Stylist and editor are fascinating roles because to me, they incarnate many of the contradictions of our industry. A position that is both extremely glamourous and precarious, both well respected while also being undervalued.
I would like to understand these contradictions by asking about three moments in your career. When you first defined yourself as a stylist, when you first saw yourself as a successful stylist, and when you first were a stylist who could pay rent.
There wasn’t one moment where I felt like – I’m now a stylist. I had been assisting for several years when I became afashion editor at i-D. The culture there is very nurturing, they always champion young talent. Ben Reardon was the editor at the time. It was an incredibly exciting place to work. I felt a change when I started representing the magazine and going to press event and fashion shows; I felt like I was part of a team.
It is important to say, being an editor is very different from being a stylist in a freelance capacity. I have worked at magazines my entire career, I’ve been a freelance stylist for only five. I think I’ll always be an editor first. But it was also a very different time. When I started, people weren’t connected socially as much as we are now. There was very limited information about working in fashion beyond being a writer.
I had quite an incredible working experience working for Kylie Minogue’s creative director, William Baker. At the time Kylie was on a world tour and on the cover of every magazine. It was a unique opportunity. It was an environment in the lines between fashion and performing arts, hence I experienced a lot. This was when Kylie got photographed by Mert and Marcus for the cover of POP magazine, with Katie Grand styling. That was really the moment when I realised where I wanted to go. They completely transformed Kylie. It was incredible to watch; the fashion, the lighting; It was exhilarating. Mert and Marcus are extraordinary image-makers and Katie has a talent for taking people from mainstream pop-culture and presenting them in a way you have never seen before. That was my first on set experience with high fashion and it inspired me to pursue a career in magazines.
“I don’t think anyone should work for free. I believe that even if someone is interning and has no experience, they are still doing work that needs to be done and they should be paid for their time.” – Francesca Burns
And how long did it take you to find financial stability?
The financial struggle is very real. It is something that I feel is very important for our industry to change. I don’t think anyone should work for free. I believe that even if someone is interning and has no experience, they are still doing work that needs to be done and they should be paid for their time. This is a systematic problem within fashion. Very few people are privileged enough to come from a background where they have financial support and this immediately creates a barrier to entering the industry.
I was very lucky because I was studying when I started, so I had my student loans and my mom’s support. I also worked two other jobs to support myself. Even then, I had to rely on government support, for a long time during my career. It took me many years to be financially independent, learning how to run a business was completely new to me. My advice to anyone starting out would be: if you can do a short course in business or some way to learn how to manage your finances, go for it. No one ever told me you need to save 20% for your taxes, and it was quite a surprise when that first letter came!
As a stylist, you sometimes have to wait for so long for an invoice to be paid. There is a very unhealthy economic culture.
Is there any insight you can give as to why unpaid work is so normalized, culturally, in fashion?
Fashion is an extremely alluring industry and there are a lot of people who are desperate to become a part of it. It is this desire that has been exploited for a long time. I do feel like we are living through this great awakening in the industry, across so many areas; racial diversity, body diversity, environmental awareness, and cultural habits that have to include fair pay.
As my friend Steven Philip once told me: “If you can afford to go out for lunch and spend £14 on a glass of wine, you can afford to pay your staff.” It really needs to be legislated, otherwise, our industry will stay homogenous.
“As a community, our eyes have been opened to the fact that just because things have been done a certain way for a long time it doesn’t mean that that is the right way of doing things.” – Francesca Burns
You mention “the great awakening”. How do you personally experience this?
Personally, I feel that as we have become more connected as a global community we have become more aware of the many systemic flaws within our society and it feels impossible to stay quiet anymore. The Me Too and Black Lives Matter movements have encouraged massive and vital change within our industry. As a community, our eyes have been opened to the fact that just because things have been done a certain way for a long time it doesn’t mean that that is the right way of doing things. Collectively, we are saying that we will not tolerate injustice anymore, be that discrimination, sexual abuse, or bullying. We are also unavoidably confronted with the reality of the climate emergency and this too is bringing massive changes and incredible innovation in design and fabric technology, transforming the way we work to strive towards more environmentally sustainable practices. I think it is an amazing moment to be in this industry because we are living through this change and the possibilities are endless. There is a lot of work to do, of course, but I feel that awareness is at the root of everything – our eyes are wide open now and we cannot go back to how things were, we have to work together to build a better future on all levels.
For me, it hasn’t been a quick change, it’s a constant journey, but I don’t want to stay quiet anymore. The more people speak out, the better. What’s the worst that can happen?
When you speak up and openly criticize the institution, do you ever feel pushback from the industry? Negative reactions?
Absolutely. People are afraid of change. When it comes to body diversity, I recently posted about the problem of sample sizes being so small, and I received lots of comments of people that were being cruel and fat-shaming, or saying I was discriminating against models. When you are speaking about difficult issues you will always be met with challenges.
The older I get the more aware I am that we have been subliminally brainwashed our entire lives. I was a teenager in the 90s, and I can consider myself lucky that it was the era of the athletic supermodel, which feels more positive than what came afterwards: post-grunge and heroin chic. For decades, fashion advertising has favoured a very thin, very young, very white aesthetic. That was the standard. In only representing one very specific beauty standard the subtext is that if you do not meet this ideal then you are not beautiful. This leaves a huge and devastating impact. If you don’t see yourself reflected in the pages of a magazine, it is so damaging. We need to think about what we say with the images we create. Thankfully, we are now seeing an enormous change and I don’t think we can even begin to underestimate how important this is. As an industry we have to constantly think about what we are saying with the images we create and their wider impact; we need to actively strive to be inclusive.
“As an image-maker, you need to always question yourself asking: what am I saying here? Is this model happy to be here?” – Francesca Burns
But when you create an image, don’t you always create a fantasy for people to strive to?
The minute you create an image of a person you are taking them out of the realm of reality and you elevate them by that choice. But it’s how you do it which makes a big difference. If you work with love and respect for the people you work with that impacts everything.
Humanity has always had gods. We’re now living in the 15-minutes of fame era, everyone can feel like a god with the right filter. Everybody has the possibility of fame, and iconic status just because of the power of the internet. But as an image-maker, you need to always question yourself asking: what am I saying here? Is this model happy to be here?