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G iulia 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. 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.

One interviewee, a former fashion journalist at a glossy magazine, describes how she was dropped by her coterie of friends and colleagues one day. “This is the violence everyone told me about,” says Mensitieri. “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 alumnus 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’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. 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. Critics of the book complain that Mensitieri only interviewed 50 people for her analysis, all of them off the record. Some took Karl Lagerfeld’s general view: “Fashion is a total injustice.

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.

“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.

Makeup artists, stylists and junior designers are among those routinely exploited, claims Mensitieri. 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. Working in fashion is hyper socially validating, even if you’re unpaid. Fashion presents itself as something exceptional, a world outside the ordinary,” she says.

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. 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. I talk in the book about ‘the jackpot’ – winner takes all. Fashion is colonised by desirable projection. Jean Paul Gaultier has brushed off Mensitieri’s claims, but many creative workers have contacted her to tell her their experiences. Photograph: Dominique Charriau/WireImage “What is amazing is that the workers justify this.

That’s what geniuses do.’ A designer I interviewed worked for a luxury, edgy, well-known company. She had been working at the company for five years, designing the men’s and women’s collections with a third job in production. 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. 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.” Professor Angela McRobbie, at Goldsmiths, a specialist in new forms of labour in the creative economy, who teaches feminist theory, gender and popular culture, explains, “French fashion doesn’t have some of the underground roots or edginess that British fashion does. Whereas critical theory is taught in fashion schools here or in the States, in France there’s none of that.” It was McRobbie who invited Mensitieri to speak at the Society of Arts, in London: “Hers is a very important book,” she says.

LVMH , the French leader of the world’s luxury goods market, owns 70 luxury fashion brands, including Louis Vuitton, Christian Dior and Fendi. 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.) 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.

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 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.

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