- The Most Beautiful Job in the World, by Giulia Mensitieri. Melbourne University Publishing. $34.99.
The Most Beautiful Job in the World promises a behind-the-scenes exposé of the global fashion industry.
The author, Guilia Mensitieri, assures us that the purpose of her book is "not to denounce but to observe, describe, understand and analyse". Noble intentions to be sure, but it doesn't take long for the author's contempt for her subject matter to leech out of the cracks in her dense, doctoral prose.
Part One opens with a visit to a stylist's apartment in La Chappelle, a largely working class neighbourhood of Paris situated just inside the Boulevard Périphérique that encircles the city. Mia - not her real name - is preparing to shoot a fashion story for Heidi - a made-up magazine title - the following morning. We're told that Mia's stylist finally emails at 10pm with the details. They're to be on set by 8:15am the following morning. Quelle plaisanterie!
Of course, the pair are late to the shoot which makes for a frosty entrée to the fashion world for Mensitieri. Tellingly, the author isn't in the least bit contrite and, in fact, seems surprised to find that the rest of the team didn't wait for them. "Even though we were only about 20 minutes late, most things had already been set up," she tut-tuts.
So, what do learn through Mensitieri's observation of the Heidi shoot? That the fashion industry exploits many of the workers who keep what the author refers to as "the Dream" alive.
At lunch, Mensitieri discovers an unpaid intern washing lettuce leaves bought with his own money in a bathroom basin after the two models threw a spanner in the catering works by declining the baguettes on offer. It's not the only passage that seems to trivialise the point the author is trying to make.
Par example. At one point we're introduced to Gilbert -not his real name - a 26-year-old law student with designs on a career in fashion. Gilbert applies for a few jobs and, after three interviews, is offered a three-month contract with Lucetto - made up luxury brand - a purveyor of expensive handbags. (It's not Chanel, by the way; they turned him down.) Now, what misfortune befell Gilbert after taking the job? He was assigned to work as a lowly cashier at the brand's Galleries Lafayette concession, not as a sales person at one of their flagship stores. What's more, despite selling 250,000 euros worth of handbags some days, Gilbert took home a humble 1,800 euros a month - no more than he'd make at H&M.
Clearly, the exploitation of vulnerable workers is no joke. According to United Nations figures, more than 40 million people around the world are subject to modern slavery of one form or another. More than 70 per cent of those people are women and children. Chances are, some of those 40 million people work in the interconnected and often opaque supply chains that operate in the shadows of fashion's Botoxed visage, but they're not the people we meet in these pages. That's not to say that exploitation isn't rife in fashion - or countless other industries to be fair - but someone like Gilbert hardly qualifies as a victim. More to the point, exploitation isn't fashion's biggest problem. Its Yeti-sized environmental footprint is.
While estimates on the exact size of that footprint vary, if we stick with UN numbers, we find that the fashion industry accounts for about 10 per cent of global carbon emissions and nearly 20 per cent of wastewater. To put that in perspective, fashion consumes more energy than the aviation and shipping industries combined. And speaking of water, the production of a single pair of jeans requires about 2,000 gallons of it, which is enough to hydrate one person for 10 years. They're alarming numbers, and ones that a handful of influential players in the industry are keen to chip away at.
Dries van Noten, Jean Paul Gaultier, Marc Jacobs, Stella McCartney and Vivienne Westwood have all lamented the excesses associated with fashion, calling for fewer collections and shows, sustainable production practices and a more conscious approach to consumption.
Progress on all fronts has been slow, but COVID-19 may finally force the industry to reckon with its wanton destructiveness. Not long after COVID-19 grounded the globe-trotting fashion circus earlier in the year, Jacobs pulled the pin on the production of his Fall collection and his participation in New York Fashion Week. "Until we discover a new way to work - until we create a new way to work - or a new end goal to work towards, we really have nothing to do," he said.
Hopefully that new way of working sees people remunerated fairly for their work, but we shouldn't be too concerned about people like Gilbert and his 1,800-a-month paycheck.
Instead, we should be alarmed about the fact that the global fashion industry is destroying the planet.
- T.J Collins is a Sydney-based writer and essayist.