12 Conversations The Fashion Industry Doesn't Want To Have

It’s been a huge year for the fashion industry. Filled with designer shakeups (Lanvin! Gucci! Balenciaga!), the demise of Lucky, and, lots of bizarre drama involving none other than Dov Charney, the headlines gave us plenty to talk about over the past 12 months. But even though this is an industry that loves to gossip, there are a handful of conversations that consistently get swept under the rug. They span the spectrum from unhealthy models to blatant design ripoffs to geopolitical shifts — topics that, if really addressed, could change everything for the people who make fashion, sell fashion, and consume fashion (i.e. all of us).

These subjects aren’t really made for the small talk that occurs at a fancy store opening or second row at the Alexander Wang show. At industry events like these, the potential for uncomfortable chatter is exactly the kind of thing that makes fashion people squeamish. But who’s to say we shouldn’t talk about them now? Ahead, see the 12 topics that are making waves on the sidelines, but need to become mainstream.
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1. The dirty secret of editor gifting.
Free clothes, shoes, and accessories are a beloved perk of working in the fashion industry. While these comped pieces certainly make it easier for editors to afford designer items on their far less glamorous salaries (where assistant editor positions start at around $25,000), another form of gifting is on the rise. Whether it’s a free trip to Morocco or front-row tickets to a Beyoncé concert, these experience-based freebies are common yet rarely discussed PR tools.

Fashion companies will happily send a group of editors and influencers to far-flung locales all over the world in order to secure coverage of events, launch parties, and fashion shows. In some cases, these trips aren’t even directly affiliated with the brand — but the mutual understanding is that if you go, you’re expected to cover it in some capacity. Some publications will note the comped trip in a disclaimer at the end of a story, but others leave this connection out entirely. So if you’re wondering why all the top editors just got back from the same fancy destination, it’s probably not a coincidence.
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2. Stealing ideas.
For an industry that’s supposed to be rooted in originality and creative expression, fashion sure has a lot of copycats. From Zara’s not-quite-knockoffs all the way up to storied fashion houses like Chanel, designers are constantly accused of ripping off each other’s work. This issue is so prevalent that designers have even begun focusing more on fabric quality and cut (as opposed to signature prints), in order to prevent this rampant forgery.
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3. Cash for coverage.
Although magazines still claim to maintain editorial standards — which the American Society of Magazine Editors (ASME) defines as not taking gifts, differentiating editorial content and advertising, and serving the interests of the reader first — today’s uncertain media climate means that sometimes these old-school principles get compromised. Publications have always relied on advertisers to provide funding for content, but now these ad dollars can go so far as to dictate the content itself.

According to Business of Fashion, editorial favors, like highlighting certain products in shoots, or even writing entire articles about a brand, have become the norm. In fact, advertisers that pay more money tend to get more coverage, period. As Caitlin Weiskopf, executive director of Harper's Bazaar's e-commerce arm, told Fashionista, magazines even go so far as to feature brands they normally wouldn’t, simply because they pay. "St. John, let's be honest, is not going to get a full-page feature in Bazaar without paying.” This happens far more than most industry players would like to admit.
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4. Unsung heroes.
The creative director is the one who gets to take the runway bow and give dozens of interviews, but the success of a fashion brand oftentimes relies on a whole team of people who work under him or her. Usually a deputy designer or design director works alongside the creative director, but because they don’t speak to the press, they rarely get any recognition. There are some exceptions, like Phoebe Philo (who assisted Stella McCartney) or Prabal Gurung (who worked at Cynthia Rowley and Bill Blass before starting his eponymous label), but they’re few and far between. Usually, second-in-commands are forbidden to go on record in the press or even be mentioned at all. Marc Beckman, founder of Designers Management Agency, explained to The Cut that these behind-the-scenes politics often boil down to ego: “The reality is, creative directors don’t want the No. 2 getting any recognition.” Other hardworking unsung heroes include the PR teams, studio assistants, and more, who make the production and publicity machines run smoothly. The fashion industry loves to spotlight its star players — whether it’s a beloved designer or a magazine editor with a large online following — but can ignore those working tirelessly out of the spotlight in order to make the clothes or produce the content that the industry is all about in the first place.
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5. Model mental health.
Plenty of ink has been spilled on the issue of dangerously thin models — and for good reason — but people rarely discuss the equally important mental health issues that fashion models can face. According to a 2012 study conducted by the Model Alliance, 68.3% of models admit to suffering from depression or anxiety, and if you think about it, that makes sense. Most up-and-coming models are still in their teens, and they’re under immense stress: They need to book jobs to get out of agency debt, they’re likely far from their families in a strange city (or country), and they’re doing something entirely different than their peers back home. Things like constant rejection, loneliness, and unpredictable schedules come with the territory in the modeling world, but these daily struggles are likely exacerbated by the long hours and demands of busy periods like Fashion Week. Even top models can suffer from the job. Cara Delevingne recently opened up about her depression in a speech at the Women In The World Summit. "I had no concept of saying no to anyone, ever,” she said. “I felt disconnected from myself... In reality, I wanted someone to stop me. But nobody ever did. I never felt like I was good enough, that I deserved success. I felt like I was living somebody else's dream." Just because models might look fine doesn’t mean they necessarily feel that way, and these issues shouldn’t be swept under the rug.
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6. Many of the top women’s fashion executives are still male.
Business of Fashion reports that women make up more than 70% of the fashion industry's workforce, yet hold just 25% of the top positions in fashion firms. In other words, women are welcome only in specific realms of the industry; we’re factory workers, editors, PR directors, and, on occasion, designers. The executive committee at LVMH, the owner of luxury brands like Louis Vuitton and Christian Dior, includes only one woman among 11 men. At Condé Nast, the executive team includes five men and only two women. What’s more, nine out of the 10 most-Googled fashion designers this year (a list which includes Raf Simons, Giambattista Valli, and Karl Lagerfeld), are men.
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7. The inherent irony in fast fashion's "green" and "eco-friendly" collections.
Over the past several seasons, fast fashion brands such as H&M and Topshop have dipped into sustainability. Billed as “eco-conscious” collections, they use materials such as recycled wool, organic linen, and cotton in order to reduce the harmful impact production has on the planet. While efforts like this seem admirable on paper, the benefits remain to be seen. Experts have disputed the reports brands release about their impact and have questioned whether these collections are more of a PR stunt than anything else. But the biggest problem lies in the irony of the fast fashion system, which is one that’s still rooted in consumption. Buying more clothes — no matter how "sustainable" they are — won't help the environment.
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8. Pay-for-play celebrity endorsements.
Recruiting a famous face to boost a brand’s image is nothing new. Jennifer Lawrence is reportedly raking in between $15 to $20 million for her three-year Dior contract, and even emerging Insta-stars can nab a couple thousand dollars for a blogger campaign. But recently, companies have become much sneakier about just how they’re using influencers to promote their clothing. Celebrity promo goes far beyond a red carpet appearance, an ad campaign, or an Instagram post. Some particularly savvy companies are utilizing the “pay-for-play” model, in which they pay a celebrity to wear an item of clothing (comped, naturally) while running errands or out to lunch with famous friends. According to one source, the compensation can range from $5,000 to about $10,000 for one of these arranged celeb photo opps. The sticker price isn’t nearly as high as a star being paid to walk the red carpet in a particular gown (which can reach $250,000!), but more and more brands have used these informal endorsements as a way to shill clothing — mostly because it works. If the strategy is successful, the star will be photographed by paparazzi; the picture will make the internet rounds, and eventually spark a trend and sell more pieces. The public clearly cares what celebrities wear, even if it’s just on a Saturday morning Whole Foods run. It’s not surprising that companies are using this idea of 24/7 fandom to their advantage.
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9. Cuba.
Cuba and the United States have had chilly history for more than half a century, thanks to trade embargoes and political disputes. But ever since President Obama lifted the travel sanctions on the island almost a year ago, relations are slowly warming up. Not surprisingly, the fashion industry has been eager to make up for lost time. Several magazines have already flocked to the island to shoot editorials; designers like Stella McCartney and Proenza Schouler have incorporated a variety of Cuban influences into their recent collections; and, perhaps most telling, Karl Lagerfeld is bringing Chanel’s Resort 2017 show (which is always held at exotic locales) to Havana early next year. What’s with the recent obsession? The New York Times'’ Vanessa Friedman notes that, “few things get fashion excited like decade-hopping to the past,” and to outsiders, Cuba has a nostalgic appeal. The problem lies in glossing over its complicated history — Cuba is more than photogenic backdrops and antique ’50s automobiles. Although the brightly painted buildings and vintage cars complement designer frocks nicely, using the country as a convenient set and capitalizing on the Cuban lifestyle in order to sell clothes just feels disingenuous.
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10. The fashion industry’s obsession with social media.
All those internships you did in college? They’re probably not going to get you a job, unless you have scads of Instagram followers. At the Fashionista “How To Make it in Fashion” conference, Elle.com’s deputy editor Ruthie Friedlander noted that “All things being equal, if you are up for the same job as someone else and you have a big following, then you’ll get the job.” In certain cases, a candidate’s social following can carry more weight than a résumé. While it makes sense for Instagram or Twitter popularity to play some role in the process, the fact that it could potentially outweigh, say, actual skills, is not quite right.
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11. The people who make our clothes.
There’s plenty to consider when you’re deciding whether or not to buy a new piece of clothing: the brand, the cut, the fabric, the quality, and the price. However, one aspect that rarely factors in to the decision-making process is the people behind the clothing. As the eye-opening documentary The True Cost showed us, factory workers in countries like Bangladesh and Indonesia are exposed to inhumane, exploitative, and downright dangerous working conditions in order to create the clothes we wear every day. There’s a huge disconnect between the (often) ugly and heart-wrenching process of making the clothes, and the pretty dress you buy in a store — and it takes tragedies like 2013’s Bangladeshi factory collapse for us to wake up to this grim reality. We can’t afford to wait for another awful situation to happen again, so the conversation surrounding this issue needs to start now.
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12. The items that actually turn a profit.
If the beautiful couture gowns that walk the runway each season project a kind of aspirational fantasy, the fashion industry also has to deal with a less glamorous reality: making enough money to sustain a businesses in a world where simply holding a fashion show can cost about $200,000. Most designers balance ready-to-wear and couture pieces alongside more profitable items, like sunglasses, beauty collabs, watches, and fragrances, all stamped with the designer logo. While selling these pieces (at a massive markup, of course) is one way to make money, designers have become even more creative about turning a profit. Over the past few years, there’s been an uptick in licensing brand names out to other major companies for totally unexpected collaborations. Whether it’s a Rodarte-branded Starbucks card, a $90 Christian Louboutin lipstick, or a Range Rover “designed” by Victoria Beckham, allowing giant companies to borrow your designer logo (and in turn, your clout) yields serious cash.