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What would happen if designers were to go on strike?

We asked luxury brands' interns

What would happen if designers were to go on strike?  We asked luxury brands' interns

Remember when, this summer, the whole cast of Barbie had to leave the press tour when the SAG AFRA actor’s strike was about to start? Their forfait was celebrated with so much understanding and admiration. Imagine if all the dressers, all the interns, and all the burnt-out members of the design team walked out at a show to take part in a strike – how would that be perceived? It would probably be seen as outrageous and scandalous – and the people who would take part would probably lose their position. When we talk about workers rights in fashion, images from harrowing documentaries such as The True Cost start to flare up. We tend to associate the discussion around workers’ rights with lowly-paid garment workers in third world countries. What is interesting is that there is no discussion about the worker’s rights within the design teams – no one dares to speak about the unpaid intern or the lowly paid design assistant, as they should all just be grateful to be there. Most recently, the entire Gucci team was asked to relocate from Rome to Milan, with 3 months notice. The platform 1Granary called this «just one example of how the fashion industry treats its workers,» via Instagram.

@maximsap.f2max Just take a look how many people are involved in the working process of the @Valentino collection #valentino #fashionweek #rome #hautecouture #masionvalentino When I R.I.P. - Labrinth

In the documentary Dior and I, which is about Raf Simons’ first collection for the French Maison, there is one scene where the seamstresses are given a voice. They describe the spectacle of the show, and even though they made all the clothes, they aren’t actually welcome at the glamorous event. They feel out of place, even though the clothes showing on the catwalk is their work. The documentary was released in 2014, which is nearly a decade ago. Six years later, Italian anthropologist Giulia Mensitieri published The most beautiful job in the world, a case study on the fashion industry and the people who work in it. For her research, she sat down with a seamstress specialised in haute couture who only received €800 for a job. Not much has changed over the years, and it is still seen as a rarity when a creative director brings out the whole team at the end of a show.

Jonathan* is a designer based in Paris. He currently works for a brand that is owned by a big conglomerate. Before working there, he finished his bachelor’s degree in design and interned for a few big brands, also owned by other conglomerates. «Whenever we speak about lowly paid people in the design teams, we usually talk about the juniors or the interns. And we do have rights, and we are protected under the law under work contracts. However, whenever we try to implement these rules and these laws into our everyday work life, it’s always perceived as if we are not dedicated or motivated enough to do our job he says. The rules he is hinting at are normal work hours – if one tries to establish a healthy work-life balance, leaving work at a normal time, they have to fear losing their position. «The sad part is that we are totally replaceable, and they would find someone else to do the job longer if we didn’t want to.»

@justtomess fashion school air smells like competition #fashionstudent#fashionschool#designer#designerproblems#insecurity#fy#foryou#competition Bombastic Side Eye (Criminal Offensive) - Casa Di & Steve Terrell & Imfaomal

From the beginning, you are treated as replaceable – even in school, if you don’t work around the clock and sacrifice every ounce of life you might have, someone else might score the job you always wanted. Alice* is a designer based in New York City – she is on a similar professional level to Jonathan and has similar experiences across the pond. She described a situation when she worked for an LVMH-owned brand, and they had days when they worked from 8am to 2am, 7 days a week. «It wasn’t a question. It was more like “Hey guys this is the schedule”, period. No questions asked,» she says. She felt like an Olympic athlete, and because she was the youngest on the team, she had this overwhelming sense of gratitude to be there. «I later told a friend about it. I think they were pretty shocked, and asked if the brand was even legally allowed to do that. Looking back, I know that I was in my “right” to say no, but if I had done it, my boss would have probably laughed and said that I knew what I signed up for when I took the job.»

When you google the history of unionising within fashion, you get confronted with headlines on garment workers, influencers sticking together and general industry critique. There are no resources – once you are in, you signed your soul to the devil. Yes, big brands do have HR departments, still, enforcing your rights might be easier said than done. «We don’t have enough time to work. Deadlines are very short, so we have to work under crazy hours to meet these deadlines. People who aren’t willing to are disposable. And that’s why usually people don’t really take into account what’s written in your contract and what your hours are,» adds Jonathan. This culture of disposability results in unstable working conditions. On the podcast Throwing Fits, the consultant Brenda Weischer said that people in fashion usually change jobs every 11 months. This is common in most creative industries without unions, as workers aren't protected. Now would be the perfect time to  start a designers strike, aa a celebrity shouldn't replace a skilled worker in a creative director position as rights shouldn’t feel like a novelty. Being treated as disposable puts one on edge constantly, which results in bad team atmospheres. It would be nice to see what would change if workers in fashion had more rights and security – would it change the accessibility of the industry, would it be more diverse? For now – a strike feels like a beautiful fever dream, but maybe that’s what we need to provoke change.

*please note: names of designers have been changed for legal reasons and the protection of their identity.