Representing the creative future

No Money in their Prada purse

Meet Giulia Mensitieri, the anthropologist who uncovered the precarity of fashion workers


You’re in the studio. It’s three in the morning and you’re running a caffeine-fuelled race to finalise that one important project. Only, it’s not just one project–it’s your life. It’s what you’ve been doing all day, every night for the past few years. You would call it your job, but you’re not being paid (although, money should be coming in soon, they promised). You’re not sure when you’ve had your last sit-down meal or full-night sleep. But it’s all worth it, because one day you’ll have made it. You’ll be the stylist flying around the world in first class, the designer winning prestigious awards, the editor with their name in the BOF 500.

That’s when you learn that you’re not the only one on the grind. That most of the workers you see buzzing around are interns, un(der)paid employees and freelancers. That only a small percentage of fashion workers actually know financial stability, that only a few can afford to pay their rent and phone bills, let alone own a house or start a family. That the stylist you always see writing emails in Soho House needs to do so because she hasn’t paid her Wi-Fi bills at home, which isn’t much of a home anyway, and more of a closet-space/ cabinet just big enough to fit a fold-out couch. That your chances of ‘making it’ are about the same as winning the lottery–no matter how much you sacrifice.

Reading Giulia Mensitieri’s Le Plus Beau Metier au Monde (The Most Beautiful Job in the World) is like having this realisation, deconstructing your teenage dream, over and over again. The anthropologist from the University of Paris-Nanterre started researching labour exploitation in the fashion industry in 2012, and her published findings caused quite the stir in the French fashion scene. Her book will be published in English by Bloomsbury Academic in August of 2020, but her ideas were too important for us not to share immediately.


A.N.: Your research centres around globalisation and the transformation of work. Why did you choose the fashion industry in particular, to investigate these topics that you were already specialised in?

When I started this research, I was interested in new forms of precarity. I saw a new layer of the population that was highly valued socially, yet structurally poor. This is due to a new role that labour is taking in our lives. To put it simply: my parents’ generation looked at work to give them a regular income. Now, in the privileged Western spaces of our contemporary world, what we are looking for is an expression of the self–what we call ‘subjectivity’ in philosophical and theoretical terms, meaning ‘who I am’, self-fulfillment–which is a huge transformation. Basically, we are not looking for money anymore, which is a tricky thing.

At the same time, I was myself confronted with this split between social status and economic status, being a PhD student at a very prestigious school in Paris. I was surrounded by artists, researchers, journalists,… and I observed that when I mentioned my work as a researcher, people projected desire on me–I became part of a symbolic elite. Yet we were all struggling to pay for rent, food, medical care… This was really the beginning of my research. How did we arrive at this point with this elite that is highly valorised and desirable, yet at the same time the most precarious? And fashion to me is the perfect place to observe that. Because fashion is the ultimate dream of contemporary capitalism. It’s one of the most desirable professions. If you ask a young girl in the street, she’ll tell you she wants to become a model. And it’s one of the most powerful industries in the world in terms of money, but also symbolically–fashion is everywhere in the public space, and we are bombarded with fashion imagery everywhere we go.

It is an industry that is based on precarious and unpaid work, even at the very heart of its symbolic production. When I discovered this, through a friend of a friend who’s a stylist, I found my field of investigation.

A.N.: Was there a particular moment that made you realise that there was more to this industry than meets the eye? That not everything that glitters is gold?

This was through Mia, the stylist friend. I was not interested in fashion more than any common person; I didn’t know the rules of this world. The first time I met Mia – dressed head to toe in Prada and Chanel – I would never have imagined that she was struggling to pay her rent and her phone bill. I discovered that her situation was the rule, rather than the exception. This was the first moment, but I underwent two years of immersion, and it has been a long journey. Each interview, shoot, and encounter was a new revelation, another level of confirmation. One of the first interviews I did was with a stylist assistant. She explained that she was working for free, of course, for editorials. I met her on set, and she told me that, before going into fashion, she was a theatre costume designer with a stable salary. She quit to work for free in fashion. When I asked her why, she replied: “Because this has a better image, I can go to the Ritz hotel for parties, I can have luxury stuff, and people are interested in what I’m doing. When I was working in theatre, even though I was working with famous artists, no one cared.” This was a revelation to me–I realised that she was looking, above all else, for social recognition.

A.N.: You mentioned how present fashion is in public imagery. It’s an industry that is incredibly mediatised and visible, yet there is very little transparency in terms of its daily reality and interior function. Where do you think this opposition comes from?

I use the metaphor of the photographic overexposure–the idea that we can’t see what’s behind the images because there’s too much light on it. The reason so little is known publicly about this industry is because fashion is not an industry that sells material products. Above all, it sells immaterial things. Otherwise, we would not buy twenty pairs of shoes, or a bag for 5000 euros, when we know production costs are 500, 50, or 10 euros.

In order to ensure consumption, fashion creates desire. It’s a dream that fashion sells above all. The dream of contemporary capitalism: easy money, elegance, beauty,…

If we were to know the backstory of each product–the amount of labour and exploitation, the amount of pollution–we would desire it less. The split between the image of elegance, refinement, and luxury, and what happens behind the scenes to produce those items… it’s not glamourous. There is no interest to reveal this from a commercial point of view. But what is interesting is that creative workers themselves participate in the construction of this opacity, in a very strong way. There is a silence… No one knows the reality of the life of a model, which is hell, or the life of an independent designer, or a journalist, because if you revealed that, the social desire, and with it the social recognition, would probably disappear. The system is based on the production of the dream, and this dream seduces both the consumer and the worker, but in different ways.

This is something that came out very often. The reason the creative worker enters the industry is always related to desire, consumption, beauty, passion for creativity… and then, once you’re inside, a deconstruction of those values take place. But at the same time, there is still an aspect of desire: the dream that one day, you’ll make it. If you give it all your dedication, if you work at your maximum, if you work for free, if, if, if, then one day you’ll arrive there. Which is not true, unfortunately. Concretely, it’s not possible–there isn’t enough room for everyone. But this creates a strong desire, and feeds this ethos of sacrifice. ‘I could be the next…’ But the time between the moment you start and the moment you potentially arrive is a very long one, and it’s exhausting.

“Desire is not a negative thing. The problem is that this system, this magic belief, is working to exploit people, and to make oneself auto-exploited.”

A.N.: This is what I found most shocking: how everybody working behind the scenes understands very well how the function of desire works, yet we’re still caught in it. We see how unhappy our peers are, we see how there isn’t really a level where you can arrive and be satisfied, yet we still can’t let it go.

I don’t take a position of moral judgement in that. It’s extremely interesting and we have to take it very seriously. There is a power that this industry mobilises in the desires of people. How can we displace this power in a way that it is no longer for the benefit of big corporations? The power itself is not the problem– desire is not a negative thing. The problem is that this system, this magic belief, is working to exploit people, and to make oneself auto-exploited. You don’t even need a tyrannical boss to be abused here.

A.N.: What role does fashion education play in the creation of this desire?

A very important one. It’s the first step of legitimation. Schools are strongly connected with the industry in many ways. Just take the system of internships, for example. Unpaid internships aren’t the problem–if it’s structured to be part of your education, why not? But if this system is used after graduation to justify not paying employees, again and again, then it becomes a problem. Schools normalise this idea of working day and night– no hours, no structure.

Another issue is the lack of community. Of course, you have to push the individuality of young designers, and develop their voice in general. But what I’m trying to do with my students is deconstruct this individualistic competitive perception. I try to include something more collective.

Fashion designers are prepared to design collections, but they are not prepared to think of themselves as workers with rights, because they don’t want to. When you enter a creative school, you don’t want to think of yourself as a worker, like the woman serving our coffees right now. There is this aura of exceptionality, which is extremely important in motivating people to enter the industry. And fashion schools in general are pushing that. In fashion schools, most of the teachers are professionals, so they are part of the system. With my book coming out, I can tell you that on more than one occasion a teacher in a public art school in Europe invited me to speak, but the direction refused and forbade me from speaking.

A.N.: Why?

“Because you have to keep the students dreaming.” That is what they told me.

A.N.: Fuck.

Yeah. This is extremely powerful and scary. When those things happen, they make me think that there is a voluntary approach to keep things as they are.

A.N.: Maybe, it’s because, if you gain a certain position of power by believing in “the dream”, then admitting that this dream doesn’t exist takes away your power and influence as well?

I don’t know, it’s tricky. The beautiful thing is, it’s not because you understand how things function that you don’t want to work in this industry anymore. You just want to change it.

Maybe it’s a different dream we need. Maybe we need to deconstruct this dream and replace it. The dream we believe in now is ecologically unsustainable. I don’t focus on environmental issues, but I find it important to mention. The fashion and textiles industries are incredibly polluting. How can we think to keep this system going? How can we think that this system shouldn’t be changed? If you want to live, you have to change. I’m not the one who can find the solution. That is not my area. I’m an anthropologist, I do analysis, but I do hope that my work can help to deconstruct this dream and do something different.

A.N.: You mentioned something interesting about students not seeing themselves as workers. Many people go into fashion because they know what they don’t want out of life–it’s a reaction against the 9-5. There is a rhetoric of being anti-norm, yet fashion is an incredibly normative industry. How do you explain this?

This is a very interesting opposition. This ‘choice against’ is not only present in fashion. I study fashion because I think it can hold up a mirror to society in general, but what I describe happens in many other fields. Fashion occupies a very peculiar position. It’s still perceived as something exceptional, something outside of the norm. The dream of beauty, desire, excess… many things are allowed in fashion, which can be a positive thing. It is a place where many marginalised identities can find their place. It’s a community. So, in this way, it can be considered exceptional. But in general, we can’t consider the most powerful industry in contemporary capitalism an exception–it’s not an exception at all. But there is still this aura, which is part of what we mentioned before: keeping the dream alive. We have a very negative representation of what conventional labour is: the routine, the hierarchy, the demanding boss, etc. It’s the representation of the salariat. In our contemporary creative sector, it is frowned upon. Because there is this ethos that started in the 80s: make your life exceptional, a piece of art. Fashion sells this idea of exceptionality, and socially it’s confirmed, but at the same time, not having clear rules doesn’t mean there is no hierarchy or power. The fashion industry is extremely hierarchical. Accepting this hierarchy is part of the exception. There is a quote from Lagerfeld: “La mode c’est l’injustice totale, c’est comme ça et c’est tout.” [Fashion means total injustice, that’s just the way it is]. This is one of the rules that fashion workers have perfectly integrated, immediately, even before entering the industry–they know that if they want to be part of this desirable, glamourous, exceptional world, they have to accept the injustice.

There is also this aesthetic of the glamourisation of domination. The movie The Devil Wears Prada is a great example–this idea of the creative director as a tyrant, the figure of the hysterical, authoritarian woman or man,… they legitimise abuse in the field. This was a real revelation to me.

At the beginning of my research, when I was joining people on shoots, I thought that it was quite an egalitarian working place, because everybody was hugging, giving kisses, calling each other “baby”, “my love”, “my dear”… Only later did I understand that there are extremely strong codes, and everybody knows exactly what their place is and how everybody should act. This was an incredibly interesting aspect, because we think of this industry as one that only requires an aesthetic dictate of the worker–you need to work on your look/appearance–but it is not the most important part. There are extremely strong, but implicit rules on how you should perform yourself as an individual, depending on whether you are an assistant, a model, a set designer, a creative director, a journalist…

A.N.: Is there a specific example that comes to mind?

To me, models are always the most powerful example, because it’s the profession where all the contradictions come together. When you see a new face on a shoot, they don’t speak, ever. They know that they are not there to be a subject. If they speak, it’s a problem. But if they are confirmed models, it’s expected that they perform themselves as subjects, that they have a personality, that they speak. It’s required because the industry pays for them as a label. They are a product themselves. An assistant set designer isn’t allowed to speak either, and they are always considered idiots. Even if the photographer wants a pink elephant with Swarovski horns within the hour, you have to say yes, and if you can’t make it happen, you’re considered incompetent. That’s the rule, that’s your place.

This is all overshadowed by what I called the “tyranny of cool.” The idea that you need to always be enthusiastic, smiling, saying yes to everything, even if you’re working for free, not sleeping, not eat- ing, even if you don’t know when you’ll be paid for your work… You’re expected to stay cool. You’re not allowed to say, “I’m having a rough time, these working conditions are hard.”

A.N.:Which only adds to the opacity. It’s more difficult to grasp the reach of the exploitation.

Exactly, and think of it in legal terms as well. I’m working with Model Law, which is an association that tries to regulate labour for models. What I discovered there applies to any profession: when you aren’t paid, and there is no contract, and no trace of the work you’re doing– which is often the case on editorial production–and something happens, it’s not just that you can’t speak up because of the tyranny of cool, but there isn’t a single trace. How can you say that you’ve been abused, if there is no proof that you were working? You can’t say: “I have the right to defend myself as a worker,” because technically, you aren’t even a worker.

A.N.:That brings me to a question that might seem obvious, but is important: why are these labour laws so fundamental?

They are vital. If you have an accident on a photoshoot, then you don’t have insurance, you don’t have anything. It’s extremely dangerous. If you think about models, they’re often minors… they don’t speak the language, they don’t know where they are… But even an assistant photographer who goes shooting at night and a lamp falls on their head… there is no labour contract that protects them in any way.

A.N.: Does this lack of trace make it more difficult to find tangible evidence of those structural issues?

Of course. It’s very difficult to quantify how widespread these issues are. Again, it’s related to opacity. Workers don’t speak. They’re scared. With Model Law, we did an anonymous survey, just to have an idea of how often work is unpaid. Even if they’re protected by anonymity, it’s very hard to speak. And this is psychological as well. When you put things one after the other, it’s not very glamourous.

A.N.: You mean, it’s difficult to confront oneself with the truth?

Yes, and that is the power of my book, I think. I received so many letters and emails of people saying: “I have the feeling that I’m reading my personal diary.” This system lets you think that this is an individual, interpersonal, anecdotal experience, but it’s not. On an individual scale, if you put how the system works on paper, it’s scary reading for an employee.

“In the name of creativity, which is this new religion, unacceptable things are being accepted.”

A.N.: Coming back to the importance of playing a role and having a personality, which is something constructed in school. I’m thinking here of the period of internship you had with Frank [names were changed to ensure anonymity], where almost all of the workers seemed to sacrifice their private lives in the name of this “personality” that they adored. As they described it, you’d think he was the greatest genius to ever live on this earth. Why are we so eager to believe in the power of the individual?

In France, we use the word “createur”. This to me is very emblematic, because the creator, ultimately, is God. He alone is the one who can construct a universe–that is what God did. And historically, this idea of the designer as a creator is a new one. I had a long interview with the previous design assistant of Karl Lagerfeld, who had been in the business for many years behind the scenes. He told me that when he started in the 60s, the name of his profession was modéliste. Then it became couturier, so there was still a very concrete aspect, related to craft. Then with the neoliberal turn–the transformation in society towards this idea of the dream and easy money–now we say directeur artistique, which is an empty word, but there is this construction of the genius that is part of the ethos, the mythology of the fashion industry.

I think that if you are an intern working 14 hours per day, you need to build a narrative. You have to believe in something–otherwise, how do you make it? Admit that you’re being exploited? No one is stupid, and I don’t believe fashion workers are dominated because they’re not intelligent enough. The reality is very complex. In the name of creativity, which is this new religion, unacceptable things are being accepted. But the designers themselves are a victim of this system–they are also working non-stop, not sleeping. At the same time, they are business leaders, so they have a responsibility towards their employees. And again, what keeps everyone going is this idea of “one day I’ll make it.” All of these students, interns, unpaid workers, they all thought: “Maybe if I do this now, afterwards I’ll have this.” There is this sacrifice that is not only because we believe in talent, but because it’s seen as an inversion on the future. “One day I’ll be the talent.”

A.N.: This internship was your first long-term experience in the field, and you wrote how it became very difficult to have an objective, exterior point of view because you became so engaged emotionally, it completely affected your perspective, and your perspective of yourself, your body image…

Of course. Fashion is extremely violent work in terms of how you should or should not be. It’s the industry that constructed the normativity of a desirable body, especially for women. When you’re surrounded by skinny 16-year-old girls all day, and you’re in a professional context in which all the workers are struggling with weight… At one point, you start to look at yourself and consider yourself fat, even if you’re not. At the beginning you can have a critical distance–but once you are in it, day after day, it affects you, a lot.

This is what fashion sells. If it wasn’t for this possibility of transformation, being skinnier, more cool… you wouldn’t sell. If you would tell people: “You’re great as you are, you’re extremely well dressed, you’re perfect,” the consumer would be like: “Okay, thank you, bye, bye.” It was extremely strong, and it was interesting. I never tried to follow the rules, because I knew I didn’t have the codes, I don’t have what you would call the ‘cultural capital’. So, I tried to be as anonymous as I could. But despite this fact, I always felt uncomfortable with my body and my image. And then sometimes there would be that one person saying, “oh, you are amazing,” a powerful figure on set for example, who suddenly decided that I had great style and a great face, and then everyone would agree.

I recognise this, and I wonder how these feelings of insecurity that are cultivated by the industry, and of exceptional validation, contribute towards the auto-exploitation. Of course, it’s about fragilization. You’re made fragile. It’s an emotional issue. All the domination in fashion is based on emotion–this idea that you’re not good enough, or that one day you’re great, and the following day you’re nothing.

“It’s an amazing tool to exploit people, saying, ‘you are unique, you will express yourself, so I don’t need to pay you.’”

A.N.: Going back to something you mentioned at the start. To you, the word ‘creative’, or a creative job, doesn’t mean anything in itself. Yet, it’s a term that’s incredibly important in defining which positions benefit from that symbolic capital.

How can you say concretely what is a creative job and what isn’t? Baking bread, is that creative or not? In this industry, there is a strong division. In a couture house, for example, the workers, those who assemble the clothes, or the pattern cutters, they’re not considered creative, yet there is a very important work of translation. What I want to say is, what we define as creative is a cultural value–it is something that is recognised as such by our society. It’s a very strong discourse, because being creative means that you identify yourself as an artist, and historically, the figure of the artist is a marginal figure, someone who is outside of the system: poor, but free. This whole discourse (flexible, out of the norm, exempt from the rules) and this figure of the artist, they’ve been completely appropriated by capitalism, and integrated into the most powerful industries in the world. In fashion, it works perfectly: one of the most powerful industries in the world has made money a dirty thing. It’s amazing to see how the most valuable professional performances are not paid, because money is dirty, yet it’s an industry whose first vocation is to make profit, and they’re making a lot of profit. The rule is that you should work for creativity, self-fulfillment, etc. This is a historical turn, related to what we call neoliberalism.

I’ll give you an example. I went to a sushi chain restaurant in my neighbourhood recently, and I saw a job offer that mentioned they were looking for “a sparkling personality to become part of the creative project.” But the position was to roll sushi for seven hours a day. They’re not saying: “We’re looking for a worker to cut salmon and cucumber…” There’s this whole ethos that is being used everywhere. It’s an amazing tool to exploit people. Saying: “You are unique, you will express yourself, so I don’t need to pay you.”

A.N.: Another truism in this industry is the incompatibility between creativity and productivity. I can’t even imagine fashion without this opposition. Could the industry exist in another way?

This is a very complicated question. It is, of course, a systemic contradiction. The rhythm of production now is unsustainable, even though everything is based on creation and innovation (someone must design these clothes after all), which is a creative process, and this process takes time. When you have to produce ten collections a year… When I started the book, it was during this big wave of creative directors quitting. They’re not precarious in terms of money, but it’s unsustainable, you can’t do it. And this is the split between the commercial nature of the industry and the creative one. This overproduction is what created the exploitation, structurally, because it’s impossible to produce how much we produce. In terms of environmental cost, and in terms of labour. We can’t do it without exploitation, from the creative worker to the factory worker. I don’t know if I’m answering your question, but to transform fashion, we should transform capitalism. Since the vocation of capitalism is to make profit and produce more–therein lies this inner contradiction. We should produce less, or stop producing. But just try to go to Bernard Arnault and tell him to produce less… Good luck!

A.N.: At the end of the book, you point out how these practices that you’ve described in fashion, and can be found in most creative industries, are slowly extending towards all of society.

Yes. Can we really think that fashion is exceptional? Doing a job for other reasons than monetary ones can also be found in NGOs and academia, for example, where you sacrifice yourself for other reasons, but the system is the same. Research shows that in NGOs, even though they are structured as companies, workers are exploited and not paid, because the discourse behind it is that you’re working for the other; there is a mission. How can you ask for money in that case? In academia, you are working for knowledge, and what is nobler than knowledge? How can you expect to be paid? And it’s the same in music, movies, architecture, design, media… –Even in the sushi shop, there is this idea that you’re not just cutting cucumber, you’re expressing yourself in an amazing context, so why should you be paid more than seven euros per hour?–In all these fields there is an extremely competitive ethos, in which you have to build yourself as a product. We should take a step back and deconstruct those discourses, and try to think collectively.

And another thing: I had a conversation with one of my students recently, who was applying for an unpaid internship and unsure about whether to do it. I said, first of all, you’re still a student, so earn your experience and keep your ego small, which is something very important. But at the same time, you have to be very aware that we can work for free because we are privileged. Working in this industry is a privilege. The point isn’t just about us. Maybe there is someone out there who is just as talented as you are, just as passionate, but can’t afford to do what you do. Because they have no parents, lover, or social position that allows them to work for free. To me, the political engagement is also this; to think that not only we are perpetrating that model, but we are keeping out someone who doesn’t have the privilege of being exploited.

A.N.: You observed another important element that leads to this auto-exploitation: passion. You showed how it can be powerful and fulfilling, but easily shift to a sense of addiction.

Of course, the idea of addiction came through very strongly. It’s not only the addiction of passion. If you love something, you need it, and you’d be willing to take it in any condition. And fashion produces a rhythm of urgency, adrenaline, rushing, pressure. It’s hormonal. It’s the same for dancers, athletes, lawyers, surgeons,… there are many professions where you have the adrenaline of the performance. So you have on one side the passion, loving what you do, the moment where you can express yourself, your skills, your creativity. And at the same time you have the context, which is a very peculiar one, and to which you can become addicted, on many levels. Many of the workers who quit fashion, deliberately or not, told me that what they missed most was this adrenaline of the set, the rush, and the social recognition. But it’s very difficult, once you’ve tasted it, to renounce it.

A.N.: What came to me when I finished your book was the fashion contract: if you give me all of your free time, your mental and physical wellbeing, the possibility to develop intellectually, spiritually, socially, emotionally outside of work–if you sacrifice this for me, I will give you the feeling that you’re important. And when you put the contract like this, I’m not sure that I want to sign it anymore.

Those are the new forms of alienation. We are not alienated because we work as machines–we are alienated because production takes up all the spheres of our existence.

A.N.: What do you mean by ‘alienation’? It’s a concept introduced by Marx, right?

Yes. So, very simplified: before it was the craftsman that built their chair, from the beginning until the end, and they could see all the steps of their work. With the segmentation of labour during the industrial revolution, the worker started doing the same thing all day long, but no longer saw what they were making. You sell your labour force, not the skill, so you are disconnected from the product. Then came May ‘68 and a revindication of the humanity of the worker: “We should inject some life, some creativity into the work–we are not machines.” And, as I said, capitalism has very intelligently appropriated this critique, and now we are in the exact opposite situation. Alienation is not based on a lack of emotional, creative involvement in the work, but rather in the lack of boundaries between when you work, with which part of yourself, and when you don’t work. If you go to a gallery opening tonight, you go with your friends, okay, but you also go because you need to network–you need to present and dress yourself in a certain way because you need to take care of your image. You work with your social skills, your emotions, your empathy,… In fashion, there is literally no time for something else. How many people that you know have a partner, have kids, do something outside of fashion? There is no outside. It’s a total appropriation of all the spheres: the body, the intellect, the time. You no longer know when you are a worker and when you are a subject, when you are producing and when you are not producing, since what you produce isn’t material.

A.N.: But in exchange, you sometimes get free perfume, so…

Yeah, that’s great.