Ana* had big dreams of launching a high-powered career in fashion. She was smart, ambitious, and willing to work hard. As an undergrad at Yale, she nabbed a coveted internship at Dolce & Gabbana, and after graduating, she locked down a job as an assistant at Tommy Hilfiger in New York. But she quickly found that the reality of her life in fashion was nowhere near as glamorous as what she had imagined.
For starters, she says her salary as an entry-level employee was a paltry $24,000 a year which, even in 2010, wasn’t enough to live on in New York. Fortunately, her parents were able to help her out. “The only people who can afford the jobs and unpaid internships (in fashion) are people with families who will support them,” she says.
The hours were long and the work was grueling. Her bosses expected her to be on the clock 24 hours a day, so she spent every vacation, dinner, and even bathroom break, glued to her phone. She found herself jumping from one crisis to another–and to her managers, each fashion emergency was a matter of life and death.
“The stakes are ridiculously and unnecessarily high,” she recalls. “My epiphany came standing in the rain on 11th avenue trying to hail a cab to get to Columbus Circle to deliver some boob tape for a Met Gala attendee’s dress. I was crying with frustration like it was a serious problem: But it was tape.”
In a year where toxic work cultures are being exposed online, tolerance for dues paying in a punishing environment is wearing thin. And while fashion’s toxic work culture is nothing new, we’re now seeing the tide begin to turn as designers, founders, and employees recognize that the status quo can change and are pushing to reform their industry. This is thanks, in part, to the fact that workers in other industries with historically toxic workplaces–like technology and finance–have been pushing for more transparency and work-life balance. Fashion, an industry that is progressive on issues like immigration and women’s rights, is behind the curve when it comes to workplace culture.
I conducted dozens of interviews with employees at well-known fashion labels, from designers to business executives to public relations specialists. One thing became clear: While the fashion industry may appear glamorous from the outside, its culture is riddled with problems.
Abuse is accepted as par for the course when working with brilliant designers at world-renowned brands. Overworked employees buy prescription medication on the black market to get through long hours and stressful conditions. Every single person I spoke with carried around the feeling that they were disposable and might be fired from one season to the next.
“Fashion is not an easy industry,” says Karen Harvey, the founder and CEO of the Karen Harvey Consulting Group, who has spent decades advising top fashion brands including Burberry, Coach, Nike, Tiffany, and The Row. “You have to love fashion, otherwise it will not feel like a good place to work: It will feel superficial and too demanding. And when you’re young and just starting a career in this industry, being accessible around the clock will help you.”
The Land Of One Percenters
Low wages are just the tip of the iceberg, but they have a profound impact on working life in the fashion industry. The poor pay means that the industry tends to attract people from well-to-do families–like Ana’s–who are able to bankroll them. “The compensation tends to be lower because it is deemed a privilege to be working in a such a glamorous industry,” says Julie Zerbo, the founder and editor-in-chief of The Fashion Law, a blog that tracks fashion through a legal lens. “This is a key underlying issue. There are a lot of heiresses and people coming from a certain social sphere that work in this industry.”
This has two effects. The first is that the industry isn’t particularly meritocratic: Breaking in is largely about who you know and how much money you have. Second, because a proportion of employees in the industry are independently wealthy, they are not motivated to fight for appropriate salaries. The payoff for them comes in non-monetary, intangible benefits: connections to influencers and A-list celebrities; attending fashion shows, fabulous events, and parties; access to the latest designer clothes.
Zerbo believes that the status quo might be changing. Until recently, interns in the fashion industry were expected to work for free, but over the last five years, she’s been carefully tracking a string of intern lawsuits against fashion labels like The Row, Lacoste, Burberry, Gucci, Marc Jacobs, and Oscar de la Renta, among many others, and the publishers of top fashion magazines, like Condé Nast and Hearst. Ultimately, many of these brands agreed that it was unfair not to offer interns any compensation. Many have changed their rules. Over time, Zerbo believes that this could allow people from a wider range of socio-economic backgrounds to consider fashion as a potential career.
“If there is one bright spot it is that the next generation appears to have a different attitude,” Zerbo says. “They are willing to fight for what they are owed. And this has the potential to change how the industry approaches compensation.”
The Crash And Burn
While the lawsuits are making paid internships more common, starting salaries in many fashion jobs are still very low. For those who are passionate about the industry, but don’t have families who can support them, moving up in fashion can be close to impossible.
Take Amanda Curtis, for example. She wanted to become a fashion designer, so after attending Boston University, she enrolled at Parsons School of Design, where she took nine courses each semester to complete a two-year fashion design course in one year. Her coursework was so impressive that her portfolio was selected to be part of a showcase of Parsons’s best students.
In 2010, Curtis took a job designing for Richie Rich’s New York Fashion Week Show. She was paid $400 for months of work that involved creating entire outfits for runway models and celebrities. In 2010, she spent an entire year as an assistant fashion designer for Maggy London, where she claims she made $35,000 a year. And then, in 2011, she worked for Diane von Furstenberg, where she says she received no wages at all. (Richie Rich, Maggy London, and Diane von Furstenberg did not respond to requests for comment.)
It wasn’t sustainable. Curtis says that many fashion designers in her position eventually burn out. “Most designers can’t talk about how abusive the industry is because they are still in it and don’t want to hurt their future job prospects,” she says. “I have no desire to go back to ever work for another designer again.”
Curtis is trying to change the scenario for the next generation of designers who are about to enter the business. Over the last four years, she has been working to create an alternative path for emerging designers to survive in the industry. Her new startup, Nineteenth Amendment, is a platform that allows designers to create and sell products without having to own inventory, since garments are made-to-order in the US, including New York’s garment district, in six weeks. It provides an alternative to the status quo, in which designers who don’t have the funds to launch their own collections must spend years doing poorly paid grunt work for bigger fashion labels as a way to fill out their resume.
“I basically created the platform I needed wanted when I was just starting out,” Curtis says. “If something like this had existed earlier, I could have focused on my own career right from the start, instead of working for free for designers that couldn’t care less about my future.”
Harvey also believes that the next generation of fashion workers will have a better sense of boundaries, since those in millennials and gen Z seem to believe that they are entitled to free time and work-life balance. “For us in the Boomer generation, we weren’t raised in a culture of setting boundaries and saving time for ourselves,” Harvey says. “If you wanted to be in fashion, it was an all or nothing thing. But I believe that the millennials are teaching us that there are other things that matter.”
The Black Market Prescription Drug Hustle
If you are able to survive the rocky early years of a fashion career, salaries do eventually go up. But, unfortunately, so do the stress levels.
“Once you get going in fashion, find a lane and are really good at it, the pay is much higher than in most other industries,” Harvey explains. “I hear from outside the industry all the time that the pay is very hard to match at an executive level.” (For example Christopher Bailey, the creative director of Burberry, had a £20 million pay package in 2014).
This was true for Alice*, who has spent 15 years working in public relations at top labels and eventually started raking in the big bucks. Alice got her start at an Italian design house, working her way up to become a communications manager, then eventually ran global communications for three other well-known American designer brands.
She was at the top of her game, establishing relationships with fashion editors to ensure her brands were well-represented in the pages of glossy magazines and organizing fashion shows and black tie parties. But when Alice got married and had children, the long hours and high expectations began to wear her down. “We’re in this industry where everybody expects perfection,” she says. “I am terrified of failing and letting people down. And, while this isn’t true at every brand, there’s a culture in fashion of firing people when they don’t perform.”
It is common knowledge that people working in the fashion industry take drugs to get through the long hours. In the ’80s and ’90s, cocaine use was widespread, but among Alice’s colleagues, the drug of choice was Adderall, a medication prescribed to people with ADHD that allows them to focus better for long stretches of time. The first time she popped a pill, given to her by a friend, she felt superhuman. “It was incredible,” she recounts. “I could pull all-nighters without any problem. I could work nonstop for an entire week without losing focus or energy.”
It soon became a habit. Alice justified it by making the case that it was helping her with her job. She was more efficient than ever: She could spend all night working at an event, then show up the next day feeling fresh and ready to take on new challenges. She would crash at the end of every week, spending all weekend in bed, sleeping up to 12 hours at a time.
She still kept her Adderall addiction a secret from everyone, including her husband. “To get the pills, I had to find students at Columbia who would sell it to me,” Alice remembers. “I was a mom with kids, buying drugs from college dealers. It was humiliating.”
The low point came when her toddler son found the Adderall pills in her purse and swallowed one. While her son was fine, she had to explain to her husband what the drugs were doing in her bag in the first place. “Everything came crashing down like a stack of cards,” she says.
Alice eventually just weaned herself off Adderall but her work is still just stressful. Still, she says that she can’t see herself ever leaving the industry. For one thing, she’s risen up through the ranks and now commands a decent salary. But for the first time, she’s beginning to see things getting a little better.
It was a pleasant surprise, for instance, that the fashion industry has gotten behind the body diversity movement, suggesting to Alice that the industry is becoming less perfectionist. For several years, brands like Modcloth and American Eagle have been taking a stand against photoshopping, saying that it gives young women unrealistic expectations about what a body should look like. Then, this last year, high-end designers like Christian Siriano and Prabal Gurung began incorporating plus-size models into their fashion week presentations.
While body inclusivity in fashion may seem fairly unconnected to Alice’s day-to-day life, she sees it as a signal that the industry as a whole is moving away from its “mean girl” tendencies. “It told the industry that perfection is a myth,” Alice says. “And that had ramifications for everyone who works in this industry where we are so terrified that we’re not living up to other people’s expectations.”
Alice doesn’t have any illusions that the industry will suddenly experience a major transformation overnight. But she has noticed small signs that the industry might be moving toward a healthier, more reasonable working environment.
At its core, the industry nurtures beauty and creativity. Alice feels a sudden flood of emotion and meaning at the beginning of every season, when a new collection is released.
“I’ve been in fashion for years now, but I still get chills right before a runway show, when the lights go off, and the models begin walking on stage,” she says. “There are so many things I dislike about this industry, but in that moment, it all seems worth it.”
*These women requested their names be changed since they still work in the industry.