Letter from the Editor: The Devil in Fashion

Letter from the Editor: The Devil in Fashion

Fashion’s devilishness is no longer about power or hauteur. It is about the openly visible rupture in empathy, solidarity and the chasm between walk and talk

If the devil is in the details and fashion’s beads lay scattered amidst contentions of a supposedly “inessential” industry faced with the essential responsibility to consume less, pollute less, produce less and exploit less, how does the 15-year-old film The Devil Wears Prada even matter? Juicy memorials to the film that have appeared on platforms across the world give great copy and lamenting fashion as a toxic industry still hooks readers, but it is not the way to gown it anymore. While the film’s brilliant performances and direction continue to matter cinematically, its primary fashion reference has become stale. The replay it offers of a hierarchy fixated, power obsessed, white and privileged newsroom cast where editors wore personality cult suits to work is dry and brittle.

I was interviewed by two journalists from different publications for my thoughts on 15 years of The Devil Wears Prada. One asked me about work culture at Marie Claire India which launched in 2006 and where I was the first editor.. And, what has changed now. Another asked me how Indian fashion editors are “different” in our demonic jazz. You will not see me quoted anywhere, however, because I requested both to take me off their stories when I saw the quotes that were replayed to me. I had placed many arguments. The fair need to try fashion and beauty products for reviews or the importance of good grooming (and not logo bags) as prerequisites for those who work with fashion glossies. I also spoke about how inconsequential the fashion business is in India—and why the high stakes of Miranda Priestly (played by Meryl Streep in the movie) and her power halo do not apply here because nobody really cares about a fashion editor. Except 15,000 people on social media maybe. Fashion looks stupid if it only wears arrogance. Also, why don’t we talk about innovation, ideas, and fashion movements besides the bitchy girl culture of glossies? When the quotes were played back to me, I found myself talking about why it was okay to accept review products and wear clothes from stacks gathered for fashion shoots! Another quoted me as saying all was fair in fashion and war. For devil’s sake, no. It is not.


A still from The Devil Wears Prada.

The devil certainly lives in this industry. Yet it is no longer about the politics of hauteur, of being famous. Those ideas may matter on a sliding scale but in 2021—with 2020, the year of COVID-19 as its underlining crinoline— fashion’s devil lives in the fissure; the all too visible rupture in the industry globally.

Feminism versus The Horror Stories of Female Workers

For starters, one half of the industry does not believe in the other. Fashion houses or individual designers who have responsibly transitioned to invest in eco-right innovations, new materials, sourcing and diversity officers, supply chain investigations and compliance to be fashion forward are disillusioned by those who piggyback on these ideas as marketing gimmicks. Rightly so. Women continue to be severely exploited and underpaid in garment factories and fashion manufacturing hellholes across the world. Be it in Africa, Bangladesh or India. From pay disparity to sexual assault—they go through horrific experiences. If you think these are all remote examples, try living one day in the life of a daily wage weaver in Odisha or a migrant worker in a Yamuna Pushta colony in Delhi.

A recent story by Time magazine exposed the rampant sexual abuse in garment factories in Lesotho in South Africa including one which produces activewear for actor Kate Hudson. Fabletics is a popular American athletic-apparel line cofounded by Hudson. Reporting on the workers’ rights movement provoked by the abuses, journalists Louise Donovan and Refiloe Makhaba Nkune, write about how 90 per cent of the workers of the 1000 odd employed in this particular factory are women who have been physically and verbally abused by their supervisors. Including being forced to crawl on the floor as punishment and another where she urinated on herself because she wasn’t allowed to take a washroom break while stitching garments.


The book cover of Maxine Bedat’s Unraveled.

Horror stories abound. In her new book Unraveled: The Life and Death of a Garment, American writer Maxine Bedat describes her meetings with women who stitch denim garments for some of the world’s top brands in Bangladesh. One woman tells Bedat that her factory represents a cage and her life an unending trap—her fingers cannot stop stitching or patching because lost or idle moments are damned by supervisors.

If you look up the Clean Clothes Campaign (cleanclothes.org) it tells you that government fixed minimum wages are less than half of what is counted as a living wage in most Asian countries. Bedat adds that governments in fact incentivise big brands, lest they leave the country and seek other manufacturing hellholes for cheaper labour, instead of incentivising workers or protecting them against exploitation by big global brands. So next time we applaud ‘Make in India’, let us make sure, that we only clap for supply chain compliant, equitable, gender-equal, factories which have electricity, water and bathrooms.


A garment worker protesting as part of Clean Clothes Campaign’s initaitives.

Woke But Yawning

Then there is cause with the causeratti. Woke awareness may have changed fashion’s face but it hasn’t really seeped in deep anywhere. Asking for separate washrooms for those identifying as gender fluid may be too much to ask for in India perhaps but across the world, obvious double standards in hiring and promotion policies in fashion sectors, momentary enthusiasm for race-equality, for the rights of plus-sized, socially weaker sections makes it an industry where you must walk on eggshells all the time. Lack of trust and empathy and the pressures of the body politic leave scores of young people grappling with all-consuming anxieties and mental health challenges.


In these months of June and July, the fashion and couture industry across the world is trying to get back on its legs, reclaim its old self with new checks and balances, only to find that the holes that need darning are way more than it envisioned during lockdown and in excited “reset” meetings. No wonder creators feel the need to voice their beliefs in equality, feminism, humanism industry. Kolkata based designer and artist Kallol Datta, known for his cerebral and non-conformist views, brings another vital point to the “devil” in fashion. “As clothes-makers who live and work out of India, what should our collective response be to the mind-numbing avalanche of human rights violations occurring in the Indian subcontinent and beyond? Popular fashion designers (those who go by the fashion week routes) have until the recent past sent a majority of their exports to Arab nations. Yet it is shocking that no one has brought into focus and amplified what is happening in Palestine. We do however continue to fetishize members of the Israeli Occupation Forces holidaying in Goa. Surely the practice of making clothes should at the very least be socio-culturally anthropological,” he says.

This lopsidedness, was reflected ably, nobly and admirably by Dior creative director Maria Grazia Chiuri at the luxury house’s haute couture outing in Paris yesterday, July 5. “Fashion is not about sketches, it is about people and their livelihoods. The Indian embroidery industry is connected to the clothes people buy for events. The last year has been a real crisis for them,” she said in an interview. At the show, extending Chiuri’s lines that “couture is not only about Avenue Montaigne” (as told to The Guardian), the 350 sq mt wall space in the garden of Musée Rodin was fully embroidered to create a room wall decorated in silk thread. The installation titled ‘Silk Room’ was a collaboration between the French artist Eva Jospin and Mumbai’s Chanakya School of Craft for women which has also worked with Chiuri previously. That the fresco was given more prominence than Dior couture garments made a strong point about the attempt to connect dots.


Who Cares About Who Wears Prada

And yet the devil continues to live and dye ….in cancel culture echo chambers too. In an industry already reeling with anxieties of slowed down buying, selling, financing, shuttered shops and distressed infrastructure, fashion social media or the self-appointed watchdogs of propriety have opened a distressing paradox. While they have forced a section of brands, designers, writers and influencers to stop bulls**ting, yet sometimes their means drive people to quit even their regular, benign jobs than be shamed.

Yes, Girl Boss culture and insensitive editors exist in some magazines but so do megalomaniac bosses in other industries. Editors of newspapers, news magazines, business journals or political portals aren’t the noblesse oblige after all. Fashion’s socially assigned flippancy as an industry combined with editors heady on power do create an unfortunate combination. But we certainly do not care how Miranda Priestly likes her coffee or whether she wears Prada.

A Guardian article written by Jess Cartner-Morley mentions a “certain Manhattan bob in the front row” (at Paris Couture Week). “If American Vogue editor Anna Wintour is attending international shows again, then fashion is back,” says Cartner-Morley. Oh well. I would say the devil is no longer in the FROW. It is in the system, wearing the emperor’s new clothes.

Banner: A runway image from Shutterstock.