A highlight of the $3tn fashion industry took place last week: the CFDA (Council of Fashion Designers of America) awards. These aren’t just a pat on the back, they’re career-defining. But you’re more likely to get one if you’re a man.
Research by American academic and sociologist Allyson Stokes found that between 1981–2013, 98 men received a CFDA award, but only 29 women. This year the only female nominees were celebrity fashion designers, the Olsen twins. One man, Raf Simons, won for both menswear and womenswear. He is the first (man) to win the double since another (man) Calvin Klein. His victory was somewhat eclipsed by the furore over the “glass runway”. Does the fashion industry have a gender equality issue, asked Fashionista.com.
Well yes, Fashionista.com, it does. It’s not so much a gender equality problem but the type of mass exploitation of women that future generations will look at as we do slavery. To find it, though, you’ll need to look beyond the rarefied world of the glass runway. There’s a global supply chain that produces most of the world’s fashion, and 85 per cent of the 75 million garment workers toiling in this chain – sewing seams, sequins and adding zippers to our everyday clothes – are young women.
Here, female representation is not the problem. Physical abuse, unsafe factories and poverty wages are. In a recent report from women’s rights NGO the Circle, founded by Annie Lennox (disclaimer: I’m a member), human rights barrister Jessica Simor QC looked at female garment workers’ wages in 14 hotspots, from Bangladesh to Romania producing for high-street brands. The report shows how brands and states are riding roughshod over the right of these women to earn a living wage. To add further injury, these slave-wage jobs are consistently presented as being empowering for women in fashion.