If you’ve worked in the fashion industry, you’ve either heard the stories, or been in them. Interns (sometimes called 'assistants') working for free in full-time positions. Interns expected to work until 2am and then be on set by 7am for the next gruelling day. Interns charged with any number of impossible tasks – parodied in The Devil Wears Prada when Miranda Priestly asks her assistant to get hold of J.K. Rowling’s unpublished manuscripts of Harry Potter for her children to read on the train that afternoon because "they want to know what happens next".
Then there are the less common stories – of interns being told not to make eye contact with anyone on set and told not to eat in front of people.
Anonymous Instagram account ‘Intern 1 no name’ @fashionassistants is posting people’s real-life Devil Wears Prada experiences as fashion interns and assistants, which range from having Christian Louboutin stilettos thrown at them to being called fat, ugly, stupid, and yes, banned from eating.
The account, which started as a meme account in December 2017, has a modest 4,000 followers at the time of writing, but these followers include many fashion editors, stylists, creative directors and PRs.
Replying to our Instagram DM asking what they hoped to achieve by posting these anonymous stories, the account said: "Other movements got the conversation started and quite rapidly saw change within the industries. We've got people – sadly, but appropriately – referencing The Devil Wears Prada, discussing what needs to change. So many messages of support and questions about how we can work together to unionise have arisen, or how we can set up a platform where agencies can help with problems, abuse, late payments etc."
At the end of last year, when Weinstein was in full swing, models started coming forward about their experiences of abuse under the hashtag #MyJobShouldNotIncludeAbuse, spearheaded by model and activist Cameron Russell. Since then, heavyweight photographers and creatives such as Terry Richardson, Patrick Demarchelier, Karl Templer, Mario Testino and Bruce Weber have all come under fire. The ball is rolling, perpetrators are being exposed, and social media continues to be a catalyst for cultural change – if not actual legal prosecution.
The accounts posted on @fashionassistants are not about sexual harassment or sexual assault, but they are part of a wider movement to expose those abusing their power and taking advantage of young, eager-to-impress individuals in the industry. As fashion editor Jo Ellison described it in The Financial Times this weekend, “Few of the stories [on @fashionassistants] involve sexual harassment. And few involve men. The perpetrators tend to be women and the abuse is usually verbal or physical. There are stylists throwing shoes and clothes hangers in a temper. Or forbidding staff from eating. There is petty unpleasantness. The list demonstrates quite pointedly that women with power can be just as monstrous as men.”
One assistant told Refinery29 about her experiences over the phone, but wished to remain anonymous. “I was an assistant for a number of years before I started working for a well-known stylist, whose work I adored,” she says. “I was a really good assistant too, I had a good reputation, but working for this person shattered my confidence. I became the sort of person that was afraid of my own shadow. The experience taught me to be really strong, and maybe I needed that… but I wouldn’t want anyone else to go through it.”
“There’s one person I know, who assisted a stylist many years ago, and is still in therapy because of it,” she continued.
When people have to psychologically recover from a job which they started as a bright spark, full of promise, there is cause for concern.
Fashion activist, writer and editor Caryn Franklin told us that she never witnessed the shoe-throwing type of behaviour on set in her fashion career – which spans three decades – but that "no intern should have to deal with someone like that". Caryn has written about the fashion industry’s complicity with abuse in relation to the photographers mentioned above for Refinery29, and says complicity is relevant here, too: “If someone higher up the food chain is on a shoot and witnessing that sort of behaviour, they should speak up. What happens of course, is that everybody is fearful for their position, but I find it very hard to hear that nobody stands up for the young inexperienced intern when somebody who ought to know better is throwing their weight around.”
The stories on @fashionassistants are accusing stylists specifically, and most of the stories take place on shoots, which, admittedly, are high-pressured situations. “On shoots there’s very limited time, and quite often things that look very high production are done on very limited budgets,” Caryn explains, “so it’s a very precarious situation that puts people under a lot of stress, and that can bring out the worst in someone who is so fixed on the end result that they are bullying people in order to achieve it.”
“Some powerful people are corrupted by their own status and have this sense that they are so unique and so special that they can overstep all professional boundaries,” Caryn continues. “That is not a good leader or an inspirational creative."
Another stylist’s assistant, who also wishes to remain anonymous, told us about her experiences working for a “big name stylist who worked on shoots for all the household names”. On one occasion, she says, “I was sent to China Town to retrieve a certain type of shoe, which I couldn't find anywhere. When I returned to the office at 10pm, after crying and panicking that I couldn’t find this shoe, I was told I should leave my job if I couldn't do the work. I never got paid, which meant all those weeks I’d spent working for this woman, running around from borough to borough – which I was told would be expensed – ended up coming out of my pocket. I chased her three times for payment. My emails were ignored.”
“Maybe those stories aren’t so bad?” this assistant concluded, like most of the former or current assistants we spoke to, who haven’t been hit by shoes but have been treated unfairly, and have come to expect it as part of their ‘initiation’ into the fashion industry. Earning your stripes by burning yourself out trying to meet impossible demands from impossible people is, unfortunately, a fairly common experience, and not just in fashion. But while long hours, poor pay and little thanks is one thing, physical and verbal abuse which causes lasting emotional damage is entirely another.
The good news is that there are, realistically, only a few handfuls of these people among a sea of kind, supportive, encouraging creatives. And as evidence and testimonies mount on social media, and publications like The New York Times continue to investigate the individuals who have abused their power for too long, fashion’s nasty outer layer of skin may well be shed for good.