so she was couch surfing at a friend’s house behind a screen in the kitchen. “Sometimes she had no money for her phone bill. She was eating McDonald’s every day. She never knew when she would be paid for a job and how much she would get. For example, for a week’s 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. Mensitieri’s 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 you’re out, you’re out.” There can be a trauma attached to such sudden ejection. “All your social relationships are in that world. They’re 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 you’re 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 alumni of École des Hautes Études en Sciences Sociales, one of France’s elite grandes écoles, 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 it’s quite a strong renunciation, even though that was not my goal. I’m an anthropologist, not a journalist.” The book’s salient claim is that, “when we think of exploitation in fashion we think of sweat shops abroad or sexual harassment of models. But that’s 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 Lagerfeld’s general view: “Fashion is a total injustice. It’s like that. And that’s it.” “But no one,” claims the author, “has said that what I’ve written isn’t 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 industry’s glossy promise. “They say that, now they’ve 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 can’t 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 Mensitieri’s books suggest that the general public doesn’t entirely share Gaultier’s 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.
We meet at a London cafe where, I had read, staff are chosen for their looks and sex appeal. It is an example of the kind of social status that fashion is so good at conferring on those who work in it – in exchange, Mensitieri discovered, for not paying them enough, or at all. Or paying them in convoluted, unpredictable ways that cannot easily be turned into cash: an unexchangeable €1,000 voucher for a designer boutique, first-class flights to fashion shoots or accommodation in luxury hotels.
“The message is, you don’t have to be paid because you are lucky to be there at all. Working in fashion is hyper socially validating, even if you’re unpaid. That’s an important point for me. Fashion presents itself as something exceptional, a world outside the ordinary,” she says. “There is a kind of confused denial of the norms of labour conditions. The dream that French fashion, especially, projects is that of a life of effortless luxury – mundane everyday facts of life such as working for a living, or indeed even money, are considered vulgar, taboo, even dirty subjects.
“But is it really possible that France’s second most profitable industry after cars and before armaments – a €15bn industry – can be an exception in capitalism? To me, fashion is the very centre of contemporary capitalism – it upholds the old forms of exploitation; factories in Bangladesh and so on – and the new, very modern forms which are more a kind of self-exploitation, a blurring of the line between your work and everything you are outside of work.”
France’s fashion industry is intensely bound up with national identity. “Whoever does not visit Paris regularly will never truly be elegant,” Balzac wrote in 1830, and it is an image that the world’s centre of luxury shopping is keen to uphold. Louis Vuitton’s new flagship store, in Place Vendôme, for example, inhabits a building designed by Louis XIV’s favourite architect, Jules Hardouin-Mansart, who helped design the Palace of Versailles. To understand fashion’s reach and power, Mensitieri explains, look at the parade of designers President Emmanuel Macron invites to the Elysée palace. “The government is keenly aware of the industry’s economic and symbolic power,” she says. If the film Zoolander sums up the general public’s ideas about fashion in other countries, “In France, to say ‘I work in fashion’ is something extremely important.”
To engage properly with her interviewees, Mensitieri had to learn the etiquette: “When to say ‘darling’, when to stay silent. Saying ‘no’ is uncool. ‘Yes’ can mean anything. And there is a kind of addiction to this adrenaline, this prestige, this idea of being exceptional. I talk in the book about ‘the jackpot’ – winner takes all. The economy of hope, I call it. ‘Maybe I will be next’, even though the statistics tell you it’s unlikely you will. Fashion is colonised by desirable projection. You are never present, because tomorrow will be better. It’s an addictive way of thinking.”
Her interviewees talk a lot about personas and the need to invent one if they are to have any hope of success. A teetotal model describes how her agent told her to be more “rock’n’roll” – to wear leather jackets and to be seen in certain bars drinking beer. An assistant makeup artist describes the tantrums his very famous boss threw if his favourite green cotton wool buds were not laid out in a perfect square.
“What is amazing is that the workers justify this. They say: ‘Oh, but he’s a genius. That’s what geniuses do.’ A designer I interviewed worked for a luxury, edgy, well-known company. She dressed Lady Gaga, and so on. She had been working at the company for five years, designing the men’s and women’s collections with a third job in production. She was paid the minimum wage. When she was talking about it she said: ‘The creative director, he was my mentor, he was like a father to me, he was a genius.’” Mensitieri calls this “the glamourisation of domination” – the hero-tyrant who you put on a pedestal while she/he exploits you. “The biggest goal of neo-liberalism is the individualisation of structural domination; you leave everything at an interpersonal, subjective level.” It was only when the poorly paid designer left her work because of burnout that the bubble burst. She seemed confused when she told Mensitieri: “He was earning €13,000 [£11,700] a month but I was on the minimum wage. Just €100 [£90] a month more would have made the difference to me. But he wouldn’t do it.”
“It starts in fashion school,” says Mensitieri. “The students there know they will be exploited but they don’t see themselves as exploited.”
Who, then, are the exploiters? LVMH, the French leader of the world’s luxury goods market, owns 70 luxury fashion brands, including Louis Vuitton, Christian Dior and Fendi. It saw its net profits rise 41% in the first half of this year. Owners of the big brands make billions. Alain and Gérard Wertheimer, who own Chanel, paid themselves a $3.4bn dividend last year – four times the company’s profits. (In a further paradox, people in the industry’s business and marketing side tend to be paid well, or at least in line with other businesses their size.) Further down the chain, what about the responsibilities of top designers, whose annual salaries can run into the millions? Karl Lagerfeld, Chanel’s creative director, has an alleged net worth of $200m. Surely a well-paid designer is making a morally questionable choice by not paying workers more? Mensitieri lets designers off the hook on this point. They are part of a larger system, she says, it’s not up to her to make moral judgments. It is discouraging to hear that, despite the high praise Mensitieri has received privately from even very well-known designers, “Nobody has said: ‘Yes, I’m now going to pay my staff more.’”
It is not just people working in fashion who might recognise themselves in these descriptions. It is a similar scene across all the creative industries and academia, says Mensitieri. She also makes a good comparison with the charity sector where, it is widely held, “doing good” is incompatible with being paid well.
If her theory is true, does she think there is hope for reform? “If you want to change things, you have to look beyond fashion, or whatever industry you’re in, and talk to people in different fields who are working under the same conditions,” she says. “I’m not an optimistic person, but there are interesting things happening at the fringes. There is a strong anti-fashion movement in the UK and, in France, models are working together for better working conditions.” It’s advice that some people working in the fashion industry may not want to hear. “You need to start collaborating – which is an almost heretical thought in fashion. You need to stop thinking of yourself as special.”
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