Monday, 10 June 2013

Is fashion journalism a "closed shop for the elite"?

Pippa Middleton has recently been named a 'contributing editor' to Vanity Fair, in a move that many 'serious' journalists are finding hard to swallow. I for one am slightly miffed, if unsurprised. This kind of thing has happened before, especially in fashion magazines (Alexa Chung as contributing editor for Vogue, anyone?) and there are certainly arguments to be made about why Pippa is the right choice for the publication. Yet some view her appointment as indicative of a more widescale problem in journalism. Owen Jones summed it up neatly on Twitter.

It got me thinking - is this the case for fashion journalism as much as it is for journalism as a whole? Casting your eye down the masthead of British Vogue, the sheer number of familiar surnames, many of which are double-barrelled, gives you some indication of the social position of its staff. But I wanted to look a little further, so I've done some research into the editors of the top 10 UK fashion magazines according to this list by Cision. In a few cases I couldn't find the information I wanted, but of the 7 editors whose education details I could find, 6 went to comprehensives, secondary moderns or public high schools, with only one (Alexandra Shulman of Vogue) educated at an independent school. What's more, two of the editors chose not to continue to higher education or dropped out to take a job in the industry. One of them, Jo Elvin, is the editor of Glamour, Britain's top-selling fashion magazine. It could be observed though that there is a possible correlation between the cost of your education and the RRP of the publication you work on.

So what does this tell us? Well for a start it looks like there might be  a fairly decent spread of different types of schooling represented in the top fashion mag jobs. We can also infer that expensive higher education qualifications are not essential to success, especially if you can gain relevant experience instead. Of those who did go to university, none went to Oxford or Cambridge (though personally I don't consider this to always be a sign of the 'elite' anyway, since many state-educated and even underprivileged students are now being admitted), though many did go to other prestigious establishments such as Central Saint Martins and City University. It's difficult to tell whether they would have succeeded without these courses, but they must have contributed to their rise through the ranks in some way. This is one of the problems which Jones identified on Twitter, there's an emphasis on "expensive qualifications from the likes of City University" which can become the preserve of the wealthy elite. However perhaps this is more of a problem for newspaper journalism than fashion magazines?

Of course, education is not the only factor. If you've ever read any advice on making it in the fashion industry (my personal Gospel is the Teen Vogue Handbook) then you surely must have come across that age-old advice: make connections. Only, how do you make the initial connections which allow you to enter situations in which you can make further connections? The moment I realised it was going to be hard for me to break into fashion journalism came back in 2010, when I read Rachel Johnson's A Diary of The Lady. In one entry, she takes her daughter to Fashion Week - for a start, let's just think about the fact that her daughter gets to go to Fashion Week, which is already an opportunity she wouldn't have if it weren't for her mother - and they are subsequently surrounded by important fashion editors. She refers to a deal she made with Lisa Armstrong of The Times: "I told Lisa I would give her daughter work experience if she had Milly into the Times fashion department. One can see why everyone hates the middle classes so much - they divvy up the glittering prizes now even before university has already begun, in a sort of members' enclosure to which only the privileged VIPS ever gain entry." Well it's nice of you to acknowledge the unfairness of it Rachel but that doesn't change the fact that, at the time, the injustice of it all brought tears of rage to my 15-year-old eyes. So this is the way of the world, I thought.

It's simply a fact, not just of journalism, but of most professions:hard work, skill and intelligence will get you to a certain point; nepotism will get you the rest. I'm not saying that everyone who's ever wrangled a job through their parents' connections didn't deserve it, nor that well-connected people will always take advantage of links to get a foothold in the industry. Perhaps the only way of tackling the problem is to remove unpaid internships from the system. After all, it's only really those with wealthy parents who can afford to live in London, one of the most expensive places to live in the world, whilst getting no pay. If you can't get that kind of experience, it's difficult to market yourself as employable. Another solution has recently been put forward by the NCTJ, who plan to set up apprenticeships with The Independent, The Standard and The BBC for non-graduates, making it possible for some to enter the industry without the need for an expensive university qualification.

On a personal note, I'm hoping one day to become a journalist, possibly within fashion journalism, but I do worry sometimes.Because despite the advantages I have had in life and the fact that I'm going to an excellent university in October, the "glittering prizes" will have already been handed out to the children of the wealthy who already work in the industry. Researching this post has soothed my fears a little; it seems that there's greater diversity in the fashion industry than I first thought - socially at least, because let me tell you there's not exactly a lot of racial diversity (every editor on the top 10 list is white). But if the kind of blatant favouritism which I read about in Johnson's book is still in existence then that makes me very worried, partially for myself and even more for people who aren't lucky enough to have had the opportunities I've had.

Let's start thinking of more ways we can open up the "closed shop".


Shug Avery said...

Very clever article. I couldn't agree more with your point of view. Few weeks ago I stumbled upon a video of the fashion stylist Giovanna Battaglia who was telling about her career and how all this happened. She was a model for D&G at 16 and then started doing fashion styling thanks to Anna dello Russo and Franca Sozzani. Eventhough it wasn't said in the video it is obvious that her background did help her, her mother being a model, she must have had some connections in the fashion industry but this part was obviously not mentioned.
I believe that in industries like fashion or business you cannot avoid nepotism but at the same time I also believe that people who haven't the background of Giovanna Battaglia can make it because of their determination, cleverness AND a LOT of luck, by that I mean being at the right place at the right moment. Nonetheless I also believe that in the end certain positions are given to people seeing how hard working they are, I mean to be recommended by someone, when you are not belonging to a wealthy family, you need to be noticed and this means hard work is still what stands out.

Good luck to you in your journey to become a fashion journalist !

Shug Avery of Incognito

Frances said...

This was a really interesting post - and touches on so many important issues, across lots of industries I think, unfortunately.

I do think that if someone really really wants to be a fashion journalist that we are lucky enough to live in a country where if they work hard enough and make enough sacrifices they will get where they want to be. It'll just be a lot harder than someone from a 'connected' wealthy family, which is really unfair. I'm not sure what the answer is though but at the moment - especially with the large levels of unemployment - it depressingly feels like it is getting worse.

Blogging, at least, is one way other voices and viewpoints can reach a lot of people and I'm sure has a part to play in shifting these attitudes.

Tarandip said...

The fashion industry has kinda been breaking my heart ever since I decided that I wanted to be a part of it. However, as with any career move in life, it is definitely all about the connection and how wide of a network you have.

Friends with influential? You're definitely in. I've seen this happen so many times that it sometimes causes me to be disillusioned by the industry. We can constantly say that it's just not right but that's just the way it is.

Nonetheless, definitely agree that unpaid internships should be removed, they do not help any cause at all except of the rich, who basically can afford to live with an unpaid internship. And when experience + connections is all that matters in this industry, an internship is pretty vital.

So, while I think this industry is difficult to crack, it would be a thrill once cracked and yes you should continue to work hard at it and become the journalist you want to be.

- Tarandip

Devon - InformedStyle said...

Loved the piece - I've always felt that internships were unfair to those without the means to pay the bills without a pay check. I understand the whole 'paying your dues' thing, but for free? hmmm...

In the absence of social connections, financial privilege or dumb luck, I think (perhaps naively) that the new digital realm is a great opportunity to make a portfolio, find a voice and build expertise in order to move into journalism. Harder work than having it handed to you? Yes. But also more rewarding - and it gives me hope that someone with actual skill as a journalist will be able to snag a contributing editor spot at Vanity Fair...


Anonymous said...

This is indeed a very compelling article. I find it doubly-interesting as I am an American living in the UK, so the educational and class aspect is perhaps slightly different to what it is back home, although the "elitism" is certainly there as well. I think nepotism, as you say, plays the bigger role, especially in the US, where there is a lesser emphasis on the double-barrelledness of one's name (not for lack of trying on the part of the self-proclaimed elite, though). There is a similar theme when you look at the jobs of the sons and daughters of the elite. Contributing editor at a fashion magazine, gallerist, etc. Basically, when starting out you need to be able to pass the"coolness test" (who is the arbiter of that, I wonder) and afford to be able to work for free as a intern. Who can do that but a deleted few?

Project Curve said...

honestly there are very few articles i have come across which are this long with no pictures but so compelling. you, my dear can write. and you deserve to be a journalist. i am a film student and this same worry eats me away. i look around and everyone who ever did an unpaid internship, be it with a stylist or publishing house or media house, was able to do so because of wealthy parents who could support them, whoever did work on films all due to connections, parents' friends mostly.

albina N muro said...

I am continually amazed by the amount of information available on this subject. What you presented was well researched and well worded in order to get your stand on this across to all your readers.

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