IF WE WANT TO SURVIVE AND PRESERVE LIFE, WE HAVE TO STOP!
A conversation on fashion, desire and capitalism.
“Le plus beau métier du monde”, the actual title of Giulia Mensitieri’s book, alludes to the glamorous fashion world and at the same time, resonates with « Le plus vieux métier du monde ».
Katharina Krawczyk: The fashion industry in France is economically the most influential industry after oil, even before weapons and cars. So there is lots of money and power within it. But despite this, people in this industry are willing to work for free. They are working for something other than money. What is it?
Giulia Mensitieri: First of all, I would say it is social status and visibility. But it is also hope, with all of this theoretical concept of hope labor: I give all of myself now, because at one moment of my life I will have this job, that position. Also there is a lack of separation between consumer and worker. There are some workers there, because they can get closer to the object that fashion produces, so there is also a consumers’ input I would say; they actually love the product of fashion as consumers. And also for the more creative part, there is this idea of self-expression. My study is actually focusing on luxury, not on fast fashion. So here is the combination of all these things: visibility, glamor of the object itself – glamor as magical attraction, social status, hope and self-expression. When you are a designer for a luxury company or when you are working for an edgy magazine, they don’t pay you money, but give you the possibility to be experimental. All these things are part of the retribution.
KK: The most beautiful things in the world are for free, aren’t they?
GM: (laughing) Of course! Fashion, like any other art, is not made out of money.
KK: The fashion industry seems unavoidable if we want to dress everyone. You also claim that “to understand the fashion industry is to understand capitalism”.
GM: I am a political anthropologist. For me, fashion in itself is an object for studying capitalism. It is a system that condenses all its contemporary facets. Here you have the power of the image, of visibility, of aesthetics, of inequality. You have global circulation, colonial heritage in the production and consumption, and gender inequalities.
KK: When you think about exploitation in the fashion industry, you normally first think of places in Bangladesh and the precarious working conditions there, but we would probably not consider thinking about modern slavery in Paris: the capital of luxury fashion as a place of extremely precarious working conditions. Precariousness there is opaque, hidden under a shiny surface.
GM: It is surprising how this is based on different forms of exploitation. I speak about overexposure in the book. This is for me the metaphor, and really helped me to think about fashion. There is a parallel between this and the world that is extremely visible, where we can’t escape the fashion items and images. There is no public space where you will not be bombed by luxury or fashion images. There is no magazine or newspaper where you will not have fashion ads. It is everywhere, it is under the spotlight, but at the same time because of this overexposure, of this too-much light, we can’t see what is backstage behind this light. So this overexposure is complementary to the opacity. The dream must continue, the enchantment must continue. And the workers themselves are participating in keeping this dream alive, because otherwise they will not have the social status, this symbolic capital. And also what is very interesting now, is the representation of the ‘behind the curtains’ of the fashion industry in documentaries. There is a perverse mechanism that gives the consumer the illusion that they can go where others can go, but actually this is just another level of opacification, because it’s never really released.
KK: A fake transparency that is actually part of this invisibilization of exploitation. Fashion workers, who are victims and supporters of this system at the same time, seem to embrace these structures. Your book refers to Luc Boltanski and Éve Chiapello’s critique of capitalism overtaking the fields of creativity and autonomy. What did you find out about these strategies through your investigations in the fashion industry in Paris?
GM: It’s new and it’s old at the same time. I think everything could be summarized with one word: auto-entrepreneurship. This is a very neoliberal idea of self-management and the biggest victory of individualism. It is an idea of a total destruction of collective narratives, of collective structures. Fashion is the realm for analyzing this, because it is the world in which you have the creator, a creative director, it’s like a god. ‘Creator’ is also a word for God. Isn’t it fascinating? People cling to the ethos of bohemia, the artist as a marginal figure, who suddenly reaches the center of the stage with neoliberalism. This is what Boltanski and Chiapello described very well: creativity has become a new dispositive of reign through individualism. But this is, as Nancy Fraser pointed out, a very masculine narrative. Capitalism also needs other forms of work, which are made by women and that are very old.
KK: ‘Give me a cool title, and I’ll work for free’?
KK: A desirable working title is something fashion workers in Paris are willing to become precarious for. But what about the workers in Bangladesh?
GM: They need to feed their families. The precarity in the luxury world is a luxury, because not everyone can afford to work for free. There is a big class issue. People put themselves in debt with the help of their families in order to enter this industry. The ones who really come to stay in this industry after many years, are the ones who were already in privileged positions in social classes. Most of the fashion students can afford to do internships in Paris for free for years. The goal of my research is to show different forms of exploitation that are complementary.
KK: What about fashion models? Only very few are well paid, and at the beginning of their career they get into high debt with their agencies in order to enter the industry, which means that they are working for free for years before they start to be paid off.
GM: A fashion model is a very peculiar case beyond its production, because they really come and are taken from everywhere. They are actually the most exploited, precarious and fragile figures of the creative side of the fashion industry. The idea of my study is to say how, in all the lines of production, you can always find precarious labor and exploitation, despite the fact that there is a lot of money in this industry.
KK: The more prestigious the work is, the less it is paid, and the more money you get for your work, the less prestigious it is. You write this conclusion following some examples of self-shaming. Some stylists work under fake names for clients which would not look good on their agenda. How to survive in this fake structure? And what is this kind of shaming actually about?
GM: It is a dual economy. A dual strategy of survival. I spent hours interviewing the workers in Paris. Some of them told me “You know, in order to survive here, I work as a secretary” or “I teach German”, and they were ashamed of telling me that. And this is the economy. We can see here how these workers are fascinated by brands. There is this religious component to it, and I say it without any judgment. The aura of a brand is what ultimately structures the system. When a brand pays you in goods, they are treating you as a consumer. It is erasing the very essential part of work in Marxist terms, which is I give you my work-force and you give me wages. This is completely destroyed under these consumerist approaches and magic fetishism of brands.
KK: Thus the consumer’s desire can only be fulfilled through this fetishistic object. The notion of desire and dream is very important in your book. What is this dream actually about?
GM: It is the dream of transformation. The dream to be somewhere else, which can be in a different body by transforming it through clothes. The dream of being in another social status. There is also the dream to escape the norm. I’ve heard so many times: “I prefer to work here for free, than to work in the post office”.
KK: So this dream is a kind of denial. This duality of real and ideal, by projecting oneself into a world where one could be someone else, finally being seen, being successful. The great success of Instagram is proving this desire; a very old desire actually, just now executed with new media in the virtual world.
GM: I don’t like the idea of denial of reality. I prefer to think of different levels of realities and, to think with Gramsci, as a hegemonic system. They are very aware of their reality, but the system is so strong, they just accept it.
KK: So what is the norm today?
GM: The norm is precarity. And unfair wages. This system has only one goal: profit and the growth of markets. It is not reformable, not adjustable.
KK: The key ingredient in this system is desire. You said that in order to change this world, we have to change the desire.
GM: We can, through social media for example, make something else glamorous, which would not be consumption and not the exploitation of other people. To make it desirable to preserve life, to understand that it will not make us beautiful to wear something that has a long chain of exploitation behind; economically, we can see very clearly in this pandemic crisis that Bernard Arnault is becoming the richest man on the planet. I do think that people are not aware of all this. So for me, deconstructing the imaginaries and changing the desires is key. The fashion industry decides all the discourses on sustainability and is doing business as usual, making as much profit as they can. But if we want to survive and preserve life, we have to stop!
KK: Do you see anything else coming out of fashion schools than the perpetuation of a system?
GM: Yes, I see hope in young artists and designers that are already thinking about something else beyond being glamorous. There is, for example, a young artist collective from Switzerland called Wages For Wages Against, with whom we did a roundtable at Beaux-Arts in Brussels with material workers from the fashion industry. There is a lot coming up, but it is not mainstream yet, it is marginal. The big picture is still terrible!
KK: One of the main figures in your book, the stylist Mia, is dressed in Prada and flying business, but can’t afford to pay for her drink.
GM: But on another level, not directly related to creatives, there is a shame of being working class, as Angela McRobbie pointed out. If you don’t have access to consumption or the right position, you are not desirable. The responsible for pollution is not the working class. The working class are embodying all the negative sides of capitalism, but are not those responsible. The only space of freedom seems to be consumption.
KK:Nobody wants to be normal, everybody wants or is supposed to want to escape the working class, and at the same time designers like Gosha Rubchinskiy and Demna Gvasalia are becoming very successful by taking references from looks of kids from banlieues.
GM: The aesthetics of the working class are constantly being appropriated, but not their social status. It is the same in Haute Couture today: what is valued is the work, because what makes here the value is the manufacturing. But the worker, the subject, they are invisible, not valorized symbolically nor economically. So there is again this split between image and subject, work and worker. I think that rearticulating these things is very theoretical, but could really bring something in terms of imagination, by building commons.