Why mean girls are the least of fashion’s problems

Why mean girls are the least of fashion’s problems

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Meryl Streep and Anne Hathaway in ‘The Devil Wears Prada’ (2006) © Alamy

In most industries today, there now exists a “list” — an anonymous catalogue compiled by an unnamed source, detailing the abusers within their industry. Some accuse specific individuals of wrongdoing. Others skate around the libel laws by using heavy insinuation.

The fashion industry has lots of lists. Some are very public. The list of male photographers, editors and stylists who have habitually abused models and subordinates is growing daily. Last week, The Boston Globe published a fresh flurry of allegations against many leading figures, among them Patrick Demarchelier, personal photographer to Princess Diana. There’s also a list of those photographers with whom the publisher Condé Nast will no longer work; and a list of guidelines now being drawn up to protect vulnerable youths from wandering hands.

And then there are the quieter, less official lists. “Intern 1 no name” tells stories about life in the fashion world under the Instagram handle @fashionassistants. It started as a light-hearted look at the idiosyncrasies of working in the fashion industry — the silly hours, the unreasonable expectations of stylists — but in light of #MeToo and Time’s Up, the feed has evolved to include more specific examples of harassment. By inviting fellow assistants to anonymously share their stories, it has become a catalogue of abuses, both personal and general, highlighting the industry’s unholy meanness.

Few of the stories involve sexual harassment. And few involve men. The perpetrators tend to be women and the abuse is usually verbal or physical. There are stylists throwing shoes and clothes hangers in a temper. Or forbidding staff from eating. There is petty unpleasantness. The list demonstrates quite pointedly that women with power can be just as monstrous as men.

When I explain what I do for a living, most people respond with two questions. Have I met Anna Wintour? And is fashion as relentlessly awful as it appears in The Devil Wears Prada, Lauren Weisberger’s fictionalised account of life at a magazine?

The @fashionassistants list demonstrates that women with power can be just as monstrous as men

I always rebuff the question. Don’t be silly! The industry wouldn’t survive if we were all so catastrophically mean and useless. Of course people don’t send their staff on ridiculous errands to procure impossible-to-get items based on a whim. I defend the industry because, in my experience, the world of fashion is full of extremely hardworking people who tend to love what they’re doing. Generally everyone is kind, caring and Girl Scout competent. Honestly.

And then comes a list that exposes the fashion industry as being precisely the venal, self-absorbed and toxic little circle that everyone assumed it was anyway. What an own goal.

I’ve always brushed aside the more unpleasant side of the industry. The one peopled with paranoia and poisoned with gossip. Because these things aren’t unique to fashion, are they? I doubt it’s all hugs and back rubs on the trading floor, either.

I also don’t dwell on the more uncomfortable bits because it seems a bit disingenuous to moan on about the exigencies of a career that many others would kill for. So, you never see your friends because your schedule won’t allow it. And you have to set pre-dawn alarm calls and pack lots of shoes for shoots. So what? It’s not like being a junior doctor, where you might have to work a 48-hour shift, making life-and-death calls on your patients while chronically exhausted.

The truth is, like many creative industries, fashion is a competitive, cut-throat world. It relies on self-promotion, sharp elbows and thick skin. Unless you happen to be the goddaughter of a magazine publisher or the scion of a luxury-goods conglomerate, breaking into the business isn’t going to be easy.

But this doesn’t excuse attitudes that are becoming dangerously commonplace. No one should assume that one’s hunger for work should satiate one’s actual physical need. The Devil Wears Prada’s Andy had coats slung at her, but at least she got paid. Some of the most caustic comments on @fashionassistants suggest that her real-life equivalents no longer do.

This isn’t exclusively a fashion problem. A report published in The Atlantic in 2012 specified that 53 per cent of recent US graduates were either unemployed or underemployed; and according to a 2009 study, the vast majority of unpaid internships are undertaken by young women. The fashion industry, which has both an unusually high proportion of female workers and a freelance culture whose regulation is patchy at best, is reliant on intern labour. In a recent round of interviews, while recruiting for a new assistant, every candidate I spoke to had interned for months, stuck on a familiar shuffle that had found them bumping around a familiar band of magazine titles with few opportunities to get on the next rung. Many were resigned to the fact they might work for years without really getting paid. And with budgets tightening, as they are, things look set to get worse.

The fashion assistant list may not be as sensational as others (although some of its tales are startlingly awful). Some of it may not be true. I’m not even sure that its purpose is all that constructive. But as an insight into the casualisation of labour, and the industry’s lack of interest or care for its young apprentices, it makes for a sobering read. Few people in fashion actually throw shoes at their assistants — but we’re still behaving badly.

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