There is a meme going around, one which has done good business on the sarky, bitchy, fashion-adjacent corner of Instagram and concerns one of the leading figures in the London fashion world. ‘If you know, you know,’ reads the caption.
Of course, we can’t speak about this rumour directly but the ‘wink wink’ nature of the post and the comments beneath suggest a secret lore of atrocious behaviour lurking beneath the most glamorous of businesses.
Fashion is an industry that excuses (and occasionally revels in) practices that have long been ironed out of others. It’s a business that still has ‘open secrets’ in the way Hollywood used to have open secrets. Remember when ‘everyone had a Harvey Weinstein story’ or you would hear of a flatmate’s cousin’s ex who experienced something bizarre or horrific on a film set? Fashion still creates those ‘Have you heard?’ moments in dizzying supply.
While the #MeToo movement swept through the film business, forever altering its practices from awards ceremonies to equal-pay terms, fashion has not had quite the same reckoning. Bar a few scalpings of ageing sex pests like Mario Testino and Bruce Weber, fashion is still a world of bad practice and dirty little secrets (Testino has denied these claims, while Weber settled out of court). Even when a story does break, the industry has a famously short memory. Indeed, both Testino and Weber are back shooting for major brands and magazines again, while John ‘I Love Hitler’ Galliano found career rehabilitation quickly.
At this year’s London Fashion Week, the designer Daniel Lee made a triumphant return at Burberry, having parted ways with Bottega Veneta last year in murky circumstances that are currently lighting up the gossip-sphere. Even Alexander Wang, accused of drink-spiking, sexual assault and humiliation by multiple sources, is showing at NYFW and being photographed with Kardashians and Hadids again (Wang, too, denies these allegations).
Much of this comes down to the financial clout of the fashion market and the power of its advertising. Unlike ephemeral, easy-to-pirate media products like music and visual content, people still buy clothes. This creates a situation whereby the big fashion houses and their parent companies have magazines (with their dwindling circulations) in a chokehold. ‘You can’t publish anything bad about anyone who advertises,’ one London magazine editor tells us. ‘Say you upset Dior, then all of the LVMH group are going to be pissed off. But if you say the new collection is amazing – when it’s actually terrible – then they might give you a big advertorial. One very well-known French menswear designer has pulled so much advertising over the years, over a whole variation of slights.’
I’ve spent a long time on the fringes of fashion: writing about it, teaching it at BA level, copywriting for brands and socialising with plenty of people who work in it full-time. From the sidelines, I’ve always found the industry to be fascinating, troubled and almost totally unaccountable. I’ve seen friends and family driven to the brink by its demands, enduring horrific treatment from a central casting roster of villains and their total disregard for labour laws. I’ve also seen people I know make some incredible work and been very, very well paid for it. But fashion’s bad habits have always left a sour taste in my mouth, and increasingly, the people who work within it are feeling something similar.
Having spoken to a number of sources, from stylists to photographers, editors to interns and designers at major houses, the picture I have gained is that of an industry that refuses to bow to standardised ethics and employee rights. A business that stops for nothing and often makes strange and troubling demands of its workforce. When sounding out contributors, the first response I received was usually: ‘God, I have so many stories.’ The fact that every single person asked for full anonymity speaks volumes about the industry’s power to blackball those that put their heads above the parapet.
Most of the stories relate to a long-standing and rampant culture of exploitation, abuse, underpayment – and sometimes no payment at all. Some of them are grimly funny, like that of the junior stylist who was asked by her boss to go and take a deceased hamster for a full autopsy.
Another tale I heard second-hand was that of the young camera assistant who went up for a job with the much-whispered-about photographer John ‘Rankin’ Waddell. The perma-scarfed Dazed co-founder apparently asked his interviewee whether or not he was good under ‘high-pressure situations’. Before an answer could be relayed, Rankin pulled out one of his expensive prints, proceeded to light it on fire and said: ‘How do you handle this?’ Rankin is no stranger to these pages, making our ‘Rudest People in London’ feature for his habit of hiring an assistant purely to hold a camera strap above his head when he’s shooting.
Other tales are more sinister: like the London design house that ran their studio at full capacity during the dark days of March 2021, when businesses around the world shut their doors and more than a 1,000 people a day were dying in the UK. Or the old story about the famous British fashion label where many of the staff became violently ill after dying garments with a toxic substance.
Fashion is an industry that believes itself to be somehow above standard working practices and employment law. Irena*, a young styling assistant, explains: ‘I remember when I first started, I had a few friends that worked in film and TV. They were pretty appalled that no one in fashion really followed the legalities about overtime or lunch breaks, which in every other field are concrete. I think this comes from that ingrained attitude of “you should count yourself lucky to be here.”’
Assistants are a vital, affordable part of the fashion industry, one which is ripe for being taken advantage of. Many design houses and magazines prey upon a grey zone of informal positions to create a cheap, churning workforce, one which they work into the ground and often steal ideas from.
Claire*, a successful stylist, remembers her early days in the industry: ‘I started when I was 18/19, and at that age you’re very green, you don’t really have any idea of what the job actually entails… the majority of the time, you’re dragging suitcases through central London or returning clothing samples to PRs, so you don’t even really get much of a kind of idea of what a shoot involves.
‘You’re very much expected to be seen and not heard. You have to wear all black and you can’t speak to anyone, especially the boss. With [British Vogue editor] Edward Enninful, or someone of that ilk, you’re not really supposed to speak to them directly. All the top heads of department have to eat lunch before you do. I once made the mistake of grabbing my lunchbox early and one of the production assistants was like “What are you doing?” and scolded me… I’d been up since 5am and hadn’t eaten yet.’
When it comes to designing the clothes that make up the core product of the industry, many of the big brands rely on an unethical system of ‘graduate training schemes’, i.e. underpaid (or unpaid) pathways to jobs that often don’t exist. Sabina*, a designer at an up-and-coming label, explains: ‘I went to McQueen and I was a graduate trainee. And that was a very low salary: £14,000 a year. It was highly demanding… late nights, weekends, etc. I was asked to clean the loo at another house.’
On fashion shoots and sets, the hours can be gruelling and horror stories are abundant. Junior and assistant stylists often bear the brunt of it. ‘You could not be sick,’ remembers Claire. ‘I was once throwing up on set – I was always ill in those days – because I was so stressed. So I was throwing up the whole night before and I said to my boss that I couldn’t come in. Anyway my boss insisted I show up, so I was literally dressing the model, puking, dressing the model, puking. It was fucking vile.
‘You’re just tested to this extreme. I heard about a girl who got so stressed she had to have all her teeth redone because she’d been grinding them so much. Her boss actually ended up paying for it, which was nice of her.’
‘Once, my lunch was thrown in the bin, while I was eating it, because my boss was annoyed that I was taking too long. I’ve cleaned a period stain off of a sample,’ adds Tom, another stylist and styling assistant.
‘Recently, someone in the industry borrowed two of my suitcases,’ he continues, ‘and I was happy to loan them, as long as I got them back. Then I got a text from him saying, “I’m really sorry, I need these. I’m on my way to New York.” So he just stole my suitcases.’
Speaking to these contributors, the one thing that almost everybody agrees on is the idea that there is a hierarchical and hereditary pattern of abuse at the heart of the industry, one where you are expected to pay your dues to often dangerous extents.
Amy*, a stylist who eventually left fashion, told me about one of the more difficult people she occasionally assisted early in her career: ‘They themselves had assisted someone who was notoriously tough and demanding. And I was told stories about that. There’s definitely a cycle going on. I mean, what are you going to do when that’s your example? Of course it’s going to get passed along, it becomes the norm. I regret that I probably passed some of that along too when I had assistants. It’s those people who don’t act like that, that really stand out. And it shouldn’t really be that way, should it?’
‘I think a lot of people who go into fashion are people who maybe weren’t very popular at school, or felt that they had something to prove,’ suggests Claire. ‘When they get this level of prestige, they become the mean girls. There’s a chain of command that never stops exploiting the next generation. I think whoever you’re working underneath has either created a culture – or comes from a culture – of insane work ethic and hours, which are totally unrealistic, but because they feel like they’ve done their time, they need to inflict it on you.
‘I think there’s also an element of Stockholm Syndrome, where I’m probably guilty of it, too. When I stopped assisting and had my own assistants who weren’t willing to work past 6pm, I was a bit like, “What the fuck?” Because you are just so indoctrinated into that regime.’
Why do these stories never come out? How does fashion continue to incubate and excuse all this abhorrent behaviour? My theory is that it lies in the social culture of the industry and its endemic love of ‘bitching’. In many ways, this is one of fashion’s most interesting byproducts: a constant source of afterparty discourse. But it also means that many of these stories never make it overground, instead generating a kind of trial-by-gossip.
‘It’s a social industry. The people in it love gossip and hear these kinds of stories,’ says Amy. ‘Bad behaviour becomes just another story. It’s not shocking anymore. It’s an industry that allows that kind of personality to thrive. You’re not scolded for behaving in that kind of way. It’s validated, celebrated. And if you’re powerful enough, no one can touch you anyway.
‘I also wonder if it’s to do with how insular the fashion world is,’ she continues. ‘Aside from the high-profile figures, a lot of the names involved aren’t really public. You’re not going to get a mass outcry about someone who runs a small magazine, or a small design studio. That’s of niche interest in the grand scheme of things. You’re not gonna draw enough media attention to have an impact. You’ll probably just dent your career if you speak out.
‘A lot of the more creative side of fashion is made up of freelancers, small magazines and design houses, which operate as informal organisations that function without the standard teams you would have at other businesses. So there’s no accounts department, no HR team, no general manager, no contracts. Often these businesses are started by young, creative people who might even be fresh out of education and have no training in how to run a business. There’s no regulation. And when the established businesses in the industry already set such a poor example, no wonder people end up being treated badly.’
However, there does seem to be change in the air, with a younger generation, fuelled by self-care and equality, starting to push back against some of the bad practices. ‘I do think that there is a shift,’ says Tom. ‘Especially with Gen Z. I speak to new interns or assistants that are on the scene at the moment and there’s definitely this element of ‘I refuse to work for free’ and putting mental health first and foremost, which I think is amazing.
‘Not to play devil’s advocate too much, but I do think there is something to be said for having a good attitude and just being excited about stuff. I’m not condoning free work – I think that’s ridiculous – but I do think it’s swung the other way. You’ve got young people demanding a lot without any experience. You can’t demand that you get front row at Fashion Week when you’ve just graduated from uni.’
Almost everyone we spoke to sees themselves, in one way or another, as having had their worldview warped by this most exclusive of industries. From the endemic Stockholm Syndrome around the treatment of assistants to an unimpeachable system of overtime, unpaid work and self-funded editorials that basically no other game demands.
‘I think I might be a product of the industry. I was so young and naive,’ says Tom. ‘I was so happy to be there, I was happy to get coffee, I was happy to be treated like that. I’ve never really done anything else, so I don’t really know what’s normal and expected.
‘There’s almost an element whereby it’s not enough that you’ve got the job. You have to prove that you really want it. There’s that line in The Devil Wears Prada: “A million other girls would kill to be here.”’
Will fashion ever change? The jury is out, though there is certainly some kind of pushback in the works. However, my guess is that as long as the industry can feed off that ferocious desire to work within it, to live and breathe a world of gossip and aesthetic, to share cigarettes with Chloë Sevigny and run your hands across dresses that cost somewhere close to the average national salary – fashion can probably do as it wants.
*All names have been changed
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