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The Glamorous Fashion Industry's Ugly Underside Exposed

A new book by anthropologist Giulia Mensitieri, PhD, exposes the ugly reality behind the ultra-glamorous facade of the global fashion industry.

Mesnsitieri found an industry that from the outside maintains an illusion of beauty, creativity and purpose, but that is built upon the exploitation and subjugation of its workers that slave away largely underpaid and unappreciated.

The book is a powerful condemnation of an industry in this day of “conscientious capitalism” where every major -- and not so major -- fashion brand has numerous social causes they loudly support, but also where they silently exploit the workers that keep the dream factories operating.

Entitled Le Plus Beau Métier du Monde (in English, The Best Job in the World: Behind the Scenes in the Fashion Industry), the book is currently only available in French, but through a series of email interviews and an excerpt written by fellow academic Miriam Odoni, published on the Allegra Lab website, I will try to translate her research findings and conclusions.

Le Plus Beau Métier du Monde by Giulia MensitieriEDITIONS LA DÉCOUVERTE

The book is the result of Mensitieri’s PhD in social anthropology and ethnology, from the prestigious Ecole des Hautes Etudes en Sciences Sociales where she focuses on “globalization, the transformation of work and the mechanism of creating dreams of future objects of desire in contemporary capitalism.”

She describes herself as an “anthropologist, not a journalist,” so her book is liberally sprinkled with academic jargon, but its conclusions are unequivocal.

“At the heart of the book is the contrast between the fashion world, made of dreams, imagination, and images, combining beauty, luxury, splendor, creativity, excess, power and money,” Mensitieri writes, “On the other side, workers working almost for free, precarity and exploitation.”

Living on the edge, but loving it

Precarity is a term that is used often to describe the condition of the vast underclass of designers, models, freelance creators, hairdressers, make-up artists, salespeople, journalists, dressmakers, interns, and sales representatives who enable the fashion industry elites to gain unimaginable wealth, prestige and fame.

Precarity (also precariousness) is a precarious existence, lacking in predictability, job security, material or psychological welfare. The social class defined by this condition has been termed the precariat, according to Wikipedia.

Take Bernard Arnault & Family, CEO of LVMH who is ranked number 4 on the Forbes World’s Billionaires list with an estimated $83.5 billion fortune as of today, having increased $11.5 billion since March when the list was published. Trailing not far behind at number 6 is Amancio Ortega, who cofounded Inditex, most noted for its fast-fashion Zara brand.

Their midas-sized wealth stands in stark contrast to the hundreds of thousands of their companies’ workers who have made that wealth possible. These workers who produce and sell the goods and create the images that keep the system going are not rewarded fairly for their work.

“Fashion workers produce highly-valued symbolic capital and build the dream of capitalism, even though they live in a condition of economic precarity,” Mensitieri explains.

(Photo credit should read NIKLAS HALLE'N/AFP/Getty Images)

But as Mensitieri’s anthropological research behind the scenes among the “precariat” reveals, they are largely willing co-conspirators in their own exploitation.

“Fashion workers accept these conditions because of the ‘economy of hope,’” Mensitieri says.

“They hope that they will achieve their dreamed job someday. This is how structural precarity works: you stay, you keep, you work for free, because maybe someday you will arrive where you wish.”

She shares the story of stylist Mia who lives a hand-to-mouth daily existence, all the while working for the most prestigious luxury brands in exchange for enjoying momentarily some of the perks and rewards of being part of the glamorous fashion world. But while she has the privilege of flying business class, staying at luxury hotels when on assignment, she often gets vouchers to spend in their boutiques, not checks for services rendered.

Mia perpetuates the very system that exploits her, which she accepts because it as all “part of the game.”

Mensitieri explains, “Mia participates temporarily in situations of luxury, wealth and power, identifying herself as a ‘star.’ Yet her discourse is ambivalent and full of elements that contrast to this identity, such as anxiety, solitude, disorientation and condition of uncertainty. These feelings constitute the price to pay to be part of the cosmopolitan elite.”

Abundant prestige, little or no pay

In France it means something to work in the fashion industry, a €15 billion industry and the country’s second most profitable after automobiles.

The image the fashion world creates to drive consumer demand for its goods is also used to drive demand for people to become part of that world. The image “produces and maintains only the dimension of dream and prestige, keeping the conditions of production invisible or opaque,” Mensitieri writes.

It boils down into one message, Mensitieri says, “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. Fashion presents itself as something exceptional, a world outside the ordinary.”

While Mensitieri’s research focused only on Europe, she says the findings apply to the worldwide fashion industry. “My analysis is a systemic and global one and the goal is not at all to point only to the French situation. My ethnographic fieldwork was in Paris and Brussels, but it is the same situation, with local variations, everywhere,” she says.

Fashion is a global system reproducing its forms of labour everywhere, Mensitieri stresses. And she further states that the research has implications for other creative industries as well. “ The goal of the research is not to denunciate or to condemn the fashion system, but to analyze the dynamics of exploitation and normalization of inequalities in capitalism at large. ”

“The fashion industry is at once a very wealth industry, yet unpaid work is normalized. That’s why to me, fashion is the privileged field to study the transformations of the value and the meaning of work that are proper to creatives and cultural industries at large,“ she continues.

The promise behind the dream

What keeps this system built on structural inequalities and hierarchical power structures that richly rewards the elites and often punishes, humiliates and underpays the workers underneath who make those riches possible, is the dream that one might be exceptional and rise to the top.

“The industry’s structural inequality is not seen by workers in terms of injustice or exploitation, but in terms of chance and risk,” Mensitieri explains.

But, rising from the bottom to the top in the fashion hierarchy is something that happens very rarely, Mensitieri says. “The passion for the work is always connected to sacrifice and suffering, or to self fulfillment and artistic expression. The more some work is considered prestigious, the more poorly it is paid,” her book reveals.

Like Sisyphus condemned to roll the rock up the hill only to have it roll back again for eternity, the workers who labor in the fashion industry and keep the ball rolling almost never achieve the ultimate goal of getting to the top.

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