The Most Beautiful Job in the World, by Giulia Mensitieri

Caroline Stevenson applauds a powerful exposé of Parisian haute couture that raises troubling questions for fashion schools as well as for those working in the industry

September 17, 2020
A model having make-up applied
Source: Getty

Giulia Mensitieri’s The Most Beautiful Job in the World tells a troubling story of precarity and highly exploitative labour at the heart of the global fashion industry. While this may sound like a well-trodden critique of outsourced fashion production, the subjects of the book are not sweatshop workers in developing countries but young, educated creatives living in wealthy, metropolitan cities, with one shared ambition: securing their dream job within the luxury fashion industry.

Globally, the fashion industry is worth about $1.5 trillion (£1.14 trillion). In the UK alone, it employs around 550,000 people. But despite these figures – and despite the sector’s economic strength – the production and circulation of fashion relies, to a large extent, on precarious and low-paid work. It is not difficult to find the worst kinds of example. The recent coverage of poor garment workers in Leicester forced to carry on working in cramped conditions amid a global pandemic tells a sad story of exploitation. The horrific death toll after the 2013 collapse of the Rana Plaza in Bangladesh also exposed the depths of cruelty and compromise involved in global garment production. Every few years, stories such as these appear across our media and prompt us to consider – for a moment – where and how our clothing is made.

But despite such shocking revelations, change just doesn’t come. This is partly to do with geographical and economic divisions of labour, but also because the global success of the fashion industry is not based on the selling of clothing alone. Rather, it sells dreams in the form of desirable images. For consumers of fashion, these are the dreams of luxury and lifestyle we encounter across the glossy pages of Vogue magazine. Or the momentary longing we feel as we catch our reflection in the windows of our favourite clothes shop. These glittering images and aspirational desires compel us to buy fashion, and to keep buying it.

Mensitieri’s book is a meticulously researched ethnographic study of the immaterial production of fashion: the lesser known and almost completely invisible network of studios, people and labour flows involved in producing the image of fashion. The subjects of her study – stylists, photographers, hairdressers, interns and models – work across various forms of fashion production: advertising, couture, catwalk shows and journalism.

Through interviews, observations and her own participation as an intern in the field, Mensitieri uncovers the structures of labour, knowledge and personality required to navigate this particular world of work. While her study focuses on the French luxury sector, similar networks can be found in just about any major fashion city, including London, New York and Milan. Most remarkably, what seems on the outside like a dynamic, exciting and creative field is revealed instead to be a rigid industry full of boundaries and hierarchies where precarious and unpaid work is the norm. It is a world fraught with contradiction, where workers are caught in the midst of luxury fashion yet living month to month, many unable to pay their rent or mobile phone bills. Young creatives may spend days handling and photographing garments costing in the region of €90,000 (£81,000), while sleeping on a friend’s sofa and eating McDonald’s every night in order to survive on little or no income.

There is a large amount of social and emotional labour involved in maintaining such exceptional structures of work. Those at the top of the hierarchy are allowed to be domineering and bullying and exhibit eccentric attitudes, while interns must display an exhausting level of positivity and gratitude for every task they are assigned, whether it be washing dishes or sewing models into expensive garments. To point out the disparity would mean the death of your career. Mia, a young stylist, is perhaps the most outspoken of the interviewees, expressing anger and dismay at the low wage she would receive for a fashion shoot for a major magazine while the editor-in-chief strutted around in designer clothes. It is telling that at the end of the book she chooses to work for a commercial fashion company only to find that, while she now has a monthly pay cheque, she is dropped overnight from her network of luxury-fashion contacts as if she never existed. Acceptance of the rules is the first step to success in this career.

An asymmetrical spread of economic capital and work sustains every aspect of the fashion industry. It is capitalism’s dream, where material and immaterial processes collide to produce an unreachable façade of glamour, both for the consumer and for the worker. But while it would be easy to read Mensitieri’s book as a critique of the fashion system – and it is an easy system to critique – it is also apparent that, apart from Mia, most of the interviewees are entirely complicit and devoted to their work.

Through their own words, the subjects of this book reveal a disturbing conflation of precarity and prestige where symbolic valorisation in the fashion world is more valuable than a living income. What unites the interviewees is a desire to produce something “exceptional” and to use their careers as a vehicle for self-expression. Precarious labour is the accepted compromise for the building of symbolic capital: who you get to work with, what brands you can associate with and what consecrated spaces you get to work inside. For these young people, fashion is a world of freedom, where hard work is rewarded with social prestige, not traded for wages. And because this world is sustained through total individualism with no commonalities or rights, the structures and hierarchies of inequality are rendered almost entirely invisible.

Although fashion is its main focus, Mensitieri’s book also cleverly turns its critical lens on other fields of supposedly creative endeavour – including academia – where a similarly precarious workforce props up an industry based on constant flexibility, blurred boundaries between work and life, and the promise of a fulfilling career. It is no wonder that it has troubled the French fashion industry. It should. But it should also trouble anyone who, like me, is involved in the education and training of young creatives entering this field.

Here in the UK, fashion students are taught in an art-school tradition that encourages an authentic and original approach to design through technical, conceptual and critical training. At the same time, fashion schools maintain close links with industry to ensure curriculum relevance and to provide work placements and graduate opportunities for students. University rankings often place London’s fashion schools at the top of their lists for the career preparedness of young graduates. This gives them international prestige and helps explain why an academic book exposing the exploitative labour at the heart of the fashion industry is so rare and so contentious.

Yet perhaps it is time for fashion schools to re-evaluate their prestigious status and consider more carefully their position within the entire fashion ecology. The question is: is it OK to simply contribute to the façade of fashionable glamour or should they be doing more to openly critique and influence its structures?

Caroline Stevenson is head of cultural and historical studies at the London College of Fashion.


The Most Beautiful Job in the World: Lifting the Veil on the Fashion Industry
By Giulia Mensitieri; translated by Natasha Lehrer
Bloomsbury, 288pp, £65.00 and £19.99
ISBN 9781350110137 and 9781350110168
Published 6 August 2020


The author

Giulia Mensitieri was born in Naples, Italy, and lived there until the age of 22. After gaining a master’s in Hispano-American and Brazilian languages and literatures at the Istituto Universitario Orientale in Naples, she went on to another master’s in social sciences and then a PhD in social anthropology and ethnology at the École des Hautes Études en Sciences Sociales in Paris.

So what spurred her to focus on the fashion industry when she decided to do in-depth ethnographic research?

As a PhD student in Paris, Mensitieri replies, she was “surrounded by cultural workers, artists and young researchers” whose “social prestige” made them part of “a symbolic elite”, yet they were all living “in precariousness”. She therefore “wanted to understand the transformations of labour, its meaning and its nature, and the new social structuration. Fashion is one of the most powerful industries in the world, in its economic and symbolic power, and it is ‘the dream’ of contemporary capitalism, its sparkling facade. You can find in it all the characteristics of contemporary capitalism: the power of the image and of the aesthetic; global exploitation of environmental resources and workers; and huge inequalities. Yet it is considered an exceptional world.” Furthermore, it is highly suitable for study because the “dynamics” of this world are rendered “more visible because there is no regulation”.

Asked about the likely impact of the lockdown and global pandemic on the fashion industry, Mensitieri stresses that “as an ethnographer, I can’t make accurate predictions because my analysis comes from long-term observation”. Yet what she has observed indicates both “more and more precariousness among workers” and, “at the margins of the system, a desire to produce less and in a more equal way”.

Matthew Reisz

POSTSCRIPT:

Print headline: Glamour is in the eye of the stakeholder

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