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Op-Ed | Fashion's Class Barrier

The financial barriers to entry in America’s fashion system hold back creative talent, argues Chantal Fernandez.
John Galliano with model Jon Evans in the week he graduated from Central Saint Martin's in London, 1986 | Source: Getty Images
  • Chantal Fernandez

NEW YORK, United States — In 1967, less than a decade after he abandoned his family name Lifshitz, a humble and hustling Bronx-native named Ralph Lauren hand-delivered his wide, colourful ties to retailers around New York and was only able to establish a line of credit with fabric suppliers and manufacturers after securing a big order from Bloomingdale's. Two decades later, John Galliano, a plumber's son from Gibraltar, walked his graduate collection across London to show it to buyers at Browns because he could not afford the taxi fare. The same year that Alexander McQueen, a London cab driver's son, presented his historic "Highland Rape" collection, he was evicted from his studio for failing to pay rent.

Despite their lower class origins, Lauren, Galliano and the late McQueen became some of fashion’s brightest stars. But each of them benefitted from school grants, supportive retailers and early backers that are scarcer than they once were. Would today’s fashion industry have supported such economically disadvantaged talents?

A career path in fashion often begins with years of unpaid internships and low-paying, entry-level jobs. To survive, aspiring designers often rely on family connections and financial support — a rarely discussed but indisputable advantage for many of the industry’s rising talents. For everyone else, entering the industry can require years balancing multiple jobs and accruing credit-card debt. This kind of hustle, however, is rarely considered cool in the smoke-and-mirrors business of fashion, where an intern wearing head-to-toe designer fashion will get noticed above his or her more frugal rivals.

"When you actually start working in fashion, you're not privy to the fact that actually, so many people come into this industry from privilege and legacy families," says Lindsay Peoples Wagner, editor-in-chief of Teen Vogue. "I even still feel like it's never enough in this industry, especially when you don't come from the right background — it always feels like you are an outsider." While Peoples Wagner said she was lucky to have had access to family support if needed, she felt "defeated" because of her finances while working as an assistant at the magazine she now leads, while simultaneously dressing mannequins at DKNY in the evenings and working as a waitress on the weekends.

Fashion's class divide is nothing new, of course. But it appears to be getting wider, especially in the United States. For a start, the cost of living in New York City, America's fashion capital, has risen sharply in recent years. Then there's the rising cost of fashion education. In the United States, where most fashion schools are private, a fashion degree can cost from $15,000 to $50,000 per year. Meanwhile average salaries for entry-level positions in fashion design in the US typically range between $40,000 and $50,000, according to data from Fashionista and Glassdoor. And the estimated cost of financing a start-up fashion label in its first five years is more than $1 million, during which time it is unlikely to turn a profit.

Fashion's class divide is nothing new, of course. But it appears to be getting wider.

What’s more, Barneys New York, once a platform for emerging designers, filed for bankruptcy protection in August. Of course, traditional gatekeepers like department stores have lost power, giving way to a more open market where aspiring designers can engineer their own big break on Instagram. But this path can be even less predictable, and still requires substantial investment.

Fashion has plenty of programmes designed to address the barriers facing young designers, from incubators to competitions, hosted by everyone from the CFDA and Vogue to companies like LVMH and H&M.

Chris Gelinas started his namesake line in 2013 after seven years working in the industry and with just $30,000, lent to him by his mother. His star rose quickly, and he was a finalist for the CFDA Vogue Fashion Fund and the LVMH Prize. That brought him exposure and cash, but also increased the early pressure he faced to spend more on runway shows before the label had generated significant sales. “It’s like treading water and you just start drowning at some point,” said Gelinas, who then realised the format was not relevant to his business any more.

So Gelinas stopped showing during fashion week in 2017 and has since pivoted his brand to focus on clear priorities: trunk shows, direct-to-consumer sales and private clients, such as the actress Cynthia Erivo, who he dressed in two looks for the recent Tony Awards.

“It is a system that just perpetuates itself,” says Kimberly Jenkins, a lecturer of fashion history and theory at Parsons School of Design, who has seen first-hand the barriers facing many of her fashion students. “Since they don’t have a ton of money and this was their one shot, or they don’t know the right people because they weren’t going to the right parties, these students with an incredibly earnest vision of changing the world — we may not get to hear their voice.”

It's not just about money; it's also about who you know.

Indeed, it’s not just about money; it’s also about who you know. GQ's Deputy Fashion Director Nikki Ogunnaike says social capital is just as important as financial wealth for those entering the fashion industry. And social capital can be accrued. “A lot of people who may have been considered an outsider at first are now a gatekeeper, and I think that’s going to continue to be a trend.”

“This is an industry where you get 100 rejections for every possible ‘yes’ so you have to have a thick skin and not take it personally,” says designer Keanan Duffty, who is launching a graduate-level business management programme for fashion at Parsons, adding that he encourages his students to network and build a reputation that they can carry with them through multiple jobs. “It’s about who you know,” he says. “But it’s about who you get to know more than anything else.”

The fashion industry still has a responsibility to work harder to open the doors to bring in people beyond fashion’s workforce status quo — otherwise, it runs the risk of falling further into a creative slump. For, what would our industry have been without the contributions of Galliano, Lauren and McQueen?

Chantal Fernandez is Correspondent at The Business of Fashion.

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This article appears in BoF’s latest special print edition.

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