Free work, moral harassment, models recruited in refugee camps… Behind the splendor of the February fashion shows, many fashion employees live in great precariousness.
“Fashion, like cinema, is injustice. Total injustice”, explained Karl Lagerfeld, the German designer who died in February 2019 while he was artistic director of Chanel. A house that he ruled with an iron fist. “The time of artistic dictators is now past”says Mathias Ohrel, of mO Conseil, a recruitment company in the creative industries sector.
But the very pyramidal organization of design studios, with a powerful artistic director at the top of an army of stylists, assistants and interns, organized by material (knit, jersey or denim), still seems difficult to live with for certain employees. “I was not allowed to leave the studio to eat or even go to the toilet, says the former assistant of an artistic director. I had to ask permission. After receiving comments about what I was doing and how I was dressing, I made an appointment with the HR department (Human Resources Department) to talk about my situation. But nothing happened. And I got sick.” She adds : “I didn’t file a complaint because I want to continue working in fashion.”
Clothes thrown in your face
Some employees still sued their employers for moral harassment. This was the case at LVMH but also at Kering, Saint-Laurent and Gucci in 2017 and 2021. When it concerns the artistic director’s entourage, most often the procedure ends with an amicable agreement.
But “those who attack the industrial tribunal are only the tip of the iceberg”, estimates Maître Cécile Cabana-Draut, labor law lawyer whose 25% of cases concern the fashion sector. Among the excesses of behavior she spotted, she cites “managers who throw clothes in the face of one of their employees, or who slap them on the back.”
Proving the existence of moral harassment in court is, however, difficult when there are no written records. However, victims have difficulty finding colleagues who agree to provide them with certificates. And “When an employee concludes a transactional agreement with these companies, he systematically signs a confidentiality agreement aimed at not making a certificate for another employee.continues Master Cabana-Draut.
“It was very violent”
Unlike mid-range brands, such as Camaïeu or Kookaï, which have lost thousands of jobs in France over the past ten years, luxury fashion houses enjoy very good financial health. Thanks to giants such as LVMH, Kering, Chanel and Hermès, the sector generates 150 billion euros in turnover and accounts for almost 2.5% of French GDP. However, jobs there can be very precarious.
“Just two days after the lockdown was put in place, I received a letter from a lawyer telling me that the company I had worked for for five years as artistic director was terminating my contractsays Christine Phung, fashion designer at the time at Léonard. I felt incredibly let down. It was very violent.”
Another telling example: in 2016, Saint Laurent’s Instagram account deleted all the photos of Hedi Slimane, its former artistic director who had just been replaced by Anthony Vaccarello. As if his work had never existed even though he directed the creation for four years. “French fashion claims to be art, but it remains an industry, recalls Jean-Noël Kapferer, professor emeritus at HEC and consultant in the luxury sector. Above the artistic director, there is the shareholder. If it doesn’t work, we’ll fire you.”
You also have to keep up the pace. “Today, there are at least six events per year, with shows for men’s and women’s fashion, spring-summer, autumn-winter. Two fashion shows for haute couture which involve around fifteen houses. Added to this are more one-off operations., explains Pascal Morand, executive president of the Fédération de la haute couture et de la mode and organizer of Paris Fashion Week. There are also “parade weeks Or “fashion week” in London, New York, Milan and even Dubai. There is therefore a sustained pace of production all year round. And when employees are unable to ensure this workload, we resort to “freelance”, self-employed workers.
The devil wears Margiela?
Tiphaine Bonnaud has been a stylist for 15 years. After working on a permanent contract for a brand, she launched herself as a freelancer. She remembers her experience at Margiela, a house of the Italian group OTB, whose artistic director is John Galliano. In 2017, she was recruited as head designer, with two other freelancers, a permanent assistant and an intern under her command. Tired of the working atmosphere and canceled meetings, she warns of the company’s organizational problems. She finally ended her contract in 2019, but other people employed by the brand today confirmed to the Radio France investigation unit that the problems persist.
“It’s rare that we can unplug our phone. We never know if we can have our weekend or not, explains one of these freelancers. During Covid, we were confined at the beginning. But very quickly, we were asked to come back to the office with exemptions to make clothes. It was dangerous”she concludes.
Other staff members speak of injunctions to stay late at night, to attend meetings on weekends, and even to cancel certain holidays. “The studio management forced us to travel to Italy, where the production factories are. We absolutely had to take the first plane, even though we were all exhausted and the urgency was very relative, confides another ex-freelancer working for Margiela. Some had asked to take a plane later. We thought we had been heard by management. But when I saw that the tickets had been taken for the first plane, I felt devastated.”
For these self-employed workers, there should theoretically be no links of subordination with employees, particularly with regard to working hours or leave. “Otherwise the contract can be reclassified as a permanent contract, and this can be very expensive for the company., explains Maître Ariane Sostras, labor law lawyer. We have identified several industrial tribunal decisions which annulled dismissals without real reason pronounced by the various companies, such as Neuf or Staff International behind which the Margiela brand is sheltered.
One of the plaintiffs went as far as appealing, but ultimately reached a settlement with the company. According to Master Sostras “nearly 70% of industrial tribunal decisions are not confirmed on appeal. In general, companies prefer to get closer to their employees to reach an agreement and avoid bad publicity.” Asked about these cases, the Margiela company did not answer us precisely. She simply wrote to us that “employee well-being was a priority” and that she was committed to “the fundamental values of respect, collaboration, transparency and integrity.”
Margiela is not the only company accused of abusing precarious workers, and in particular interns. When Charlotte (first name has been changed) did her end-of-study internship with a luxury fashion designer, there were only three employees to create the collection and around thirty other interns, like her , unpaid. After a health problem, his doctor recommends that he rest. “When I went back to the studio to pick up my things, the artistic director told me: take some fabric, finish your piece, it’s part of the collection. You don’t want to disappoint me? Even when I was bedridden, she wanted me to continue working.”
By checking certain houses, the labor inspectorate discovered that trainees were sleeping under desks the nights before the parades. Since the…