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What it’s really like to be a working class creative in fashion

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Designers, photographers, and more weigh in on the realities of being part of an industry built on elitist hierarchies, and the hurdles they’ve had to overcome to ‘make it’ in fashion

In our new Class Ceiling series, we unpack how class actually affects young people today – from our jobs, to the way we have sex, to our general experience of the world.

Fashion, as an industry, is fixated on the working class. Look in the direction of any luxury juggernaut and you’ll see them pinning four-figure price tags to garments normally populated inner-city teens and 20-somethings. These days, you’ll find even the stuffiest of brands are flogging trackies and trainers, with some labels going as far as appropriating the uniforms of service workers in their collections. Remember those Vetements DHL tees? You can cop yourself one on Grailed right now for the reasonable price of $218. Bargain!

While you may be able to walk into most high-end concept stores these days and be greeted by a pile of 80 quid workwear trousers, or take a look in the glossies to find a glam photoshoot backdropped by a council estate, the tendency of luxury brands to ‘slum it down’ and design what they see on the streets has achieved little to dent the elitism that plagues the industry as a whole. No matter how hard you work, or how good you are at blagging, the reality is from the second a working class person decides to pursue a career in fashion, they’re set at a disadvantage.

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It usually starts with the leverage of having a parent who works in fashion – or a career in an adjacent creative field – gives you in seeing a job in the industry as a viable career path. Despite flocks of creatives disbanding from London to carve careers in the Midlands, the North, and beyond, fashion remains cantered to the capital, meaning hundreds of 18-year-olds take to the city each year for university or work. Most of them will balance part time jobs with a full-time degree just to pay for their student digs, having to sandwich unpaid internships in-between to compete with their classmates – many of whom are bankrolled by mummy and daddy. 

From snobbery amongst peers for having an accent, through to increasingly sparse government grants and bursaries, there’s also an endlessly tiresome battle against the nepotism that runs rife in fashion, with recruitment platform Creative Access finding 85 per cent of all creative roles are recruited via word-of-mouth over advertised positions. Speaking from experience, the sheer graft it takes to get even a toe in the door can leave you questioning a career in this rich person’s playground altogether. 

There is still much to be hopeful for, however. A fresh-faced cohort of talents are not only embracing their class, but looking at their backgrounds to inform their work and uplifting fellow creatives in the process, and conversations on the topic are more open than ever. From photographers and stylists, through to designers, PRs, editors, and writers, we spoke to a number of people in the industry about the realities of “making it” in fashion as a working class person. 

AMELIA WHITE – SENIOR EDITOR, PERFECT MAGAZINE

I was lucky enough to have a mentor who also grew up working class when I started out as a fashion intern and therefore never expected me to use my card for the many expenses that come with prepping a shoot: vintage rentals (normally £500), paying for Ubers, etc. But what I did find was how wealth would get you noticed in the office. The designer peacocks would coincidentally get plucked to attend the hottest events. I always found it so vapid. With money comes privilege and with privilege comes confidence. Being working class, humility was one of the biggest lessons that was ingrained into me growing up.

When you have grown up with the idea of branded Coca Cola being a luxury and the mindset that people who shop at Waitrose are aristocrats, there’s an overwhelming moment of reckoning when you finally “make it” in the industry. Free drinks, free meals, free clothes, free travel. Receiving an ‘editor’ title is quite literally like being knighted. Overnight, you are deemed worthy and next time you go to an event, PR’s will have memorised your bemused face.”

HEATHER GLAZZARD – PHOTOGRAPHER AND EDITOR

I used to feel so ashamed about my class background, so much so that it was projected in my work as me trying to be something I wasn’t. I would compare my work to big budget shoots and be disappointed when it didn’t look the same. Only in the last year or so have I let go of that shame. I care less about impressing these posh art directors in fashion and more about whether I am being honest to myself in my work and being honest to the subjects I’m shooting. I believe in this moment I’m taking pride in my underclass background and it’s allowing me to be real and honest through my work.

There’s a prejudice in expecting underclass and working class people to work for free to benefit their magazine or brand. Like you would never work at Aldi for free. I’ve also had some people make snide comments, but you just learn to not work with these people. I’ve been expected to work for free and I’ve had to turn this sort of work down, even though I felt it would push me forward. The main challenge I guess is knowing your worth.”

“Something I found [when I started out in fashion] was how wealth would get you noticed in the office. The designer peacocks would coincidentally get plucked to attend the hottest events. I always found it so vapid. With money comes privilege and with privilege comes confidence. Being working class, humility was one of the biggest lessons that was ingrained into me growing up” – Amelia White

ANDREW CECILIATO – SENIOR ACCOUNT MANAGER, PURPLE PR

“I remember working at Urban Outfitters six days a week to pay rent to just stay in London and thinking I would never be able to break into the fashion industry. There was even one time where I had to move back to Wales to get a job to pay for my rent for a room I wasn’t even living in – it’s mad this is still happening to students and interns today. At the time it was quite hard to even get experience while having a full-time job. Not to get all Molly Mae, but there are only 24 hours in a day. Building up a CV of experience was quite hard. Thankfully, Liam Hodges, Natasha Booth, and Lulu Kennedy at Fashion East gave me a chance and I will always be thankful for that!

I think a fresh perspective is an advantage of being working class. As well as creativity, especially in fashion, there is a certain satire that the working class just get. The council estate at one point was huge in fashion, I feel like every main fashion editorial was in a council estate in East London. When I studied fashion photography and styling, I incorporated working-class values into my work. Referencing nightlife, the 9-5 mentality, and how fashion related to that. I remember designers like Christopher Shannon (his show invites were amazing 90s Hard house Helter Skelter imagery), Nasir Mazhar, and Liam Hodges really played on that, they really took advantage of their backgrounds and upbringing.

[Working class creatives] I have come across are very honest hard workers, and so creative. That fire in your belly to prove people wrong shines through and I think you can see it. There are more of us out there for sure that need to receive the recognition they deserve or even just the chance to prove their worth!”

EMMANUEL O’BRIEN – ARTIST

“Class discrimination is more amorphous as a minority experience. But also, within the diversity ticking box culture, there is this gross lack of understanding of what constitutes a “working-class person”. I had to work twice as hard as my middle-class counterparts to be taken seriously. I couldn’t afford to intern, so I had to manifest a higher skill set to be appealing to any prospective employer. 

I will say that not being able to do what you want to do 99 per cent of the time, restriction builds better discernment and, in a sense, taste. You tend to only sacrifice time and effort into something you believe in, and those ill-judged mistakes burn that much hotter if you are poor. Anyone who is from a working class background will likely be highly skilled at their craft, thanks to a sense of imposter syndrome.”

“Not being able to do what you want to do 99 per cent of the time, restriction builds better discernment and, in a sense, taste. You tend to only sacrifice time and effort into something you believe in, and those ill-judged mistakes burn that much hotter if you are poor. Anyone who is from a working class background will likely be highly skilled at their craft, thanks to a sense of imposter syndrome” – Emmanuel O’Brien

DOGUKAN NESANIR – STYLIST

“I come from no money, actually almost poor circumstances. When I saw other creatives flying around the world to shoot editorials for nothing or were able to take on projects for free and wouldn’t care about the rent that month, I had to struggle and hustle every day with two jobs while trying to be a stylist. [I didn’t have a] fancy fashion school education, nor do I have fashion parents or relatives that worked in that field, so this was one of the biggest challenges to come into the industry out of nowhere and claim a seat at the table. 

[The advice I would give a working class creative trying to make it in fashion would be] don’t let your background or circumstances define you. If you have talent and you are creative, embrace it in any possible way! [Being a working class person] you always come up with a lot of different solutions as you were never able to take the easy route. I also can always rely on myself that I am my own safety net and I am not dependent on anybody but myself. I can’t just rely on a mom and dad that pay my rent, I need to be good to work.”

DARREN MCCKOY – CREATIVE DIRECTOR AT DR. MARTENS

I’ve never considered my class as a hindrance, I’ve always seen it as a positive. It was through my parents and my upbringing that I learnt what it was to have a strong work ethic. Coming from a working class background was a point of pride for me. It instilled in me a set of values and principles to abide by.

I think there are still a lot of barriers to entry for people of different financial backgrounds in getting into the industry, but there are also a lot of creatives that are carving their own paths and being recognised for their immense talent. I’ve got a lot of respect for the creative communities out there. Communities that build one another up and collaborate with each other in the truest sense of the word.”

“Like most creatives, my work and myself are intertwined and my Scouse, working-class work ethic comes out in everything I do. Working class people will give you the world, even if they don’t have it to give. You can always tell successful working class creatives because they’ll always give the most in terms of experiences and opportunities” – Jonathon Kidd

JONATHON KIDD, DESIGNER

I think in my first term of CSM I realised I was one of the very few people I knew in London with a job alongside studying. As a freelance creative, at times, I’ve gone from having a very stable income to a very unstable income, no matter the financial situation you still have to pay living costs. Right now, I’m working freelance, which has given me a stable income, however, when it draws to a close, I can’t rely on other financial backings, so I’ve had a restaurant job alongside my freelancing to make sure I have a financial cushion.

I’m often placed in situations that are unusual for someone of my background and it gives me great appreciation for those moments, whereas I find for a lot of people around me those kind of experiences are totally normalised. Having all these different experiences and meeting such different people gives my work more depth and energy. Also, like most creatives, my work and myself are intertwined and my Scouse, working-class work ethic comes out in everything I do creatively. Working class people will give you the world, even if they don’t have it to give. You can always tell successful working class creatives because they’ll always give the most in terms of experiences and opportunities.”

KISH LAL, JOURNALIST AND AUTHOR

“Microaggressions are so hard to put on paper. They can read like flimsy attempts at validating your experiences. But even as I admit that, I remember the sting of each of these experiences. When I first moved to New York, I was invited to the Christian Cowen show. Of course, I was probably wearing my best H&M outfit, so the security didn’t believe I was actually there to cover the event. Have you ever tried to argue with a New York bouncer? You’re not winning. Sometimes it feels like being a WOC who doesn’t know the secret subtleties of the industry leaves me at a disadvantage. I always feel like a clumsy fool, surrounded by people in an elite club. 

I don’t think fashion wants to be inclusive. The commercialised idea of inclusivity has tricked many of us into thinking that there’s a seat at the table for us, but the reality is that as an industry that’s been built on exclusivity – and that also includes keeping people out – we’re always going to have to fight our way in. It takes a lot of guts to go after your dreams when you grow up thinking they’re just a fantasy. Whether it’s a designer scrounging and saving for a few thousand dollars to start a collection, or someone defying their parents to do what they love, it takes guts. People who’ve never been in this position don’t quite understand the tears, trauma and heartbreak that can result from you just wanting to do something off-script. It can mean losing your family, your stability and risking it all just to fail.”

“Unless we totally reform the system of industry access, higher education, and the slashing of the arts under this heinous government, working class creatives [and the creative industries full stop] will be decimated with little to no originality or celebratory of representation left” – Lucy Isobel Bonner

LUCY ISOBEL BONNER – STYLIST AND CONSULTANT

“My mum works for the NHS and my dad’s a builder. I’m not from a background of access to the arts and had no idea what styling was until I took a gamble. I don’t think I realised the impact this has had until very recently of how family connections have literally built this whole industry. It’s clear from very early on how much you’re up against to get paid, to get recognition and to get access to certain worlds if you’re not already from them.

A lot of references are informed by what I was exposed to growing up, naturally like everyone else. I spent years when I was younger growing up in a pub and that’s a huge part of my DNA, being surrounded by people, men watching football, WKDs, the first ever series of Big Brother, darts nights, all feed into this notion of good and bad taste which is definitely an undercurrent throughout my work. Car boot sales, charity shops, irony.

Unless we totally reform the system of industry access, higher education, and the slashing of the arts under this heinous government, working class creatives [and the creative industries full stop] will be decimated with little to no originality or celebratory of representation left.”

PATRICK MCDOWELL – FASHION DESIGNER

My style comes from my roots. It comes from nights out in Liverpool and making do with what you have – shining and wearing your wealth. [At Central Saint Martins], I became aware that there were people that didn’t just have more financial means than me, but were able to navigate the whole space a lot more comfortably. They’d grown up around people who wore the clothes I’d only seen in magazines or on TV. They could pronounce Balenciaga, whereas I could not. 

For me it always felt like an industry I didn’t belong in. Where I went to school Zara was considered ‘posh’. I think the main problem was that I didn’t understand how you had to be a fashion creative in London. It’s never been outwardly spoken to me as an issue, but I do feel that I had to do quite a lot of further work to really understand how to be, how to act. As a queer person, I’ve always been used to having to play the chameleon. You’re trying to assimilate but you never quite fit. It’s a heteronormative world after all. When you’re working class there’s an extra layer added to that. I personally like to take challenges and run with them and I’m grateful to these parts of me, but I am aware that it might have been easier if I went to private school, grew up in Surrey and mummy had a Chanel bag.”

“As a queer person, I’ve always been used to having to play the chameleon. You’re trying to assimilate but you never quite fit. It’s a heteronormative world after all. When you’re working class there’s an extra layer added to that. I personally like to take challenges and run with them and I’m grateful to these parts of me, but I am aware that it might have been easier if I went to private school, grew up in Surrey, and mummy had a Chanel bag” – Patrick McDowell 

AMI EVELYN HUGHES – CREATIVE DIRECTOR AND FOUNDER OF GUT MAGAZINE

I know it’s become glamorous to be working class now, with silver spoon skateboarders and painters born in eight-bedroom houses in Wiltshire making sure [they’re] shot in greasy spoons for press, talking about their one slightly working class Cockney grandad or whatever. Ultimately though, faking being working class when you have no idea of the struggle is so disrespectful to all of us who have had to live it from a child and through into our working careers and general life.  

I made my own magazine, my own world, where no one could have a say on it because it’s mine. GUT magazine was founded in 2015 with my bestie Georgia Kemball and we just work tirelessly on it with no agenda to this day. GUT isn’t financially viable, but it opened so many doors for me in such a fluid way. I’m so blessed and lucky – if we hadn’t made the decision to start the magazine, I’m not sure where I’d be now.

I think having a very real fire in your belly to make ‘it’ work gave me more drive than someone who knows they have a nest egg and lives in a house paid for already by their family. I was terrified if I didn’t make it I’d be one of those old women deciding between having the heating on or buying food, living in a house that I don’t own. I think the main influence on my work from my parents and my background is to be incredibly hard working and never give up. There’s just a working class mentality that you’re born with and raised with that I’m very proud of.”

CHARMAINE AYDEN – CREATIVE CONTENT DIRECTOR, KARLA OTTO

“I’ve always tried to wear my background as a badge of honour – I’m proud of where I come from and I’ve made that known. While I personally haven’t experienced any prejudice, it can sometimes feel like the fashion industry fetishises the working class, which doesn’t always feel great. There’s often an odd relationship at play. 

I remember in my first job, being baffled that the interns would get their lunch from Selfridges’ Food Hall – there was this sudden realisation that some had very different financial boundaries. On another occasion I attended a Christopher Kane sample sale with a different intern, and she was completely mystified when I said that I couldn’t afford to buy the t-shirt that I had my eyes on. It was very much a ‘but why don’t you just get it?’ moment.

The fashion industry still needs different perspectives. Don’t forget that some of the industry’s true visionaries are from working class backgrounds, like Lee McQueen. The industry would be incredibly boring without us.”

“Faking being working class when you have no idea of the struggle is so disrespectful to all of us who have had to live it from a child and through into our working careers and general life” – Ami Evelyn Hughes

ADAM JONES – DESIGNER

“My working class background informs all of my work everyday, it’s your point of difference. The best writers, designers, creatives in general write or design or make from what they know, it’s that honesty people want to see or hear. You have to be proud of where you are from, and let your upbringing inform your work even if you deny it at first – which I definitely did for a while. I have always been surrounded by working class people, I knew no different, so I worked very hard to get to where I am today, I have never expected anything to be given to me. 

I have always been inspired by working class designers from Alexander McQueen to Christopher Shannon. I loved to read [how] people like Liam Hodges and Martine Rose, who, like me, had bar jobs to fund their brand, which is something I wanted to emulate. I found their honesty very inspiring. They have always been very open about the realities of having a young brand in London, as glamorous as it may seem from the outside.”

GERRIT JACOB – DESIGNER

“Not having money is obviously a big barrier when it comes to breaking into fashion. Doing internships and free photoshoots really is a very effective way to get your foot in the door, so not having the funds to do that on a regular basis is really hard. I got lucky more than once with certain jobs and internships. During my undergraduate degree, it was super hard and I really didn’t do that well – it took me a few years to get back on my feet. When it came to my masters, I managed to get a scholarship for both living expenses and fees and the difference between being creative whilst not having to worry about money and struggling financially is enormous. It was like suddenly this weight had been lifted off of my shoulders and suddenly I was able to use all my time to think about ideas and go to the pub on Saturdays as opposed to working on a till.

[Being working class] is literally the number one thing that informs my work and is present at every level of the creative process, whether it’s conscious or not. I love exploring class-informed perceptions of taste. For me personally I did not have any type of ‘high culture’ around me growing up (museums, art, literature, classical music etc), so the things I was exposed to everyday, whether it was TV, gossip mags, the local fun fair, were high culture to me. They still are, in a way.”