Why Fashion's Image Is One Of Its Biggest Problems

Yesterday I wrote a piece on why I felt it was still important to credit the designers and stylists at the Golden Globes (albeit briefly). Some of you agreed, some of you didn’t. But what we all agreed on was how important the #TimesUp campaign is, and that rightly is was the key focus of the evening.

What I did find interesting was the general perception of the Fashion Industry. Unsurprisingly many felt it to be superficial and shallow with a lack of heart. And frankly, it’s a pretty understandable view. The Industry does itself no favours here. On the surface it presents itself as an impenetrable, judgemental industry, exclusively for those it considers beautiful and glamourous.

But in truth what the Industry is lacking is transparency – because 98% of the time it isn’t like that. Whenever I mention I’m in fashion people immediately say “wow that must be so glamourous.” It isn’t. It’s tough and gruelling like any other job. It can be mentally exhausting and often physically too- a couple of months ago I saw two men on an escalator in the tube trying to carry a mannequin down it and I chuckled to myself thinking “yep I know how you feel!” (note: I was on a different escalator going in the opposite direction – I wasn’t being a douche and just ignoring them).

Having moved from the legal world, where it was dog eat dog, to the Fashion world, I was surprised and both delighted to find it’s very different to what it seems. It operates in a way most wouldn’t expect (sometimes to its detriment) and I’ve found people to be far friendlier, kinder and willing to help and support each other. Of course, as always, there are people who you don’t get on with. But the only times I’ve really encountered people who reflect society’s general perception of the Industry have actually been at public fashion events. And they tend to be wannabe young girls behaving in a way that they feel is necessary to fit in. I know a lot of others in the Industry who’ve said the same.

Because of how public facing the Fashion Industry is, when we think of it, those who instantly come to mind are the likes of Anna Wintour, Naomi Campbell, Kate Moss, Karl Largerfelt and others who can at times act with airs and graces. And we know all too well how prejudicial it can be - afterall that's why I was inspired to start the-Bias-Cut. But that doesn't mean everyone is like that. in the same way that Seth Meyers highlighted in his Golden Globes opening speech that actors make up a tiny part of the entertainment industry, these ‘glamazons’ equally make up a tiny part of the Fashion Industry. The majority are just decent, down-to-earth, every day people, earning a living doing what they love – whether that’s on the creative side, such as a seamstress, needleworker or pattern cutter, or on the business side in PR, working as an agent or in retail. And they really have to enjoy it because, contrary to popular opinion, you don’t work in Fashion for the money. Fashion businesses are highly unattractive to investors and, as the COO of one of the biggest fashion PR agencies said to me, “you can be a household designer name, and you’re still not going to be living the highlife.”

Another problem is that so much of Fashion is about creating an aspirational idealistic life style. It wants to be seen as perfect but in doing so it fails to make it a relatable industry that, like many others, needs society's support to demand change. Under the surface, there is still a huge amount of sexism and inequality in the Industry. Despite it being female dominated, women only occupy 1/3 of the top jobs. And of 50 major fashion brands, only 14% are run by women. There are also a lot of issues with designers imposing their own standards on both beauty and the clothes they want women to wear. I experienced this first hand when speaking to a tailor who told me that the gender inequality in the workplace is due to women not knowing how to dress properly for work. He proceeded to tell me that essentially they should dress like men, all whilst repeatedly commenting on my being “a petite little strong woman” (you can be rest assured I proceeded to give him an hour long lecture on why people like him were the problem).

The Industry also has a terrible history of sexual assault. Back in October, as the Harvey Weinstein scandal unravelled, model Cameron Russell shone the light on the abuse of young, inexperienced models by seasoned professionals in the business. And Christy Turlington said “I can say that harassment and mistreatment have always been widely known and tolerated in the Industry”. It has always deeply concerned a lot of us that Terry Richardson has continued to work despite over a decade long history of sexual assault allegations. Finally he is being investigated.  And it has been a long time coming, but at last the British Fashion Council and a new model-focused organisation, British Fashion Models Agent Association, are setting up an anonymous hotline for models to report abuse.

But there are also activists in the Industry who are leading the demand for change – to see progress both within the Industry and society as a whole. All Walks Beyond The Catwalk, founded by Caryn Franklin, Debra Bourne and Erin O’Connor, spearheads the #DiversityNow campaign, working closely with fashion students to educate them on embracing all forms of beauty, so that everyone in society will feel accepted. Angel Sinclair is the founder of Models of Diversity, a charity that has successfully placed ‘non-traditional’ models on the catwalk and in campaigns, and is currently pushing for designers to cater better to those with disabilities.

A seamstress tailoring a jacket to fit a US Paralympics team member 

On the ethics side, finally we are seeing more brands, in particular smaller independent ones, refusing to have their pieces manufactured in sweat shops, despite the inevitable big hit on their margins and overall sales opportunities.  Designers also regularly donate new pieces to charity shops such as Mary’s Living and Giving for Save The Children, whilst others donate to SmartWorks – a charity that provides high quality interview clothes, styling advice and interview training to women in need.

So despite appearances, the Fashion Industry does have a heart. There are light sides and dark sides, but that’s the same in every industry. Being an industry that’s about what’s on the surface it's ironic that its image is one of it's biggest problems, but it’s time to pierce the veil and delve in deeper – not for the big names, but for all the hundreds of thousands of women and men just working every day like the rest of us.

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