High Fashion, Hard Labor: Are Fashion Brands Crossing the Lines of Social Responsibility?
Fashion Designer Marc Jacobs. Photo: Ed Kavishe for fashionwirepress

[dropcap]T[/dropcap]he lines between high fashion and art are by definition not very sharp. Which is why it’s sometimes easy to forget all of the commerce behind a runway show if you’re only watching it.

Designers do not work alone; it takes hundreds of people to create a collection and scores to produce a runway show for the likes of industry mega labels like Marc Jacobs and Chanel.

Recently, 17-year-old model Hailey Hasbrook posted (and then retracted) a run-down of her working day. She specifically wrote that she did looks for Marc Jacobs from 6 p.m. to 2 a.m. one night, and until 4:30 in the morning the following night, causing her to have to cancel some jobs.

Using the same tack often as many big magazines and PR companies, Jacobs stated that models didn’t have to work with him if they didn’t want to. Which is true, but those are also easy words for one of the most highly regarded designers in the world to say tweet.

He’s backed by LVMH (Louis Vuitton Moët-Hennessey)  and has million-dollar show budgets to play with, and he’s never short of models that will enthusiastically clear out their schedules in order to work with him.

The fact that it’s true that models don’t necessarily have to work for Marc Jacobs for no pay and free stuff doesn’t mean it’s right or necessary.

It’s strongly parallel to the intern cycle, really—models get prestige, exposure and free shit, and designers get free labor.

Sometimes everyone’s happy, as it seems from Hailey Hasbrook’s clarification of her feelings on working a 14-hour day and losing two other commitments for purses. But sometimes people also bend to the pressure of seeing their chances of walking for major designers ever again jeopardized and freak out. It can be hard to tell on Tumblr.

In any case, sources are now stating that Marc Jacobs does indeed pay his fit models $100/hour, which raises the question as to where the hell that money went. Maybe the people who should be defending themselves are the agents and bookers at Marc Jacobs who knew she was underage and was legally not allowed to work past 10 pm.

It echoes the recent lawsuit brought by Xuedan Wang against Hearst charging that their internship programs are run less like mutually beneficial arrangements (which is why they’re able to skirt minimum-wage laws) and more like churn and burn factories: interns work for a semester or two to put it on their resumes, and upon graduating enter a job market where they compete for about a dozen positions with a few hundred girls with the same exact credentials. Magazines get a constant pool of free labor to ferry their samples, file their documents and steward their shoes.

For a model gunning for the top spot in editorials and shows to refuse to work with designers who don’t pay or demand mind-numbing hours is self-defeating. It would be a hard thing to do for a 22-year-old who has held a job and negotiated hours before; it is probably impossibly harder for a 16-year-old who is virtually alone in New York City aside from her agents, who agree to 2 a.m. nights and 8 a.m. call times.

High Fashion, Hard Labor: Are Fashion Brands Crossing the Lines of Social Responsibility?
Designer Alexander Wang hit with $50M ‘sweatshop’ lawsuit

Shrugging and saying that no one has to be a model is the same as saying no one has to work in a sweat shop. Easy enough when you’re not a model or a sweat shop worker (or you’re Marc), but a bit more difficult when you are a model or a sweat shop worker. The situations should not exist in the first place.

Alexander Wang’s sweatshop debacle is a teensy bit more troubling, if it turns out to be true. Apparently he’s been using a windowless 200 sq-ft. room in Chinatown for production, where workers are not paid overtime or given adequate breaks.

Oftentimes designers honestly don’t know everything about the inner workings of their factories, but Wang left himself little room for that defense by installing his brother Dennis to run the operation. And Dennis has not been the nicest boss: according to allegations by over 50 ex-employees, one of whom was fired after filing for workman’s comp to cover hospital bills resulting from collapsing after a 25-hour shift.

Perhaps they’ll say no one has to work in a sweatshop.

But then again, no one has to make a profit margin of 85% on $300 leather pants by cutting production time by 75% and paying minimum wage or less. Magazines and media companies don’t have to let their interns do the work editorial assistants used to do for no compensation.

Designers with brands worth millions and international modeling agencies don’t have to let the physically demanding work of models go unpaid. They choose to.