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Inside Fashion’s Enduring Mental Health Epidemic

The use-and-abuse culture facing young fashion professionals extends past internships and entry-level jobs, and can have a detrimental effect on their mental health. Could Gen Z be the generation that breaks this toxic culture?
With low wages and a lot of pressure, working in the fashion industry can take a toll on mental health | Source: Shutterstock
By
  • Sophie Soar,
  • Cathaleen Chen

LONDON, United Kingdom — When Scott Da Silva showed up for work as an entry-level designer for Dolce & Gabbana in Milan in 2007, right off the bat "it was sink or swim," he said.

His supervisors pitted him against coworkers, he said, and everyone feared for their jobs. Da Silva worked 60-hour weeks, taking home about $1,200 a month, or $14,400 a year at the beginning of his four-year tenure at the company.

“I called it the black hole, going to the factory… I was literally having panic attacks [because] the stress was so much,” he said. Da Silva today works as a design consultant in New York City.

In an email statement to BoF, Dolce & Gabbana Global HR Director Silvano Vaghi said Da Silva’s compensation was “absolutely in line with an entry position into the company” and that he had received a significant pay increase by the time he left the company in 2011. “We can say with satisfaction that we have people who have been working in the company for more than 30 years and who have had a remarkable growth path, both professionally and financially,” he wrote.

Da Silva is far from alone in suffering from poor mental health on account of his work environment. In 2018, the UK’s Health and Safety Executive reported that stress, anxiety and depression make up 43.8 percent of all workplace illness, previously 32 percent in 2001 and 2002. In the US, 71 percent of adults reported at least one symptom of stress, according to a 2019 report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

If people had more financial stability then they wouldn't do things that they don't want to do

Fashion is a notoriously difficult industry to break into, and working long hours for little pay is widely seen as the price of admission. Junior employees often tolerate these conditions just to be part of the scene, outwardly living glamorous lives while enduring stress, overwork and economic instability.

Though lawsuits and regulations have reined in some of the worst practices — Vogue and The Row are among the companies that have paid settlements to unpaid interns — in other ways, the situation is getting worse. As the fashion calendar shifts from two main seasons to an endless series of drops and capsule collections, designers, retailers, buyers and merchandisers have had to pick up the pace. Marketing, social media and editorial teams have also had to adapt to a perpetual stream of content.

The hectic schedule and competitive environment can create a toxic workplace culture, stoking fear among employees over the possibility of losing their jobs if they speak out about their mental health. This fear pervades the industry across all vocations: designers, models and public relations associates alike.

“If people had more financial stability then they wouldn't do things that they don’t want to do,” said Kristina Romanova, a model and co-founder of Humans of Fashion, which offers pro bono legal resources and mental health support for fashion professionals. “That’s why this attitude is tolerated in so many cases, because people are too scared to lose their positions.”

For new fashion graduates, getting a foot on the career ladder often first falls to obtaining an internship for that all-essential job reference and on-the-ground experience, even if it is a poorly paid role with long hours.

One 26-year-old PR specialist said he was expected to work around the clock at his first job with a large, New York-based fashion PR agency. His starting salary was $32,000 a year.

“Sometimes I’d set my alarm for 4 am during fashion month,” he told BoF on the condition of anonymity. “Physically I was okay. Mentally it was like working in a machine — ‘how much longer do I need to do this until... I move up to the next level where I can enjoy working in fashion a little bit?’”

In the UK, salary comparison site Payscale estimates the average pay for an entry-level fashion designer to be somewhere between £23,400 and £24,300 per year. The average annual pay for the same position in the US is $41,009 a year, according to recruitment firm Ziprecruiter.

The industry can seem very glamorous from the outside but from the inside, it can be very lonely

Even those salaries are aspirational for some people in junior roles, particularly interns. In recent years, public criticism around the use-and-abuse internship culture has followed high-profile lawsuits against the likes of Condé Nast in 2014, which saw the publisher pay $5.8 million in settlements to more than 7,000 interns, or The Row’s payment of $140,000 to 185 interns in 2017 after a former intern sued the brand for allegedly contributing about 50 hours a week for free over a five-month period.

“Over so many years, unpaid work has been normalised, so there is a sense that youngsters must 'pay their dues' and financial suffering is romanticised,” said Tanya de Grunwald, founder of careers website Graduate Fog and campaigner for fair pay for interns. “The message is: ‘If you love fashion enough, you won't mind being poor for a while.’”

The combination of low pay and long hours can take a mental and physical toll. Sleep deprivation is a common complaint, and can contribute to depression, anxiety, bipolar disorder and ADHD.

“It’s very seasonal work with a lot of pressure to get new things out constantly and to stay on top of things,” said Nick Taylor, co-founder and CEO of Unmind, a B2B workplace wellness platform with clients including Farfetch and John Lewis. “That pressure will inevitably put pressure on people’s mental wellbeing.”

In recent years, organisations such as the American Psychological Association have found direct correlations between social media use with young adults and mental health issues. A report released by the APA in March 2019 found a sharp increase in the number of young adults and adolescents who reported experiencing negative psychological symptoms, which the report correlates with social media’s entrance into the mainstream.

“Social media is a big source of anxiety,” said Romanova. “The industry can seem very glamorous from the outside but from the inside, it can be very lonely.”

It's very seasonal work with a lot of pressure to get new things out constantly and to stay on top of things

But as Gen-Z enters the workforce, the culture may start to shift. This generation, now aged approximately between 15 and 21, is more likely than older generations to report their mental health concerns, according to a 2019 survey from the American Psychological Association. Twenty-seven percent of Gen-Z respondents reported their mental health as fair or poor, compared with 15 percent of Millennials and 13 percent of Gen Xers.

Unpaid internships are becoming rarer and freelancers have more protections. HOFF’s legal partner, the Fashion Law Institute, is working with the Human Rights Commission to ensure that independent contractors are treated on par with full-time employees at major fashion companies.

The #MeToo movement has also propelled young professionals to be more open about disclosing instances of harassment and abuse. Alleged bad actors like photographers Mario Testino and Bruce Weber have been blacklisted by major publications and brands, though many cases involving less-prominent individuals have not received swift justice.

HOFF Co-Founder Antoniette Costa said, "I do think that still the danger with any great movement that gets a lot of momentum and attention is that you can regress afterward if you don't have sustainable steps and discourse."

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