Debunking The Dream: Is Working In Fashion Going Out Of Style?

Kristina Akhrarova

This post includes content written by AI.

Vogue Business survey: 600+ fashion pros. Discrimination, unsustainable lifestyles, burnout fuel dissatisfaction. No change, risk of talent exodus.
Fashion DreamsPhoto byJamie Nelson / Blaublut Edition

Fashion's workforce, in grueling hours and under intense pressure, now battles mental strain. Economic downturn and overstretched teams reveal cracks. Employees may no longer support appearance-focused industry, once deemed a "dream job".

Vogue Business surveyed 667 professionals on success and job satisfaction in fashion. The survey revealed challenges in aligning expectations with reality: long hours, limited pay, few opportunities, focus on relationships, burnout culture, overproduction, and discrimination (sexism, racism, ableism).

The dream crumbles due to overproduction’s impact on the environment, fashion industry supporters, and the pressure to improve under tight budgets and timelines. The Covid pandemic worsened the situation, as leaders failed to slow the industry. Workers now face worse socioeconomic conditions.

There is a magical power that fashion has. When people enter the industry, they have an idea that is more of a projection as a consumer, but once inside, they deconstruct part of that image. You last in these structurally unequal situations and you endure free labour, because you think you will reach your dream at some point. The dream and the exploitation are interconnected. – Anthropologist Giulia Mensitieri, author of The Most Beautiful Job in the World: Lifting the Veil on the Fashion Industry,published in 2020.
Fashion ImagePhoto byWan'gu Chafuwa

Mass dissatisfaction drives grassroots movements, strikes, and unions. Fashion firms tackle talent retention, sustainability, and DE&I. Perpetual stress hinders creativity, productivity, and innovation. Fashion's discontent stems from redefining success. Ellen Jones at Utopia understands fashion's image-driven struggle to define success. Designers' success ≠ financial stability. Admired roles suffer from overwork and low pay.

The methodology

The survey examined perceptions of success, self-evaluation, alignment of work and values, and the impact of work on lifestyle. It also assessed financial security through inquiries about educational background and income status (freelance or full-time). For freelancers, payment structure and comfort with negotiations were examined. Responses were analyzed considering age, gender, race/ethnicity, sexual orientation, appearance, education, mental health, social network, socioeconomic status, religion, and disability. The survey also considered role types (freelance or full-time, business or creative) and whether roles were driven by sustainability or DE&I.

Debunking the dream

This series explores how background affects success, the demanding lifestyle of a fashion career, and burnout faced by workers. These factors threaten the dream of fashion, with workers as both victims and culprits. To justify sacrifices, workers promote the dream, but global crises make the reality harder to ignore. The industry must rebrand as transformative and essential, but faces challenges with a burnt-out workforce.

The fashion industry, with $3.59 trillion in global consumer spending according to Globaldata, is influential but often criticized for being trivial and feminine. This perception has fostered exploitation within the industry.

The survey found that certain fashion industry groups are at higher risk of burnout, power dynamics, and disillusionment. People of color (POC) faced significant challenges, with 52% reporting negative impacts on their careers due to race/ethnicity. In contrast, only 6% of white respondents felt the same. POC also encountered more unpaid work opportunities compared to whites. Respondents with disabilities (visible and invisible) highlighted industry's lack of accessibility. Non-conforming individuals and those facing financial constraints faced obstacles. Lastly, respondents from multiple marginalized groups faced even higher adversity.

Respondents cited financial inequality, lack of social connections, and cultural capital as common barriers. Fashion glamorizes unpaid work while exploiting workers with promises of a lavish lifestyle. Financial privilege, social connections, and mentors are typically needed to succeed in this industry.

Diversity equals creativity, innovation, and progress. However, fashion, a supposedly forward-moving industry, fails to address the meaningful concerns of its workers.

Building a better system: Community over competition

To create lasting change in the fashion industry, core objectives must be reassessed. According to Hannah Phang, creator of talent platform The Now Work, excessive production and consumption must be avoided. Phang warns that without this shift, the industry and humanity face an uncertain future. Many companies prioritize growth at the expense of employees' well-being, dehumanizing them in the process. This pressure undermines personal lives and well-being. To ensure sustainability, harmful practices must be challenged and a more humane approach encouraged. Rethinking overproduction and overconsumption will pave the way for a balanced future. A model that values well-being and collective benefit is crucial for a sustainable and equitable fashion industry.

Recognize fashion workers as workers, not free labor. Designer Jawara Alleyne says, "A fashion company is a business like any other. Demystify the business model under the Instagram content, red carpet, and music videos."
Am I?Photo byVogue Business

Survey responses propose building a better system by addressing treatment of individuals (stop burnout, overcome biases), reducing nepotism, enhancing bias training, and promoting diversity at higher levels. To achieve this, networking opportunities and support systems should be increased for marginalized groups, emphasizing intersectionality. Fashion must challenge traditional practices to forge a new path.

Community fuels fashion, but the industry fosters isolation and competition. Sinéad Burke, disability advocate and Tilting the Lens founder, notes fashion's exclusive nature that limits access: "It's a system fueled by exception, not a critical path for all."

Individualism undermines collective action, the most effective route to systemic change. Fashion workers, including meme accounts like Stressed Stylist and Dank Art Director Memes, desire collective action. Sharing jokes about their experiences in the fashion industry, these accounts build communities and raise awareness. "Memes bring people together and help them escape stress," says the anonymous founder of Stressed Stylist. Designer Stella Jean emphasizes the importance of remaining united, regardless of size or distance from power.

Mobilizing communities brings change like strikes and unionization. Engaging everyone, even leaders, is crucial for collective solutions. Michael Miller, co-founder of Celebrity Stylist Union, says allyship is effective. Power is privilege beyond money. Many industry members have power to support others.
Union aspirationsPhoto bySu Shan Leong

Mentorship empowers marginalized individuals, addressing industry imbalances. Dazed fashion features director Emma Davidson regrets not having a mentor earlier and suggests connecting with lesser-known individuals a few years ahead. Approach respected figures despite initial hesitation.

Aurora James, founder of Brother Vellies and the 15 Percent Pledge, believes diversity, inclusion, and positive change can create a better industry structure, fostering optimism for industry leaders.

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Dress is a fundamental element of social evolution. It comprises one of the most basic building blocks of inequality. Fashion, likewise, is neither frivolous nor trivial. It matters, has consequences. Dress and fashion have a significant impact on the way people live, define themselves, and operate within their own habitats. It is a game of differentiation, the means by which one ethnic group distinguishes itself from another, one social status and religious affiliation from another. Dress and fashion help identify the foreign, the minority, and the marginal, and can emerge as an influential means by which people challenge their status and reshape their identity within their own societies or on the global stage. In order to understand the complexities of what people wear and why, sociologists, anthropologists, historians, philosophers, semiologists, linguists and many others input their immense expertise. The study of modern civilization fashion along with mass production can derive no assistance from world history before comparatively modern times. In human history fashion is new and its future path is unknown.

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