The Worst People I Have Ever Known Have Worked in Fashion
From class prejudice to eating disorder peer pressure, my tour of duty in the fashion industry had it all.
It was 2008 when I made the move from a friendly working-class city to the big lights of London. After studying over the summer for a short post-graduate diploma, I had secured a great entry-level job at a major fashion company in the epicenter of the capital. I was over the moon to have snagged such an opportunity, but I’d felt nervous as hell since my interview.
The offices were something out of The Devil Wears Prada—all clinical white surfaces, monochrome decor and a reception area filled with expensive candles. The women who worked there were also unlike any I had met in real life. Many of them looked like they had stepped straight out of a magazine. The style of the moment was ultra-glam, four-inch Christian Louboutin heels, trophy handbags and sharp-shouldered jackets—a far cry from the high-street midi dress and pleather boots I was wearing.
On my first day, I tried to look as fashionable as I could with my budget wardrobe, but I felt inadequate and out of my depth. Don’t get me wrong, I loved fashion—that’s why I was there in the first place—but it was very clear that this wasn’t a place where quirky vintage and high-street finds would be considered in vogue. Still, I wanted to make the best of it and show them I was far more than my bargain wears.
My Colleagues Were Terrifying but Ridiculous
A few weeks into my new job, I was a mess of excitement and nerves. I loved the energy of the place, the glamour and the excitement, but the pressurized day-to-day atmosphere around the office was seriously terrifying. I had an upset stomach five days a week for nearly a year.
Class and accents are a big thing in England, but I’d never realized quite how much until this point. My previous life had only led me to meet people from a similar status to my own. This was a different story. My colleagues came from some of the best private schools in the country and their accents ranged from well-spoken to downright plummy, and, boy, did they let me know I was different.
One colleague started to correct my sentences under her breath, while another casually referred to me as “guttural.” I also started to hear that a few of the bitchier girls were referring to me as stupid—a lazy judgment often made about those from less monied backgrounds. I chose to ignore the abuse and carry on as normal, but there were moments when it just felt ridiculous.
“I’m going to make a coffee,” my desk buddy said.
“Oh, would you mind making me one?” I asked, smiling up at her.
“OK,” she huffed, rolling her eyes. “But please, please don’t ever ask me again. I don’t make other people drinks.”
I laughed at the ridiculousness of her comment, given that making cups of tea (or coffee) for others is somewhat of an English pastime. I hoped that perhaps she was joking, but her stern stare reminded me that this was fashion: Being rude was a badge of honor, and normal codes of politeness were thrown out of the window. I longed to be back home in the pub surrounded by the comfort of my very down-to-earth friends and not these Anna Wintour wannabes.
While intimidating and haughty, the more senior staff were much kinder, but they still had their moments. One morning I was beckoned over by the head of a department for a chat. I was wearing a blue and white, ’60s-style, polyester dress that I had recently picked up in a vintage store. I felt good.
“It’s so hot in here today,” I said nervously, trying to ease the tension as she looked over my work, pen in hand and brow furrowed. Her desk was placed at the top of a long line of desks; the closer the staff member was to her vicinity, the more important they were deemed.
“Good job you’re dressed for summer, then,” she replied, to a rapture of titters from her deputies. It was the midst of winter and, yes, perhaps my dress was a bit summery, but I thought my wool cardigan balanced it out. How wrong I was, apparently. Suffice to say, I never wore the dress to work again.
My Fashionable Bullies Actually Helped Me Grow
After a while, I started to see the funny side of their critiques and developed a much tougher skin. I stood up for myself more often and sometimes came back with quippy comments of my own. Rather than trying to change myself to fit in, I wore my accent and identity with pride. Perhaps I was a bit of a fish out of water, but I was there all the same, and I was damned if I was going to let a group of snotty women make me feel otherwise.
My change in attitude worked in my favor. I started to earn the other girls’ respect, as well as a promotion over them—much to the horror of those whose educations had cost fortunes more than my own free state-school studies.
Over the course of the next four years, I saw and heard things I probably never will again. There was the time that a stylist was openly bullied by her boss into traveling to the U.S. with two models for a week-long shoot. She was told, in front of an open-plan office, that there was only enough budget for the three of them to share a single bed in a crappy motel.
I also overheard staff members talk openly about their eating disorders, asking each other if they were eating today or not. Then there was the memorable personal shopper who’d forgo lunch in favor of five Diet Cokes each day. Her “dietician” had apparently told her it was fine—healthy, even.
Another coworker once spent her entire month’s salary on a pair of designer shoes, only to regret it hours later. She broke down crying at her desk in remorse and had to eat beans and frozen vegetables for the rest of the month. Another one carved “I hate this place” into a freshly painted bathroom wall that sat off the main reception space. It took HR a week to remove it and months for staff members to stop talking about who did it.
Then for a hellish year or so, I had a boss who remains one of the most ridiculous people I’ve ever met. She was high maintenance, mean and not very good at her job, but she covered it up—for a while, at least—with an attitude so bad that her colleagues were scared to question her capabilities. Sometimes she wouldn’t speak to me for days, withhold important information I needed to do my job and openly mock my work, framing it as constructive feedback that the whole office needed to hear.
I Don’t Miss My Fashionable Life
Fashion was everything in that place, and making totally ludicrous decisions—such as bankrupting yourself to buy the latest must-have item or burning out to meet a deadline—was not just accepted but actively encouraged. None of the junior staff earned that much money, but we were reminded on an almost daily basis of what covetable positions we were in. If we wanted to complain about how much pressure we were under or how little our paychecks were, there were a hundred other girls waiting to take our places.
In hindsight, it feels like a vivid dream where my imagination exaggerated the personalities and events that I experienced during that part of my career. But no, it was all real, and I’m sure there are carbon copies of those people all over the fashion industry still making silly demands and playing caricatures of themselves in an attempt to progress in their careers.
Now, as a freelance writer with no colleagues to entertain me, I relish my solitude and peace of mind. Occasionally someone from that period of my life will pop up on Instagram and I’ll laugh at how much they’ve changed—or how much they haven’t—and find comfort in the fact that I came out of it unscathed, with a few great anecdotes and a much better wardrobe.