Work It! The New Face of Labor in Fashion

At London Fashion Week 2012 (Farrukh/Flickr)

The 2013 collapse of the Rana Plaza garment factory in Bangladesh evoked iconic moments in labor history when primarily young, female participants in the garment industry suffered and organized for their lives. Today, the chain of young, female, often migrant labor stretches from the ruined factories of Bangladesh to global style centers like New York and London, where legions of underpaid or unpaid interns, models, and other workers form a creative underclass. In the United States, many have few or no protections under the National Labor Relations Act. And unlike factory workers, the creative side of the industry is just beginning to organize. Both sides are working to close the geographic and conceptual space dividing fashion and labor.

In September 2013 Nautica’s Spring 2014 runway show was interrupted by an unusual coalition of models and Bangladeshi garment workers, protesting the company’s failure to sign a factory safety accord backed by Calvin Klein, Zara, and other major labels. Spearheading the effort was Kalpona Akter, a former child factory worker turned executive director of the Bangladesh Center for Worker Solidarity, and Sara Ziff, the head of Model Alliance, an advocacy organization for models.

“At first glance the runways of New York and the factories of Bangladesh couldn’t look farther apart, and yet we are all working in the same industry—the fashion industry—which is a $1.5 trillion business, where the work is overwhelmingly performed by young women and girls,” says Ziff. “We all work under different socioeconomic conditions. We work in the same industry. We’re all trying to assert our rights in a hostile labor environment, and we all want to have a voice in our work.”

Models and garment workers have suffered a complementary crisis of recognition. Sweatshops have plagued the planet for two centuries, but an imperative for change requires horrific disaster. Tragedy is preserved in distant panoramic photographs that capture the scope and anonymity of the devastation. By contrast, workers on the creative side of the industry are hyper-visible, the subject of reality shows and fashion magazine editorials, while their labor is culturally unrecognizable.

Fashion disguises labor unusually well. It emerged as a system and an industry in the nineteenth century, alongside fashion’s inverse: the uniform. The desire for distinction in dress is fundamentally a function of class privilege. Occupational uniforms are typically assigned to underpaid workers in the service industry, and it is a myth that these garments are entirely functional. If that were true, why must so many women who work as hotel housekeepers clean rooms in dresses? In many workplaces, uniforms function to make labor conspicuous while making the individual invisible. They separate the work of the body from that of the brain. They make subservience visible by subordinating personhood to a brand.

Sociologist and economist Thorstein Veblen, writing The Theory of the Leisure Class in 1899, was among the first cultural critics to offer an explanatory theory of the fashion system, arguing that burgeoning middle classes used fashion to perform a life of idleness in the competition for status. For women, this “conspicuous leisure” was made manifest in corsets, high heels, and hobble skirts that limited physical mobility. For men, it could be seen in white-collared shirts and white gloves that demonstrated one’s distance from a world of dirt and decay. Veblen even used this theory to explain the curious emergence of canes in men’s fashion, as if the physical exertion involved in just holding one’s body upright was simply too much to bear. He saw the rise of the uniform as the corollary to the rise of fashion—a modern tool for class oppression, used to mark certain bodies as inferior by signifying conspicuous labor.

Fashion, it would seem, loathes work, and so it has disguised the labor that produces ideas, brand, and image, as well as the garments themselves.

Veblen saw embedded in modern occupational uniforms a spectrum of humiliation and honor, depending on the conditions of servitude and a worker’s proximity to those being served. If you were a butler, a front-of-the-house servant, your clothing might emulate the people you serve, white gloves and all. If you worked in the back of the house, as a cook or a chambermaid as part of an invisible underclass that performed the most strenuous of duties—scrubbing floors, laundering bed linens, or washing dishes—your uniform functioned to distinguish you from the those you served, hence the contemporary distinction between blue-collar and white-collar work. We see vestiges of this older system alive today in the distinction between the uniform of a housekeeper and a doorman, between a janitor and a police officer, all of which embody this tension between servility and honor that occupational uniforms have come to signify. In all instances, the uniform functions to mark these workers as workers—as outside of fashion—while also positioning them along a sliding scale of social status.

Fashion, it would seem, loathes work, and so it has disguised the labor that produces ideas, brand, and image, as well as the garments themselves. The rapid expansion of digital media has abetted this process, transforming the scope of work in fashion and contemporary culture more broadly. Today, being a model involves more than what happens in a front of the camera, says Elizabeth Wissinger, associate professor of sociology at the Borough of Manhattan Community College and the co-editor of Fashioning Models (2013). She has coined the term “glamour labor” to unify different forms of immaterial, entrepreneurial, and affective labor performed by models, from beautifying the body to harnessing social relations to build a public persona or brand using social media. This “all-encompassing image management” represents the new frontier of work, blurring the space between work and leisure, private life and commodified lifestyle.

This form of hyper-employment is not specific to models, but Wissinger argues that models have glamorized the “plugged-in lifestyle,” making seductive the idea that one needs to project the idea of a branded self at all times. Supermodel Kate Moss, the fashion icon most closely associated with “heroin chic” in the 1990s, has built an entire career exploiting the slippage between the image she presents on and off camera, launching a Topshop fashion line based on her personal street style and enjoying the most lucrative years of her career following cocaine scandals in 2005. According to models and agents interviewed by Wissinger, today this blending of work and life is a highly scripted, compulsory affair, with agencies directing models on what to wear, what clubs to frequent, what nights to go out, who to befriend, and even which airline to fly. The new job of models, through building their personal brands, is to look glamorous, and in essence to look like they’re not working at all.


“Some people might be surprised to know that there are still children working in the fashion industry without labor protections,” says Ziff, nodding to the legacy of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire. “One hundred years ago, they were invisible garment workers, and today they are highly visible, and yet the abuses are camouflaged by the glitz and glamour of the industry.”

Take for instance the story of Nadya Vall, a Siberian girl who became the subject of the acclaimed documentary Girl Model (2011). In the film we see her recruited at the age of thirteen (the average age of the 30,000 children who work in Bangladeshi sweatshops), plucked from rural poverty with the promise of an $8,000 modeling contract. She is sent to Japan for months, thrust into a world that is disorienting and alienating. She lives in isolation, with no understanding of the language or adult supervision. Along the way she accrues debts to buy food and sustain her life in a foreign country. Gaining more than one centimeter at the bust-line, hips, or stomach would violate the terms of her contract and could be grounds for being sent home without compensation. Despite the promise of work and money, she leaves Japan thousands of dollars in debt. She has since continued a life in modeling, despite the hardships, to pay down debts. While Nadya’s story has gained attention, she is just one of thousands of girls who are traded as commodities in a global fashion marketplace hungry for new faces and obsessed with youth.

Unlike talent agencies for actors and other kinds of entertainers, modeling agencies are unlicensed, unregulated “management companies” that can capture as much as a third of a model’s earnings in fees. “Across the board at all agencies, even the best agencies, it can be a struggle just to get paid the money you’re owed,” says Ziff. “Even top models have to ask to be paid. Whether she works for Vogue, or Macy’s, or a Marc Jacobs runway show, the client will pay the agency, and the agency pays the model. Unless you call and call and call, months can go by where you don’t get paid.” Additionally, many designers pay models “trade” instead of cash—even if the product is an unwearable sample.

All told, the vast majority of models earn very little, and many are in debt to their agencies. The unregulated agency system, with its lack of transparency, crippling fees, and increasing reliance on foreign labor, has created a form of modern-day indentured servitude. This system of financial dependency also perpetuates systemic sexual harassment in the industry, making it difficult for a model to turn down an adult who makes an inappropriate demand. Reports of abuse are particularly loathsome when one considers the industry’s increasing reliance on underage models. According to a survey conducted by Model Alliance, nearly 55 percent of models begin their careers between the ages of thirteen and sixteen.


Life at the magazines featuring these models isn’t much better. In August 2011 Xuedan “Diana” Wang began her “dream” position as the “head accessories intern” at the legendary fashion magazine Harper’s Bazaar after graduating from Ohio State. Upending her life in Columbus, she moved to New York City only to find herself working as many as fifty-five hours a week without pay. She supervised eight other interns, ran menial errands, and hauled bags of clothes between publicity firms. On some days Wang was unable to eat lunch until 4 p.m. and worked as late as 10 p.m. with no break for dinner. Five months after her internship began, Wang concluded her work as a glorified messenger service for the magazine with no job offer and little professional experience that might help her gain a foothold in the fashion industry. It was her seventh unpaid internship.

Representations of modeling and editorial work in fashion on reality TV shows have created the illusion that even low-level work in fashion initiates a clear and glamorous career path. Never in history has work in the industry been more publicized. Following the hit success of Project Runway, there have been a slew of reality shows in the last decade that have partnered with the industry to spotlight work in fashion, including Running in Heels, Kell on Earth, The Rachel Zoe Project, The Fashionista Diaries, America’s Next Top Model, and The Janice Dickinson Modeling Agency. In the popular MTV reality series The Hills and The City, young women are effortlessly transported from their lives as carefree California teens to the fast-paced world of New York Fashion Week as unpaid interns at Teen Vogue and Kelly Kutrone’s publicity firm, People’s Revolution. From the beginning of their glamorous journeys to their conclusions, in which their total transformation into successful fashion designers is achieved, these shows situate unpaid internships as vehicles of economic mobility, creativity, and self-actualization. The televised spectacle of work in fashion paradoxically obfuscates creative labor.

By masking labor struggles on the creative side of the industry, these representations petrify older notions of fashion labor that focus on the factory as the sole place for organized resistance. Meanwhile, off screen, more and more fashion workers are pushing back. A new movement culture is on the rise in fashion. Often unprotected by federal labor law, these workers are using direct action, legislative recourse, and legal strategies to circumvent the law and mitigate abuses in the industry.

In February 2012 Diana Wang made the bold decision to file a class action lawsuit against the Hearst Corporation, alleging that Harper’s Bazaar had violated federal and state minimum-wage labor laws in its use of unpaid and underpaid interns. The lawsuit identified unpaid interns as “the modern-day equivalent of entry-level employees” and claimed that internships contributed to rising unemployment while “foster[ing] class divisions between those who can afford to work for no wage and those who cannot.” Hearst insisted that its internship program was designed as an “educational experience,” intended to complement for-credit academic degree programs. In July 2012 a federal court ruled that Wang could proceed with the lawsuit as a collective action, certifying a class of all unpaid interns who had worked in Hearst’s magazine division since February 2009. Her case has since sparked a spate of lawsuits, including ones against Condé Nast, Donna Karan International, and Norma Kamali. These lawsuits have sent shockwaves throughout the fashion and entertainment industries. In October 2013 Condé Nast announced the end of its unpaid internship program.

As creative professionals have taken legal action against the industry’s biggest design houses and publishers, models have injected a new labor consciousness into fashion.

In the United Kingdom, where labor laws protecting minimum-wage standards are stricter than in the United States and government enforcement is more robust, labor advocates have clamped down on the use of unpaid interns in design houses like Alexander McQueen, Stella McCartney, Vivienne Westwood, Topshop, and London Fashion Week. Tanya Grunwald, the founder of the Pay Your Interns campaign in the UK, echoed Wang’s critiques of fashion, describing it as a “revolving door system” that “for too long . . . [has] recruited brazenly for what are clearly illegal roles that take advantage of those who do them and exclude those who can’t afford to do them.”

As creative professionals have taken legal action against the industry’s biggest design houses and publishers, models have injected a new labor consciousness into fashion, beginning in the UK. In 2009 British Equity, a trade union for British actors and stage managers, launched a new affiliate for models, becoming the first such union in history in an effort spearheaded by models Dunja Knesevic and Victoria Keon-Cohen. Keon-Cohen, a former model for Dior, Chanel, and Armani with a degree in design for performance from Central Saint Martin’s, teamed up with Bosnian model Knesevic in 2007 after both had witnessed a pattern of mistreatment while working as top models in the London fashion industry. In a 2012 op-ed for the Guardian, Knesevic described losing consciousness and suffering from hypothermia at a shoot. In the end, she was never sent to a hospital and ultimately was docked pay when she was unable to return to the set the next day. For Keon-Cohen, it was a battle with an eating disorder and the routine harassment of underage models that spurred her desire to unionize.

Thanks to their efforts, Equity now represents hundreds of models in the London fashion market. Since its formation, it has facilitated an alliance between the British Fashion Council, the Association of Model Agencies, and the Greater London Authority. Together they have negotiated a Code of Conduct for London Fashion Week, setting standards for everything from minimum rates and breaks to the basic right of models to have changing areas and bathroom facilities. More than just protections, models say their desire to unionize is also about respect. Unionizing with Equity, a performing arts union, has established modeling as a profession “on par with acting and dance.”

In the United States, the option of unionization for models has been more complicated. Legally classified as “independent contractors,” models are unable to form unions stateside, but that has not stopped them from organizing. With Model Alliance, models have launched strategic pressure campaigns to improve working conditions for some of the most vulnerable workers in the industry. Ziff spearheaded the launch of the advocacy organization in February 2012 after she released an autobiographical film called Picture Me (2009), which documented her experiences working in fashion. It became a crucial platform for her to speak out about abuses in the industry, such as sexual harassment on shoots, exhausting workloads, and unscrupulous agencies that leave models with unbearable debt.

In October 2013 Model Alliance successfully lobbied New York state to pass legislation giving underage models labor protections afforded other child performers, including child actors and even circus performers. These protections include required chaperones for models under the age of sixteen, the right not to work past midnight, access to tutors, and the establishment of a financial trust for their earnings. The laws create more red tape for designers that want to use underage models, which will likely mean that more and more will instead turn to adult models. It also means that we may see fewer waif-like prepubescent bodies exalted as the ideal of female beauty.

In the last year, Ziff has traveled to Bangladesh, toured factories, and visited garment workers in their homes. She has a broad vision of labor solidarity within the industry, with hopes of one day expanding the mission of Model Alliance to stand in solidarity with fashion workers across the global supply chain. In addition to recent partnerships with Kalpona Akter in solidarity with Bangladeshi garment workers, Model Alliance has joined forces with the Retail Action Project (RAP), a newly formed organization of retail workers fighting low wages, wage theft, and scheduling abuses for clothing workers in high-end department stores and multinational chains like Victoria’s Secret. In recent months, Model Alliance and RAP have teamed up to help uninsured workers in the fashion industry navigate the Affordable Care Act’s new state insurance exchanges. They have also organized events to raise awareness about the impact of “fast fashion” on frontline workers like models and retail workers. These efforts raise new hopes for a unified front against industry abuses.

When figures like Akter and Ziff work together, they harness distinct strengths, lending each other their respective credibility and visibility. Interns and models have been extraordinarily successful at generating media interest, even absent grassroots organizing. Model Alliance in particular has adroitly harnessed the star power of models like Coco Rocha and Milla Jovovich to raise the profile of the fledgling organization and its key campaigns. At the same time, models and interns struggle to lift the veil of prestige that disguises their labor. Meanwhile, factory workers have achieved widespread recognition of their plight and a scale of organizing in places like Cambodia and Bangladesh that the labor movement in contemporary America can only dream about. But despite the groundswell, factory workers past and present have struggled to get global attention absent major catastrophe.

Standing together, these workers signal the commonality of their struggle, made all the more powerful by their apparent differences—geographic, occupational, and socioeconomic. These initial gestures of supply chain solidarity point to a more holistic approach to the industry, one that integrates our notions of fashion and labor and connects workers internationally.

“You see front-page headlines about Rana Plaza, but the headlines go away and people continue to buy without regard for where clothes are made or under what conditions,” says Ziff. “Maybe we could foster this sense that as models, we don’t want to be the face of companies that exploit their workers—we don’t have to be complicit in this. I think that would be very powerful and help reach consumers. We’re still finding our footing, but I am excited by a long-term vision.”


Annemarie Strassel holds a PhD in American Studies from Yale University and teaches in the fashion studies department at Columbia College, Chicago. She is the Director of Communications at UNITE HERE, a union representing 270,000 hospitality and garment workers across North America.

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