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Memo from Musgrave: Time to pay for fashion retail’s image problem

The fashion business is not getting a good press these days. Last year we had the debate about zero-hours contracts in retailing and unpaid internships across the industry. Now the talk has switched to the question of the minimum wage, the living wage and equal pay for women. Fashion is unlikely to emerge smelling of roses in any of these categories.

Who remembers Cherie Blair making a speech several years back in which she urged some schoolgirls to work hard at their exams lest they end up working in a shop? It was ironic, was it not, that her husband backed Philip Green’s idea to create a school dedicated to the art and science of fashion retailing? Green got his knighthood and the industry got the Fashion Retail Academy, an institution of which I hear only good things. 

As the FRA celebrates its 10th anniversary of helping young people realise their potential in the industry, it is depressing to consider just how undervalued many of the workers are on the shop floor, in distribution centres and in the head offices of even our largest concerns.

And before anyone says it, yes, my own magazine publishing industry reflects many of the ills of the fashion biz. The reality is that we both “benefit”, if I can use such a term, from demand outstripping supply. As with the fashion industry, the media business has spawned hundreds of courses that turn out thousands of graduates each year looking for precious few jobs. Hence the entry level pay is appalling – and if you don’t like it, you can always work for free as an intern.

I was amused to learn this week that David Cameron was promising to close the gender pay GAP. Not that the subject itself is funny, but the PM has not covered himself in glory when it comes to promoting females to his various cabinets. It would be nice to see him doing the walk as well as the talk.

As today’s Drapers editorial team comprises 10 women and four men – and there are very few males in the wider Drapers squad that organises our events and awards, does our marketing, sells our ads, manages corporate subscriptions and the rest – you can imagine how keenly this subject was discussed internally this week. As the father of two bright and ambitious daughters (not to overlook my bright and ambitious son), I am mildly disheartened that we still need to discuss gender pay imbalance. 

Is the fashion business as guilty as any other offender? Or is it actually better than most? We would love to hear your views, experiences and observations.

Jumping back to the living wage/minimum wage debate, I am not sure we are making progress. As soon as George Osborne said in his budget speech that he was aiming for a £9 an hour rate for over-25s, I immediately tweeted that this would exclude thousands of fashion industry staff. Many would have to work for up to eight years before they got to that level. And the issue of zero-hours contracts remains. 

It will be interesting to see which firms seize the opportunity to lead by example and how many continue to duck and dive with deflections about staff discounts and other benefits or just ignore the debate. As ever, your views on the topic would be most welcome.

Finally, thanks to everyone who congratulated me on being named Business Media Editor of the Year by the Professional Publishers Association last week. This is a massive award in the business magazine sector and I am thrilled that Drapers has received the accolade.

Readers' comments (3)

  • Gracious Store

    "she urged some schoolgirls to work hard at their exams lest they end up working in a shop? I" What does this imply? Retailers are those who could not make it through school? Really??

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  • Eric Musgrave

    See for yourself in this item from The Guardian 10 years ago
    http://www.theguardian.com/uk/2005/nov/08/cherieblair.highereducation
    My memory was slightly awry on what Mrs Blair actually said, but the message is the same, ie people who aren't clever work in shops. What a deeply insulting and erroneous attitude.

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  • darren hoggett

    Retail generally isn't seen as particularly attractive prospect for many young people. It is best seen as a stop gap. Multiples are considered boring and Indies offer little route of progression, so you've got to get involved into the clothing trade because you love it, not for the money, as there is so little of it in the industry. Working in a shop isn't seen as aspirational, that's the hard fact.

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