Modern Slaves? The Dark Side of the Fashion Industry

By Renee Nat

By now, it’s common knowledge even amongst lovers of fast fashion that there is a dark side of the fashion industry – namely, it’s well known that most fashion is produced by workers toiling away in near slave-like conditions in developing countries around the globe. But what may come as a surprise to many is that this dark side exists not only for the poorer people involved in the fashion industry, but for some that may be envied for their positions in it.

A Short Case Study

Like most students of fashion design, Sarah knew an unpaid internship was the only real stepping-stone to finding a job in the industry. With a Master’s degree and previous intern experience on her CV, she found a perfect opportunity with a small, but well-known designer. She happily worked the long hours and paid for her commute out of her own pocket, hoping for the internship to lead to paid work. “I met lots of new people, it was fun. I worked my butt off to be indispensable to everyone, that’s just part of my nature.”

Sarah’s efforts paid off and she was ultimately offered a small salary. She kept up her work ethic, but her bank account remained empty. Her employer assured her she’d be paid soon. In the meantime, Sarah was putting all her expenses on to a loan. “At the time I didn’t think I had a choice. I thought to myself, there’s nothing else out there and I should stick this out until I get paid.”

It would take several months before she saw any cash and even then, it was only a portion of what she owed. As time passed, her paycheques remained elusive and her employer kept trying to dismiss the issue. “I realise now I was being used deliberately. She (the employer) was very nice to me, but was taking advantage of my work. I wasn’t an intern anymore, just an unpaid worker.” Sarah sought out information about her rights and ultimately, was able to find work elsewhere. The experience however, left her financially and emotionally dejected. This, sadly, is not an unusual story in the fashion industry.

Loads of Work, No Pay

Whether you’re an intern, designer, model or photographer, stories of unpaid or poorly paid work in fashion are a common tale. For entry level positions with a top fashion house or media conglomerate, it’s often pretty much  understood that work will not be for pay, but for the ‘honour’ of being able to have a prestigious name on your CV. However, the expectation that the ‘honour’ of working with a household fashion name will be for free drags on even after months – and sometimes years – of working for some fashion enterprises. And goes all the way through the top levels, too.


To give another example, one Editor-in-Chief of a small magazine I know of was asked by a major British fashion house to design a publicity campaign for television, which would involve both the designer and the magazine. After working hard on two pitches, the editor travelled to London at her own expense twice to present her ideas to the designer, who was delighted and accepted one of them, under the assumption that the editor do all the work, which included making a short film–for free. ‘I was told that attaching myself to her brand would be payment enough,’ she claimed. Needless to say, the project was never realised. Another writer worked 12 hours a day for an old, iconic French  maison, rushing to write their client magazine in English. When she presented her invoice, they told her it would be better if she would kindly accept her payment–in shoes.

Whilst it’s no surprise that well-remunerated jobs are hard to come by in small publications or struggling fashion houses (such as most eco-friendly ones),  there is no excuse for big multinationals refuse to pay workers fairly, or at all. Even allegedly ‘ethical’ brands like Vivienne Westwood refuse to pay a single penny to interns, despite the fact that most ambitious young workers are living in the headquarter cities of these brands, usually in the world’s most expensive capitals. Somehow, they’re expected to get by on the bare minimum, while the companies they work for continue to grow and rake in big revenues.


Models work long hours, for very little pay, if any at all.

As the global economy is still reeling in the wake of the recession, luxury goods companies are thriving, though their bottom-of-the-ladder employees may not be so lucky. And yet there is no shortage of people willing to take on unpaid fashion work. Speaking about fashion journalism, writer Argot Murelius says: “The competition is such that it’s a buyer’s market out there. There are always other writers who will work for less, and hence the bar is not raised, but constantly lowered.”

It certainly doesn’t help that many publications are turning to high-profile ‘talent’ to help draw-in readers. “I certainly think it’s unfair that unknown talent doesn’t get paid properly and that big names do. For instance, Vanity Fair claims that Pippa Middleton is a ‘correspondent’ or some such thing… that’s a load of poppycock,” says Murelius. Fashion media and the design industry are two different beasts, and yet they’re both suffering from a similar disease: the inequitable distribution of wealth.  It’s the classic story of inequality that you’ve heard time and time again: the 1 per cent keeps getting richer while the 99 percent struggles to get by, but in fashion, the 99 percent is a well-dressed, competitive bunch  who are willing to do whatever it takes to work in this ‘glamorous’ world.

That ‘whatever it takes’ can also involve putting up with abuse. One editor at a big Hearst publication recalls how in the ’90s, when she was just starting out, one of her fellow interns was screamed at for having ‘frizzy’ hair, and was told to ‘take care of it’ several times. Unsure what to do with her cursed mane, the girl put it back in a (rather frizzy) ponytail for work. Her boss, enraged at this ‘unfashionable’ look, raged over to her desk with a pair of scissors and, to the horror of everyone around her,  cut the whole ponytail off. No one said a word.

That’s seems pretty extreme, but things can be even worse.

Sex, Drugs and the Fashion World

Popular fashion photographer Terry  Richardson made headlines after he ran out of the top Parisian club Le Montana when model Rie Rasmussen accused him of sexually exploiting, and even assaulting, young models:  “He takes girls who are young, manipulates them to take their clothes off and takes pictures of them they will be ashamed of. They are too afraid to say no because their agency booked them on the job and are too young to stand up for themselves  . . . I don’t understand how anyone works with him,” she said to the New York Post.  Unfortunately, sexual predation is nothing uncommon in an industry where it’s said ‘it’s not who you know, it’s who you blow’ (a quote by the rather sleazy Richardson himself, incidentally). And it can get shockingly ugly.

Top model Karen Mulder, for example, claims  that execs at Elite Models raped her and prostituted her out  to some of France’s most elite business men and politicians. In fact, she says that Elite used her and other top models “as sex slaves” in a ring that extended through the top echelons of French society – and what she said in an interview with France 2 was so  potentially libelous against the establishment that the channel not only never aired the segment with her, but even destroyed the master tape. Nevertheless, Mulder repeated most of her accusations in other interviews, adding that Elite encouraged her to use cocaine and heroin. “All these people who betrayed me I used to love very much,” she told the Daily Mail. “Then I realized how big the conspiracy was. It brought in the government and police, who both used Elite girls. People have tried to kidnap and poison me.”

Indeed, drugs are another dark side of the fashion industry. The  pressure to look good  and work all hours of the day and night in an industry based on beauty and social interaction means that many start smoking to lose weight, snort cocaine or take MDMA to stay awake, or Valium, Xanax or alcohol to calm down. “Everyone who works in fashion knows that if the choice for a position is between a shy, chubby candidate with great talent and qualifications or a slim, stylish one with loads of charm but an empty head, the latter will always win out,” says fashion intern Anais Holden.

How many writers and editors in this audience were actually paid for their work and expenses?

But even so, despite all the potential dangers, pressure, unpaid work and long hours, ‘average’ people will tolerate all of these obstacles in their struggle to get ahead in fashion and possibly become famous in one of the world’s most elite industries. Much to their dismay, however, they will often find the most coveted jobs will be given to those who ‘don’t need’ the money, such as children of celebrities, trust fund kids, wives of millionaires and celebrities themselves.

Who You Know

These are an elite clique who are ‘hired’ for the most prestigious jobs as stylists, writers, photographers, models and the like, even though they may not be the most qualified or talented. Think about it: today’s huge models Georgia May Jagger, Kaya Gerber, Bella and Gigi Hadid and Cara Delevigne to name just a few all come from wealthy backgrounds; virtually all the staff at Tatler or Vogue are posh and privileged; quite often, family fashion dynasties dictate that only blood relatives will take over important positions in the most coveted labels: Prada, Ralph Lauren, Saab, to name a few. The tuition at schools like Parsons, ESMOD or Central Saint Martins means only those on heavy scholarships or with big, fat savings accounts can afford to study design with the best.

So why do people continue to want to work in this industry? ‘It’s all I ever wanted to do,’ says Alison Krull, a design student. ‘Since I was a little girl, I’ve been designing clothes. I don’t care if I work for a famous designer–the best jobs are with the high street shops like Zara.’ The editor of this very magazine told me that after having been badly paid or completely unpaid for various high-profile editing jobs, she contemplated her options: ‘I’ve been doing this for half my life, but was really disillusioned with the world of mainstream fashion, so I started my own publication,’ she says. ‘It still doesn’t make much money, but at least no one is promising me cash that I may or may not get, and when I work hard, it’s for myself.’

While a few makeup artists become well paid and even famous, they need to pay their dues first, often by working for free

In well known, high-end fashion and media houses, horror stories of (sometimes criminally) insane employers, soul-crushing working hours and gruelling work for no pay show no signs of abating. While it is noble and right to pressure companies to treat fashion employees fairly in overseas sweatshops,  the time to discuss how badly employees in the fashion industry are treated in developed countries is now. We’ve become modern fashion slaves, quite literally. Don’t we deserve to be treated with dignity, too?

*Names have been changed to protect the identities of our correspondents.

*All photography by Emmanuel Sarnin


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