I had arrived. I was living in Paris – magical Paris – completing a master’s degree at one of the best fashion schools in the world and I had just been hired as an intern at a haute couture showroom during Paris Fashion Week. The news brought almost as much rejoice as my acceptance to Parsons had. On my first day in that typically Parisian showroom on Rue Saint-Honoré, surrounded by exquisite jewelry, gowns, shoes, bags and coats the little South African girl in me smiled to herself. In my mind’s eye I could already see all my peers back home fawning over my glamorous life as a fashion student. My dreams were coming true. Little did I know that within these dreams lived a nightmarish reality that would prove to be an exercise in disillusionment, and that would spur me to truly question the industry that I had chosen to craft my future in. 

I was not the only showroom intern. There were around eight other girls, some from Parsons Paris, like me, and others from various fashion schools in the city. We were all directed to wear black. Our duties included ensuring that the showroom was pristine at all times, greeting buyers, taking their coats, serving them coffee, and dressing the models in whichever garments the buyers requested to see. I started my first morning arranging the pieces on the floor, breathless at the sight of such sublimely beautiful fashion in the flesh. I had only ever interacted with luxury pieces through magazines (my mother always bought me a copy of Vogue for my birthday), or during rare excursions into such stores before this experience. I had always wondered whether designer garments really reflected their excessive price tags in terms of materiality. Did they look and feel a hundred times better than the fast fashion alternatives I was familiar with? On that first day I would have screamed “yes!” in response to this question. The physical interaction with gowns that cost as much as a semester of my (exorbitant) education was exhilarating. The brand’s signature style – comprising of voluminous skirts, layers of whimsical tulle and sublime embroidery, often in sparkling sequins – particularly lends itself to this notion of fairy tale so often invoked by fashion. The gowns exuded an almost tangible sense of glamour – and I was basking in it, like Aladdin in his cave of wonders. It was oddly satisfying seeing the pieces arranged hanging in unison. The complementary textures and colors, as a whole, conjured sumptuous reveries of an imagined woman, and an imagined life. 

Taking pictures discretely was not prohibited, and I was buzzing in anticipation of the reaction I would receive once I had a chance to post this on Instagram. I was not disappointed. That evening I was flooded with comments like: “living the dream!” “you are goals!” and “I’m so jealous!” My inbox was bombarded by questions and responses. I relished in the quite truthful retelling of my interactions with the models, the garments, the buyers and even the brand’s famous creative director.

Here I must caution that so far I have only told half the story. Each buyer’s appointment was met by a flurry of chaos as we pulled the selected pieces from the floor to put on the models. Backstage we squeezed the pale, bony girls into the sample sizes, pinching their skin as we zipped them into the corseted concoctions. No matter how fast we changed the models into the various looks, we were berated for taking too much time. The clients are leaving! The client wanted to see this not that! The client wants to see the red coat again! We were meant to be following the catwalk looks from shoes to jewelry to outfit. In the beginning we did this painstakingly, but by the end of the first day we shoved whichever shoes were easiest to put on and take off onto the models’ feet. The gowns we initially treated with more reverence and care than we would a newborn baby, were discarded on the floor, sometimes ripped as we trod over them in the frenzy to get the models changed in time. By the end of the first day my fingers were bleeding, rubbed raw from the strain of the perpetual zipping and unzipping of the tighter-than-skintight dresses.

Such periods of hurricane-like chaos were countered by quieter moments in-between clients. In these times we might be called to lunch. We dined at solitary five minute intervals in the kitchen where the chef (who mostly catered to the clients) slapped together either a sandwich or a salad for us. We were not allowed to leave the premises during the ten hours (on an early day) of our daily shifts. In these times the models lounged naked, save for tiny skin-toned underwear. They couldn’t very well eat lunch in pieces worth thousands of dollars, so they ate naked. The staff, male and female, would wonder in and out of the backstage area (which doubled as a dressing room) and even chat to the models without blinking. I thought this spoke to the level of objectification of the girls’ bodies that they were barely even considered to belong to themselves.

In such in-between moments I would frantically try to catch up on my school work. I had been excused from classes for this internship, but would have to catch up on lessons, readings and assignments in my own time. Of course, this happened to coincide with mid-term seasons. I would get home exhausted and work on my papers until the early hours of the morning, only to wake up dreading going back to the showroom. When I couldn’t face my work, us black-clad interns would sit on the floor, speaking in a mixture of English and French, sharing stories, or complaining in solidarity. Sometimes the models would join in, although they had chairs to sit on. They shared their other lives with us. The twins were law students in Italy. The slim-shouldered Scandinavian girl was a nutritional scientist. It seemed that modeling, even for a prestigious brand like this one, did not offer enough compensation to be one’s only job. While these pretty girls might represent the luxurious haute couture woman, the truth is that they were nowhere close to the illusion they were tasked with generating. While there were brief moments of amicability, there was still a clear hierarchy. If the models were objects, we were even less than. I vividly remember, during a particularly rushed dressing saga, the blonde model yelling at us for having to zip up her own dress, which was “not her job.”

The exploitation of garment workers on the production side of fashion is quite widely acknowledged. What is often left unmentioned, is the exploitation of those at a professional level, and even more interestingly, the self-exploitation of these workers, like myself. Did I get payed for all this misery? Of course not. As the week drew to a close, some of the girls started leaving. Our manager offered a pair of the brand’s earrings as a farewell. A quick Google search revealed their worth to be around 400$ – not too expensive for a brand of this calibre, but these were simple tassel earrings made from cheap materials – which was roughly the equivalent of monthly rent prices for an apartment back in Cape Town. To my taste, they were quite hideous and yet I found myself looking forward to my turn; to telling my friends I got something for free while working at Paris Fashion Week. But the moment never came. Those of us who worked until the final day – which included manually breaking down the showroom – got nothing.

The fashion industry, with its connotations of “coolness” and “creativity,” offers a sort of valorization to workers like myself, legitimating me as an extension of its glamorous aura. By promoting creativity and a desirable lifestyle in certain “fashion capitals,” fashion offers an identity marker as symbolic (rather than economic) remuneration for work. There is this notion that while I might not get payed much, I will be offered self-expression and self-actualization in this pursuit of “the dream.” But beyond being surrounded by truly beautiful creations, I had no creative agency of my own. This is the process; the stepping stone, I am told. The idea that this sort of unpaid, manual labour is not only accepted, but expected, in an industry rife with implicit imagery of money, yet so conspicuously lacking when it comes to the salaries of its workers, is in fact quite terrifying.

Oh, the disillusionment of an intern is a clichéd trope. But what fascinated me about this experience was not so much the bad conditions – it was how complicit I was in the production of “the fashion dream,” and my own exploitation. I suppose I could convict myself of false consciousness. Beyond the sustained illusion that I was projecting to my peers on Instagram there was a performance so concrete that I myself began to believe it. This ideology of “living the dream” is so very characteristic of the fashion world. On that Sunday (yes, Sunday is a work day for the unpaid intern) after packing up the showroom I looked around the empty skeleton of the Parisian apartment, haunted by the ghosts of glamour and young girls working themselves to exhaustion in the name of experience and the so-called honor of a career in fashion. My twisted Cinderella story had come to an end. In my version, Cinderella remains the sweeping, subservient, unrewarded slave merely tempted by her fairy godmother with visions of life-changing dresses and slippers. 

Words & Visuals: Yolanda Senekal