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December 13, 2017
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Korhani show at the World MasterCard Fashion Week 2013. Source: styledemocracy.com.

Saks Fifth Avenue's iconic label.
Source: styleblog.ca.

As I casually strolled into the tents of World MasterCard Fashion Week in Toronto, I began to zero in on the extravagance of the fashion industry: attendees donning high-end designer garments, holding flutes of champagne, and attitudes bordering on self-worship.

Surprisingly, this overt display of opulence didn't make me think about fashion or fantasy, but rather the destitute nature that simultaneously exists in the fashion industry.

The Opulence of Fashion

The relationship between the fashion industry and luxury has a long past. According to social theorist Thornstein Veblen (1899), fashion was historically something only the most elite participated in. As discussed in his book, Theory of the Leisure Class, Veblen perceived society as a series of classes, each with a different social status. Those with the most wealth, and therefore the highest social class, could perform in the act of buying and wearing the nicest, newest, and latest clothing trends. The ability to display social status meant that fashion became synonymous with wealth; a relationship that still exists today.

Related: Thornstein Veblen's Trickle-Down Theory.

The relationship of fashion and wealth is especially noticeable if one examines the luxury fashion industry. The Hudson's Bay Company's recent US$2.9 billion purchase of Saks Fifth Avenue shows two important themes: just how much money a large retailer has at its disposal, and the unbelievably high value of a luxury fashion business.

Andrea Sachs in
The Devil Wears Prada (2006).
Source: mises.ca.

Even so, an article published in the Business of Fashion, "Fashion Inflation: Why are prices rising so fast?", discussed how luxury retail prices are steadily inflating. While luxury prices have been exceptionally high throughout history, today's prices continue to rise. As writer Lauren Sherman elucidated - and those of us watching re-runs of Sex and the City may have noticed - "Carrie Bradshaw's famous Manolo Blahniks cost $485 [now] the same style is $755, a 56 percent increase." This is one among many examples that Sherman provided to demonstrate the escalating price of luxury goods.

The Scarcity in Fashion

However, despite these examples of abundance, there is an alarming disparity within the industry; while people exchange billions of dollars at the top, others lower down on the proverbial ladder are struggling to survive.

In the last few years, in particular, big players in the fashion industry including Alexander McQueen and Harper's Bazaar have been recognised for its poor remuneration of interns. According to various media outlets, fashion internships have been classified as one of the least paying and worst treated positions. In the article, "Condé Nast Faces Suit From Intern Over Wages," The New York Times reported the unfortunate situation that many fashion interns experience. The article highlighted one former intern at W Magazine and another from The New Yorker who filed lawsuits against Condé Nast for being paid "less than $1 dollar an hour." In 2012, a former intern of Harper's Bazaar also filed a lawsuit for being overworked and under paid (or I should say, not paid at all).

 As writer Lauren Sherman elucidated - and those of us watching re-runs of Sex and the City may have noticed - "Carrie Bradshaw's famous Manolo Blahniks cost $485 [now] the same style is $755, a 56 percent increase."

You may be wondering about the people who are legitimately paid employees. Are they treated better by the fashion sector? Not really, not unless they're at the top - and it's a long way up. Junior designers, writers, assistant buyers, and many other entry-level positions all struggle to make ends meet.

If we look at clothing manufacturing positions, the disparity is even more shocking. For instance, an extremely unhealthy work environment was exposed during the heartbreaking Bangladesh factory crash in 2013. According to an article posted on Macleans.ca, "Joe Fresh customers reconsider purchases after Bangladesh factory collapsed kills more than 200," despite police declaring "an evacuation due to deep, visible cracks in the walls," workers were told to continue working. What were they working for? Certainly not for the pay: "workers there often made 18 cents an hour."

Related: The Cost of Low-Price Clothing.

One would think this inconsistency was bad for business, but it seems to be just the way it works. As Susan B. Kaiser writes in her book, Fashion and Cultural Studies (2012), "fashion thrives on contradiction." Fashion theorists enjoy dividing into binary affairs: masculinity and femininity, agency and structure, production and consumption, and (of course) wealth and poverty.

But this is not really a case of opposition; it's a vertical production line with a blurry middle and a golden top. Perhaps this is why, when I saw all the excessiveness at WMCFW, I immediately thought of what is behind the luxury label. Despite its extravagant appeal, as the top gets further away, most of us just can't afford to reach for it.

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