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What if Fashion Went on Strike?

Workers in Hollywood and fashion share many of the same grievances, from compensation to the artificial intelligence threat. Could a labour reckoning be in the apparel industry’s future too?
Actors in the SAG-AFTRA union join the already striking WGA union on the picket line.
Actors in the SAG-AFTRA union join the already striking WGA union on the picket line. (Getty Images)

Strikes have brought Hollywood to a standstill for the first time in half a century, and UPS workers are threatening to take their ubiquitous brown delivery vans off the road starting Aug. 1.

Could fashion be next?

Fashion and entertainment have a symbiotic relationship. Actors are frequently tapped as brand ambassadors, while labels see red carpets and product placement in movies and television shows as major promotional opportunities. Luxury brands signal their place in the pecking order by the number of A-list performers in their shows’ front row.

Similar complaints abound in both industries: Low pay for all but those at the top, power in the hands of few, and threats to livelihoods in the form of automation and AI.


There isn’t a clear path for fashion workers to follow their counterparts in Hollywood, however. The entertainment industry has had strong unions for nearly a century, with organising bodies for a wide variety of professions in film and television, from directors to costume designers to sound engineers.

Unions are weaker in fashion. Models, stylists and other creatives often work as freelancers or on a contract basis. Garment workers have historically had few protections. Long hours for little (or even no) pay are the norm in many pockets of the business, from photo shoots to fashion shows.

That’s changed somewhat in recent years: Staff at magazine publishers like Condé Nast and Hearst unionised in the past five years. The Model Alliance and other groups have formed to advocate for better conditions, though they generally aren’t in a position to negotiate directly with employers. Campaigns to raise the minimum wage have been successful in many states, and retail workers used the pandemic-era labour shortage to demand, and often receive higher hourly wages. After reaching an all-time low in 2009, public opinion of unions in the US is on the rise, reaching an approval rating of 71 percent in 2022, according to polling firm Gallup.

Still, we’re likely years, if not decades, off from unions ever achieving the same sort of prevalence in fashion they do in entertainment, if it’s in the cards at all. Organising the staff of an isolated fashion publication or Amazon warehouse is hard enough; convincing an entire workforce to unionise has proven beyond the capabilities of even the most powerful labour organisers.

In competitive creative fields like styling and modelling, there is arguably even more of a need for organisation, as they usually work freelance. But there will always be someone who’ll take the lower rate, said one talent manager who works with stylists, influencers and other creative professionals.

“Unfortunately, I just think it’s unlikely,” he said. “At Condé, people are in the office together and feel a sense of camaraderie. It’d be hard for celebrity stylists to get in a room and agree enough to bargain together.” Actors, of course, operate under similar circumstances, but their union has been around since the 1930s.

On the other hand, there is some traction: In the UK, there’s a Celebrity Stylists Union under the umbrella of the Broadcasting, Entertainment, Communications and Theatre Union.

Plus, there are structural changes to the fashion industry that could convince workers in competitive fields to set aside their rivalries. In Hollywood, the consolidation of huge swaths of moviemaking and distribution into the hands of a few companies, including Disney and Netflix, played a role in strengthening the resolve of actors and writers to strike. In fashion, luxury conglomerates such as LVMH and Kering also have concentrated power; if Kering’s rumoured acquisition of CAA becomes a reality, the parallels between the two sectors will be even clearer.


Another major concern among actors and writers applies to fashion professionals, too — the proliferation of AI. As part of their strike demands, SAG and the WGA are urging production studios to create guardrails against the use of the technology, which could be deployed to write scripts and even simulate performances with real actors that aren’t filmed in real life.

The latter is already happening. Virgin Voyages, a cruise line created by billionaire Richard Branson, launched a recent campaign that allows users to create their own video invitations to friends using an avatar of Jennifer Lopez as the messenger. Dubbed “AI Jen,” the avatar is able to say aloud the personalised names that users provide.

In this case, Lopez is an official partner of Virgin Voyages, meaning that she was likely well-compensated for the stunt. But earlier this month, comedian Sarah Silverman sued ChatGPT-owner OpenAI as well as Meta over copyright infringement, claiming that the two tech firms use illegally-obtained materials to inform their AI services. These materials are from various illicit online datasets such as e-book tracker Bibliotik, Silverman’s suit alleges, which contain summaries of her book without copyright consent.

In fashion, Shein was hit with a lawsuit this month arguing its AI-powered algorithms led to high levels of unchecked intellectual property theft. Susan Scafidi, academic director of the Fashion Law Institute at Fordham University, predicts these issues will only become more apparent as AI continues to ramp up.

Fashion brands are already using AI to create ads. Parisian label Casablanca, which used AI image generator Midjourney to produce a surrealist Spring-Summer 2023 campaign, and Revolve, which claimed to release the world’s first AI-generated billboard in April. In both instances, a human creative touch was required. Casablanca worked with fashion photographer Luke Nugent to navigate Midjourney, while Revolve tapped AI studio Maison.Meta. But beyond art direction, an AI campaign, in theory, doesn’t require models, a studio space or a production coordinator.

“The powerbrokers in the fashion industry are closely watching this battle in Hollywood over AI because the same issues are at play in fashion,” New York-based fashion attorney and former model Kaitlin Puccio said in an email statement. “Brands and models are already negotiating over how to use AI to replicate a model’s likeness, and the fashion industry hasn’t adopted any clear rules for that.”

The fashion industry is also adjusting to a world where consumers say they care more about the values behind the brands they buy. That’s given new momentum to environmental and labour activists pressuring the industry to do better. The SAG strike is now drawing attention to the vulnerabilities workers face in glamorous-seeming occupations, like wardrobe stylists, red carpet hair stylists and makeup artists. And while models aren’t unionised, there is legislation on the table — New York state’s Fashion Workers Act — that would offer many of the same protections by regulating management companies and encouraging higher pay and better protections.

As a society, we’re moving in a direction where people are paying closer attention to workplace conditions, pay parity and other labour issues. That can quickly turn into real-world action; few could have foreseen the Black Lives Matter movement in 2020 or how it would force powerful companies to reckon with their own toxic workplace cultures.


So while widespread unionisation looks remote in the fashion industry today, that could change in a flash.



Chanel's fashion show, Métiers d'art, in Dakar on December 06, 2022.
Chanel will stage its annual craftsmanship showcase in Manchester. (Getty Images/Getty Images)

Chanel to stage Métiers d’Art Show in Manchester. The French luxury giant will stage its annual craftsmanship showcase in the UK’s second-wealthiest city on December 7th.

Richemont luxury stocks drop, a sign of demand falling in the US and China. Richemont led luxury goods stocks lower amid concerns that demand in the US and China, two of the biggest markets for the industry, is starting to sputter.

Bluebell takes Kering stake in move to push for change. Bluebell Capital has taken a stake in French luxury group Kering and is pushing for change, including looking at a tie-up with Cartier-owner Richemont.

Ralph Lauren to keep raising prices in brand elevation push. The American label is doubling down on efforts to elevate the cachet of its brands and to sell higher-priced items like home goods.

Kim Kardashian’s Skims reaches a $4 billion valuation. Skims, the shapewear and intimates brand created by Kim Kardashian, has raised $270 million in a Series C funding round that values it at $4 billion.

Adidas claims Ye mishandled an over $100 million marketing fund. The German apparel maker takes the hip hop artist formerly known as Kanye West to court, claiming Ye used marketing funds for unauthorised purposes.

Swiss watch exports jumped again in June as demand stayed strong. The increase underscores continued demand for expensive watches from brands including Rolex, Omega, Patek Philippe and Vacheron Constantin despite concerns that shaky economic growth and higher prices might stall consumer interest.

Swatch sues Malaysia for seizure of Pride watches. The Swiss watchmaker has filed a lawsuit against the Malaysian government for confiscating rainbow-coloured watches that celebrate LGBT rights, in an act the company says has damaged its reputation.

South Korean fashion e-tailer Musinsa secures $190 million investment. The Series C funding round led by investment firm KKR with participation from Wellington Management will bring the company’s valuation to about $2.76 billion.

Harrods to open first private China club catering to ultra-rich. The luxury department store is looking to tap resilient demand from ultra-wealthy Chinese amid a slowing recovery in consumption.

UPS returns to negotiations with the workers union. United Parcel Service on Wednesday said it would return to the bargaining table with a better offer for roughly 340,000 Teamsters-represented US workers in a bid to avert a potentially economically damaging strike on Aug. 1.

US retail sales edge higher as key metric shows resilient demand. US retail sales rose by less than forecast, while an underlying measure of household spending pointed to a more resilient consumer at the end of the second quarter.

Fashion retailer H&M to launch in Brazil. Fashion retailer H&M will launch stores and online trade in Brazil in 2025, the company said on Monday.

Gap joins Pakistan Accord. American fashion giant Gap Inc. has joined the Pakistan Accord, marking a breakthrough in efforts to expand membership of the worker safety initiative.


Estée Lauder advanced night repair serum bottle laying on a yellow background with yellow flowers surround it.
Employees at The Estée Lauder Companies offices around the world remain locked out of their email and other key functions. (Shutterstock)

The Estée Lauder Companies were targeted by worldwide cybersecurity breach. Employees at The Estée Lauder Companies offices around the world remain locked out of their email and other key functions after a third party gained access to some of the beauty conglomerate’s IT systems, according to people familiar with the situation.

Il Makiage parent company seeks higher valuation in US IPO. Oddity Tech said on Monday it was targeting a valuation of $1.92 billion in its US initial public offering (IPO), more than 13 percent higher than what it was previously seeking.

To reach €20 billion in sales, Sephora weighs China overhaul. Sephora, the cosmetics retailer owned by luxury conglomerate LVMH, is considering an overhaul of its China operations, including seeking a new leader for the country, as it works toward an ambitious sales target for the coming years.

Revolution Beauty’s CEO, chair to exit as part of deal with Boohoo. Top shareholder Boohoo sought board changes at the company last month, calling for better management after questions over its 2022 accounts.

Beyoncé to release first fragrance in 10 years. More than a decade after releasing her first fragrance, Heat, Beyoncé is launching a new scent, Eau De Parfum in November.


Marco Bizzarri, Gucci’s CEO since 2015, is set to exit Italy’s biggest fashion brand.
Marco Bizzarri, Gucci’s CEO since 2015, is set to exit Italy’s biggest fashion brand. (Getty Images/Getty Images)

As Gucci’s CEO steps down, Saint Laurent’s chief steps up. Marco Bizzarri led the Italian luxury giant through a historic expansion before the business struggled to bounce back from the pandemic. Parent company Kering announced the move as part of a broader executive shakeup, after which Saint Laurent CEO Francesca Bellettini will oversee all the group’s brands.

Jane Birkin, an Anglo-French style icon, has died. The singer, actress and style icon who inspired the Hermès Birkin bag has died at the age of 76.

Lelio Gavazza named CEO of Tom Ford fashion. Gavazza, who joins the brand from LVMH-owned Bulgari, will take up the position on September 18, the brand said.


Shein and Temu
Temu sues rival Shein. (Shutterstock/Shutterstock)

Fast-fashion retailer Temu sues rival Shein over US antitrust law. Chinese e-retailer Temu has filed a new lawsuit accusing rival Shein of violating US antitrust law in its dealings with clothing manufacturers, escalating a legal clash for dominance in the fast-fashion market.

The US turns to AI to track forced labour in brands’ supply chains. The Customs and Border Protection agency has signed a multi-year contract with Altana, a tech-driven supply-chain mapping company, to help it understand how goods move through the global economy.

Hearst Magazines lays off at least 40 employees. Hearst Magazines has laid off a number of editorial employees, affecting brands including Cosmopolitan, Seventeen, Elle, Harper’s Bazaar and more.

Compiled by Sarah Elson.

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