THE WORST OF FASHION
A curriculum vitae of mishaps, abuses and structural blindspots in the so-called fashion industry.
- Sep 08 2021
- Safir Boukhalfais a writer and procurement manager for an international NGO. He identifies as a cisgender French-Algerian queer muslim man* of colour and writes poetry, prose and essays, always starting from his experience to widen the speech about bigger issues. His texts have been published on Afghan Punk, Dune Magazine, Daddy Magazine, A-Strange, etc.
Working in the fashion industry is a dream for so many. Whether they want to be models, buyers, stylists or designers, many people aspire to be part of it. I would often hear that having my career “must feel like a tremendous achievement”. I used to think they were right, that having been able to transform that little queer Muslim boy of colour’s dream into a reality was an absolute end. I would often speak about the jobs I’ve had with pride, adding names of great companies to my resume with a smile on my face, thinking that I could grow higher and beyond through work.
The reality that nobody speaks about is that the fashion industry is part of a very racist, sexist, queerphobic, ableist, Islamophobic, capitalist world, as everything else is in the Western world. Nonetheless, as a kid and being unaware of these dynamics, I expected to be “protected” by this industry because outside of it I was so marginalized by French society. I felt like I could become a proud homosexual like Saint-Laurent, or an unapologetic North-African like Azzedine Alaïa. I obviously didn’t become a great fashion figure like any of them, but my career grew well and helped me climb the social ladder, from the child of low-income Muslim immigrant parents to university-educated man* working for companies that generate billions every year, earning more money than most of the people in his surroundings.
Now, what I will write about in this piece is similar to an extended version of my curriculum vitae, except that instead of skills I learned in X or Y company, I will write about the systemic oppressions I suffered (or the ones of people around me) and how every single company lead to my decision of leaving the industry in its entirety.
When I think of the very first company that mattered in my life, I automatically have to write about the innovative one that curated online showrooms allowing buyers and brands to interact faster, without them having to travel the world frantically. I remember getting my second internship there and thinking that the concept they had was so forward. I applied from Spain during my Erasmus years, and got a phone interview followed by a “hire”. I was jumping everywhere when it happened. I was so happy and joyful and could already picture myself taking part in Paris Fashion week. And I did. I luckily attended my very first Fashion week with them, and felt like I was part of the gang. The truth back then was that I had been hired for a full-time job where I would need to deliver on the regular, and not for an internship where I would be learning skills to eventually be employable. I was given immediate privileges, which would be taken away if I didn’t do the job right. And I didn’t do the job right, because I was young, didn’t have any experience and struggled to understand what was expected of me. Yet, I would work 24/7. I would do my best to achieve everything that was expected from me. I would work until 11pm very frequently and come back to the office before 9am the next day. I would be asked to stay late to finish up work when the allowance I received back then was less than €500 per month, along with some ticket-restaurant.
Coming from a very low-income family, €500 felt like I was rich and I didn’t complain. I thought I was very lucky, that a lot of people would kill to have my job. Little did I know during these days that this was how the whole industry was built in Paris: hiring interns to do the job of 5 people without paying them correctly, while making them believe that if they did the job right, they would be hired for a salary that wouldn’t even reach €2000 per month.
As a desperate twenty-something, you just want to please your employer and make them believe that you’re the most grateful person on earth. One day or one evening, I had to write a newsletter that needed to be sent by 6:30am the next day. On a weekday, at the office, on my own, in front of my computer at 11:30pm. I couldn’t finish it and didn’t manage to do it right at all. I was getting frustrated, and told my boss over Skype (she had been back home for a couple of hours already) and she answered that it would have to be finished before I could leave. I don’t know if it was the exhaustion or my colonized ancestors that took over, but I answered that I was going home regardless. She got really upset and from that day on, made my life a living hell. Eventually, when I could no longer take it, I applied somewhere else. I got the internship and terminated this one in a hurry.
My next employer was supposed to be the savior: the company that would recognize my true potential and help me develop into the professional everybody dreamt of hiring. Spoiler alert: it didn’t go like this. At first, I was really excited and happy to be part of a label that was so creative and welcoming. Back then, the brand was one of the trendiest, always on top of everything fashion related. The whole team was everything that coolness was supposed to be, and almost everyone was very sweet to me. I was doing my job really well this time and pushed above and beyond every day. I would always go the extra mile, and from the position of Wholesale Assistant I started to help the designers, the publishing house, the catwalks, the castings, the shoots. Everything was new and I was thriving. I remember one of my colleagues calling me the “Swiss Army Knife” of fashion one day, as she was really impressed that I could do so much, in so many fields. I felt genuinely accepted and was really happy when I was told that this internship could lead to full-time employment. This prospect made me work even harder, and I honestly felt like this was meant to be all along. There were only two people with whom I didn’t get along perfectly, and, of course, one was my boss. Unfortunately, he was the one that had the power to hire or fire me. He announced one day that a new girl would be starting soon and that I would have to train her, because she got the full-time position that he had talked to me about. I cried for days. I remember thinking it was really unfair, and everyone in the company seemed to agree yet nothing was done. How did I not get the job, if I was trusted enough to train the new person? Did I mention that the company was composed of 6 co-founders: all white, all cisgender, all male, all straight? Or that the only people who had ever been hired so far were two white straight cisgender women? I guess they already considered it progressive to hire women, but they wouldn’t have gone as far as hiring a queer Muslim man* of colour. I left the company in tears and rushed back to the South of France, planning my escape from this awful country.
The interesting part about this one is that I believe my former boss eventually felt guilty about his decision, because he emailed me a couple of weeks after the internship ended. He offered to use his contacts, and got me an interview with one of the best fashion places in Germany. After 3 or 4 interviews, I got the job and moved to Berlin. This one was again super exciting at first, but quite debilitating in the end. I went to Germany with a mere 1000€ that my mother had lent me. I started the job with a trial period, during which I earned €500. As you can expect from above, I didn’t complain and felt it was ok to start my career this way. I worked really hard there as well, even though I was hired as an Online Manager and not an Assistant Buyer as initially planned. I remember asking myself in the first week if I would always have to do so much physical work; if my degrees were even worth it. I ended up doing a lot of manual work on the regular, but I still remember thinking that the team was incredible, with people from everywhere ( mostly Western countries), a CEO who was also a POC, and many queer people.
But naturally, as this industry had already proven, a few things happened during this time that I should have understood were “red flags”. The first one felt quite harmless, in the beginning. It was about my hair, and how it was deemed “undesirable” by the photographer and one of the buyers. It was put into comparison with the straight hair of the white buyer and naturally as a North-African curly-haired person, I lost the competition. It quickly escalated, and the second incident I can reminisce of happened in an after-work drinks type of situation. After having had a couple of cocktails, my line manager asked me “I heard you top as well, wanna fuck me maybe?”. I had never been sexually harassed in such a frontal way, in a professional context. I felt grossed out, but I didn’t make a “scene”. I stayed quiet and went on with my night. I remember telling the story to some friends, and nobody thought it was out of the ordinary at all - they acted as if it was very normal. The same person was also part of a business trip that we took to visit a partner later on that year. It was my very first time travelling with work. This ersatz of a mentor had decided to enjoy, with his boyfriend, the Continental hotel room booked for me by our business partner, and left me to book a very dodgy flat further down in the city. He didn’t attend any of the conferences he was paid to go to, and went to the beach to get drunk and relax instead. I did the job of two people for a week and overall had an awful stay. Our business partner knew something was off, but kindly tried to cheer me up until the end. I ended up crying silently in a hidden corner at the closing party. I don’t think my superior realized that I wasn’t going to stay quiet about how the week had gone. I came back to Berlin and explained to our CEO what had happened. He took my feedback and investigated his work. He found out that he’d made mistakes, costing the company huge amounts of money, and decided to fire him. Even if the CEO had eventually done the “right” thing, he started to bully me for his mistakes. I still kept on asking to switch to a buying position, and he insisted there weren’t any. Later this year, he hired a white girl to be the Assistant Buyer, and I resigned the same week.
I worked for one of the biggest online platforms after this. This company was still rather petite back then, but was known to have the biggest potential in the industry. Their aspiration was to become the “Netflix of fashion”. I was aware that I was selling my soul to the devil in order to get a better salary, an understanding of the system and hopefully a road to being the best in my field. I accepted the job when I realized my team was reaching 50% of BIPoC. It was the first time that I felt so connected to people at work. The only problem was that the two people that were above me were, of course, cisgender straight white males. As often, the diversity was prominent in the lower positions, but would cease when we reached the managerial levels. I was supposed to be hired as an Assistant Buyer (Senior Assistant), but had to start as a Buying Assistant (Junior Assistant) “to prove myself”. It was really clear from day 1 that I was overqualified for the job, and I got put “ready for promotion” shortly after. My boss agreed and tried to promote me, but as there wasn’t any spot in his team, I decided to apply to another one within the corporation. I remember being super excited, because the HR person told me that the buyers of the new team were both POCs. It was a lie. Only one was, and the other one was, again, white, as well as the 2 planners; but this time women rather than men, at least. I lasted 4 months and then had to switch teams again. If I remember well, from a team of about 50 people we were about 5 people of colour and two openly out queer people. During these years, I heard different types of things.
I heard that homosexuals couldn’t do sports, that I got my promotions because “North-Africans are misleaders and know how to negotiate”, that having a Black child wearing a garment that stated “King of the Jungle” wasn’t racist, that the dog of my colleague “really liked Black people”, that I shouldn’t play the victim of oppression because even though I was a queer North African person, my career was going really well, that Moroccans bought their driving license, that thankfully I didn’t only have that “shitty Algerian passport”, that my intersections were understood because my extremely wealthy heiress boss had what she called “beauty privilege” and it had been hard for her to achieve what she achieved despite it. I also heard that it was ok to add the Nike hijab to our assortment but that it wasn’t going to be part of the marketing campaigns, because I guess it’s fine to get the Muslim euro, but probably not to advocate for Muslim people. I heard my colleague tell me that as I wasn’t Black, that racism didn’t affect me. And I heard much more. I stood up every single time and called people out about each one of these instances. I felt exhausted pretty fast. It was like I had to provide racial and queer labour, on top of the labour I was hired for. I also witnessed white people’s hands diving in my hair if I wore it natural or comparing their “tanned” skin with mine, as if they could ever compete.
As you might expect, there were also the things that weren’t said. The fact that the white straight cisgender males of my team didn’t include me in any activity, the fact that the white straight cisgender women wouldn’t talk to me if I called them out on racism, the fact that my bosses would have a complete different standard with me than anyone else, the fact that if I did get the promotions, my salary barely increased and at some point I was even getting less money than my assistant, the fact that I was expected to do the job of 5 people for a salary of 44K when I was in charge of over 50 MIO EUR, the fact that the top of the hierarchy was led by 5 white cisgender men, the fact that I was manipulated and bullied to quit after raising my voice about all the above. The fact that I had to chase to get a recommendation letter, even though this is a right in German Law.
I wanted to sue this company, but I realized it would take too much energy. Energy I would prefer to dedicate to other things, to battles I could actually win. I got signed off as I burned out and left for another company.
Before my first day there, I told myself that this would be my last job in the fashion industry. I’ve mainly written about racism and queerphobia in this piece, but my decision to leave my field also came from capitalism. I started the job after having relocated to another country, and realized on day 2 that I had made a mistake. The German giant should have been my last experience in fashion. However, as it was written on my new contract: I should work there for at least a year in order not to have to pay the very high relocation costs. I stayed still and kept going. The job wasn’t really what I wanted, but I was getting a good enough salary and it allowed me to save some money. So I didn’t complain much. Until the world started to stop looking away when Black People were getting murdered by the police in the US in May 2020. I cried for a month straight and I started to yell at all the upper hierarchy, in front of everyone, about the racist system in which we all partake. I took the opportunity to educate my boss, her boss, her boss and her boss on the topic. I explained to them what racism was, what we could do to start a change. They listened carefully, but only took the recommendations that wouldn’t cost too much, because after all, what mattered most was and would always be capital. And then, on top of the racial labour that I was providing for free, one of my direct reports thought it would be adequate to tell me, a queer man*, that “gays are always so rich compared to normal people”. When I tried to explain to her how homophobic this statement was, I faced a wall. Unluckily, I didn’t receive any support from the company or my bosses when I offered to give her a warning. I was left alone and the “efforts” they promised they would make to fight racism didn’t seem to apply for queerphobia. I was gaslighted into thinking I was making too much of a fuss for such a ‘little’ instance.
I also remember trying to tackle the real problem of fashion: the supply chain, with it’s racism and lack of ecological consciousness. While I am neither an economist nor a sociologist, it seemed pretty clear to me that producing everything we sold in Asia or Africa while we knew that the workers would often be underpaid women and/or probably children wasn’t, per se, anti-racist. I remember explaining that chasing growth and a better margin would most likely come at the expense of these people, that it would be a good example if the global leader in underwear were to negotiate better work conditions for their partners' employees, that we could take a margin hit in order to set proper boundaries. Unfortunately, my pitch was quickly disregarded, and the argument used was that “if we don’t try to improve our margin and start to let go, our sub-Mediterranean and trans-Uralic partners would be the ones to benefit from it”. It confused me, because this was exactly what I was offering. But in the era of capitalism, I believe nothing can lead a company to accept a margin or sales loss: especially not morals or social development. There was also the whole topic about pollution and sustainability, which was tackled like a KPI and not like an end. They would make sure that the labels stated sustainability, without actually being sure that the garment itself was sustainable.
After my first and last year, when the obligation to pay back the relocation wasn’t applicable anymore, I decided to resign. The only change with this resignation is that I wasn’t going to accept any other position in this industry. I was neither going to apply, nor going to start conversations with headhunters.
It took me a pandemic, terrible conversations, blatant homophobia, racism, awful salaries, bosses with huge egos and countless hours of work to finally have me go away from the whole industry. The childhood dream turned out to be a nightmare after all. Any single one of these aspects is already so twisted that it takes you a decade to heal. And while I no longer work in this industry, it is obvious that it still affects me, as fashion is everywhere around us. Everyone wears clothes after all, and everyone has to get them somewhere. But the greatest irony to me is that when fashion is marketed everywhere around us as an inclusive, diverse bubble, I know that its core function is to act like one wheel in the capitalist machine. That for every Black model on the cover of a magazine, there is a makeup artist behind who doesn’t own the right foundation and asks the model to bring their own; that for every curvier girl as the face of a campaign, there is a brand that doesn’t offer the size the model would wear; that for every Trans girl on a billboard, there is a CEO who’s never met a single trans person; that for every mum advertising a nursing bra, there is a merchandising person complaining about the stretch marks on the photo; that for every Head of diversity, there is a white CEO behind; that for every Olivier Rousteing-looking designer, there are many more Jacquemus-looking ones; that for every ”ethnic” campaign, there is a fetishizing leader; that for every disabled person promoting a new type of shoe, there is a Kylie Jenner thinking it is appropriate to pose in a wheelchair; that for every Naomi Campbell, there are hundreds of Kate Mosses; that for every mention about sustainability, there is a team of sourcing that struggles to get even 30% of the garment to be fulfilling the regions’ requirements; that for every person of colour in the team, there is more often a white boss; that for every Safir at a higher level, there is an implicit injunction to lose some Muslimness, some queerness, some brown-ness, to make the team feel more at ease, to make the partners more comfortable.
I don’t want to take less space to make any oppressive person more comfortable anymore. So, to make sure I wouldn’t compromise too much on my sanity for a job, I decided to withdraw myself entirely from this industry. After all these years of trying to make it, I assume I reached a very decent level where becoming CEO didn’t feel too far anymore, but after long discussions with eight-year-old Safir and most importantly, eighty-year-old Safir, it became clear that fashion was always going to be just a tiny bit of our life. It became clear that we wanted to develop ourselves in ways where we would try to better not only ourselves, but also the world around us. Some people will think that what we did in the fashion industry, - the education, the calling out of people, the hassle - might have benefited people like us, maybe could have benefited them even more in the future, with higher positions and heavier responsibility. However, I don’t believe in this statement anymore.
I do not believe that you have to be part of the system to make it better. I believe capitalism is one of the reasons for the destruction of the only planet we can inhabit, for the exploitation of non-white ethnic groups, of non-straight sexual minorities, of non-male people, of everyone but the Patriarch, for unhealthy work rhythms, for the anihilation of some many species, for more bad than good after all. It makes me feel lighter to acknowledge that “working for the devil”, as I stated above, was the way for me to understand the system better, to learn its ways, to make sure I wouldn’t reproduce anything outside of it. And even if it forbade me often to breathe freely because of the systems of oppression it supports, it also offered me, son of Muslim, low-income Algerian parents, the opportunity to not think about what I would have in my plate every night, to make sure I would always have enough savings, “just in case”. I offer a critic here about everything that happened to me, in my personal career, as part of my personal experience and I am aware that this won’t be the story of everyone, but I felt the urge to tell my story, to offer a clearer, newer perspective to whoever would like to start a career in this field. I wanted to make sure that I wouldn’t silence myself anymore, the way this industry tried to silence me year over year.