Fashion Internships: What We've Learned
We all know the deal with internships: they’re increasingly necessary for more and more careers, punishingly unfair to the people doing them, and even more unfair to the people who can’t. Millennials are constantly being told to suck it up and do the damn internship, live in our parents’ basements for a while after college and be grateful for the opportunity. But what about the student loans that will have to wait another six months to start being paid off? Or those for whom the proverbial basement isn’t an option? We all know the system is rigged, and the internship has become a lightning rod for the generational misunderstanding of how.
Now on its fourth issue, UK-based Intern magazine purports to both open the conversation about internships in general and to give space and voice to young creative people nearing or at the end of their studies and beginning their careers. The slick production, insider-y tone, and hip young people profiled impart a certain sexiness to the category of unpaid assistant/gofer, but do very little to bring attention to the inherent inequality in the structure of the creative industries.
At FSJ, we’re no strangers to the world of internships. Most of our editors and contributors have resumes littered with them, whether in museums, at industry publications, or design houses. In the spirit of peeking behind the curtain and laying bare the reality of being among the group both privileged and undervalued enough to have filled these positions, we present below a few personal experiences of the life of interns in and around the fashion industry in NYC. There are plenty of lessons within—just as often about what we don’t want from our careers as what we do.
Tessa Maffucci, Digital Strategy
When I was a young, bright-eyed undergraduate, I was thrilled to land an (unpaid) internship at an iconic fashion magazine. I was new to New York and to the entire concept of internships. As an editorial intern, I imagined that I would be transcribing interviews, shadowing seasoned fashion journalists, and even securing a byline or two of my own. In a youthful combination of hubris and naiveté, I imagined a very linear path from intern to staff writer, which I now know is the exception rather than the rule.
On my first day, I was assigned to help prepare masquerade masks for an upcoming event. The task was about as far from my imagined role as possible, but like any eager intern, I approached the job with boundless enthusiasm. The editorial assistant leading the project was everything I aspired to be at the time. She was impeccably dressed, intimidating, and spoke with the kind of exaggerated fashion drawl that made me feel hopelessly provincial. My specific sub-task in this project was to secure pricing options for the jewels that would be affixed to the masks. She instructed me to only look for Swarovski crystals—a word so alien to me that I jotted down a combination of nonsense letters in my notebook and then ventured out into the Garment District lost and confused.
I hadn’t been given any time limit for this assignment, so I spent the next several hours wandering up and down in the vicinity of 7th Avenue making an exhaustive list of rhinestones in all colors, shapes, and sizes. Thanks to a sympathetic employee at M&J Trimming, I was able to parrot back a rough approximation of Swarovski, which steadied my confidence, so by the time I decided to head back to the office I felt quite pleased with the job I had done. Upon my return, another editorial assistant spotted me, asked what I had been doing, took one look at my list and declared the entire project a waste of time. Swarovski was too expensive. In fact, rhinestones of any kind were out of the question. We would have to do feathers instead.
Elizabeth Way, Contributing Writer
Majoring in apparel design in college, I knew I needed an internship or two on my resume if I wanted a job after graduation. So during the spring of sophomore year, I emailed every cool fashion company I had read about in Vogue. The only place that accepted me was Alexander Wang. In 2006 the brand had just started and was building an encouraging buzz. The whole operation consisted of about six employees and several rotating interns. The studio was in a building on the corner of Fifth Avenue and 26th street, right across from the new and highly-trafficked Shake Shack in Madison Square Park.
Interning in New York was only possible because of my friend’s parents’ generosity in putting me up in their Long Island home. That meant a two-hour commute each way. The job consisted mostly of goffering in the summer heat. It was the first time I’d spent any significant time in the city and I made my way with HopStop directions and a paper subway map. I discovered the sample rooms of the fading garment industry and made a bewildering run, off the comforting grid system, into the West Village to buy fancy rubber stamps. (Alex wanted his artist statement for the CDFA Fashion Fund application to be stamped into a black portfolio with individual letters and white ink. I did the physical stamping; succeeding only after repeated botched jobs.) There were also a lot of banal supply runs to Pacific Trim, Steinlauf & Stoller, and Staples—the only place out of dozens that questioned me for using a credit card bearing a man’s name that obviously wasn’t mine.
More attention has been paid to the exploitative nature of the unpaid intern system after the horror stories of mistreatment came out in the lawsuit against Vogue in 2014. I agree that internships, maybe especially ones in fashion, can be exploitative. More importantly, they are regarded as prerequisites for employment, but remain inaccessible to many. Only the support of two sets of middle class parents allowed me to live in New York, working 40 hours a week, completely unpaid for three months.
And yes, I had to do stupid things—I stood in the never-ending Shake Shack line when important guests came to the office for lunch (Shake Shack was that cool)—and things completely unrelated to my job, like investigate the price of a coffee table for my boss’s new apartment. I did, however, also gain some real insight into running a fashion business. I learned how to make a line sheet, what Net-60 meant, and that sometimes your product arrives from China in soaking wet boxes, but it still has to be dried out and delivered on time. I was even given responsibilities. Completely independently, I brokered a $45,000 sale of overstock to an online retailer. I also got free clothes (that I still wear) for every day that I worked the sample sale. I will also say that nobody at the company was mean or belittling to me, and when I stood in line at Shake Shack, my boss bought me lunch too.
The most important thing I learned that summer was that I wasn’t going to make it as an independent fashion designer. At Alexander Wang I observed a family business in which the designer was supported both financially and through the dedicated business acumen of people he heavily depended on. And it was still really hard. Back then they were hustling. Fashion is a tough business and my internship clued me into what it takes to even try to succeed.
Lauren Downing Peters, Editor-in-Chief
My worst fashion job ever lasted all of half a day. It was also the only job I’ve ever quit. It also, honestly, wasn’t a job per se; it was one of those exploitive internships that were far too common back in those heady days before New York (sort of?) cracked down on the corporate abuse of unpaid interns.
My brief stint at a major New York-based (and now defunct) fashion trend forecasting agency was like something from a movie—a fashion industry cliché of a movie, but a movie nonetheless. At first, the agency’s pristine offices overlooking Bryant Park filled me—a bright-eyed, bushy-tailed, and scarily naive MA fashion studies student fresh out of her first year—with optimism. The sea of 27-inch iMacs and ergonomic designer desk chairs exuded an air of corporate professionalism I was only vaguely familiar with, having been a lifetime student. I saw a bit of myself in the steely resolve of the army of young, female employees in their Isabael Marant Dicker boots and Rachel Comey smock dresses. As the chief trend forecaster sat me down at my very own work station after an incredibly brief introduction, I thought to myself, I have definitely made it. This is my future.
Equipped with my login credentials, I was told to just “familiarize” myself with the company’s digital content. After about an hour and a half of aimless “familiarizing,” however, I began to wonder what came next as nobody had spoken to me or given me directives aside from that too-brief introduction. As I sat there, slowly beginning to dread my summer at the trend forecasting agency at which I had agreed to work, unpaid, five days a week, I became acutely aware of the oppressive silence that hung over the office. It’s an odd sensation—realizing that you are sharing an enclosed space with well over 100 people and the only noises are the tick-tick-ticks of key strikes and the muffled sound of podcasts filtered through earbuds.
Before walking into this office, I had always imagined trend forecasting as being hands-on collaborative—a process that required a lot of post-it-note flow charts and whiteboard scribbling. This agency, however, had managed to turn it into a Fordist enterprise of mindless, mechanical content aggregation. Too scared at this point to do anything besides scroll through the company’s banal content portal, I stole glances of the screens around me. While the actual nuts and bolts of how trend forecasting works continued to elude me, I definitely had not imagined that it involved so much copying and pasting from blogs and Tumblrs. Something about this process made me bristle. Looking through the content again, I realized that it was a brainless amalgam of anything and everything trendy: a self-fulfilling prophecy for the legions of high street brands that subscribed to their weekly forecasts.
I was bludgeoned with my next warning to get out of that place when, after trying to introduce myself to the young woman next to me who was furiously scrolling through a street style blog, I was violently SHHH'D.
What felt like eight hundred long, awkward hours later, it was time for lunch. At the deli downstairs, as I ate my sad lunch of hot bar by-the-pound, I Googled the company and was shocked to discover a cache of scathing Glassdoor reviews of the agency submitted by vengeful ex-employees. One, aptly titled “Where do I begin?” managed put words to the general sense of unease I had been feeling all morning: “Welcome to the boys’ club, circa 1970, the ceiling is glass and the attitude of the management is oppressively sexist and ageist.” Turns out, the throngs of young, female employees were the product of the CEOs sexist hiring strategies and general exploitation of their inexperience and eagerness to break into the fashion industry. The silence, on the other hand, was the result of the same CEOs ruthless ban on talking in the workplace.
While the analogy is a bit too on the nose, it would not be inappropriate to liken the agency to a sweatshop, except rather than fast fashion t-shirts the employees labored over ephemeral and disposable digital content.
After finishing my room temperature General Tso’s and avocado salad, I hightailed it out of that deli and headed back downtown to school to get back to the drawing board. (Later, I would end up at a much better trend forecasting agency for that summer.) While I was a bit disappointed to quit my first big-time fashion “job,” I was also feeling empowered by my ballsy decision to walk away. More than anything, however, I was incredibly grateful to have spent a morning on the inside…and to have gotten some really, really good gossip.
Sara Idacavage, Columns & Social Media Editor
In my thirty years of life, I’ve had six internships in various parts of the fashion industry. Some have been extremely rewarding, while others have been a bit more, well, soul-crushing. Now, I know what you’re probably thinking: “Who does this millennial think she is? Doesn’t she realize that the fashion industry runs off the exploitation of young people through free labor?” Well, yes. I do. Let my preface this by saying that I wouldn’t be where I am today without some of these unpaid, ass-kicking internships. However, while I still hold onto that old-school mentality of “whatever internship doesn’t kill you only makes you stronger”, there is such a thing as exploiting free labor to an extent that is best described as abuse. While I hesitate to use the word “abuse” due to its serious implications, I have also realized that avoiding the term is just one of the ways that abusive people continue to mistreat others. Sometimes it’s better to call a spade a spade, even in an industry that seems to romanticize the idea of over-working and under-paying its workers.
This story is about a brief period of time that I spent “assisting” a fashion stylist in the winter of 2009. The details of this experience have been particularly difficult to recollect, which makes me realize that the human brain is capable of protecting us from painful memories in bizarre ways. To prep for this article, I reached out to my fellow interns to help jog my memory and to reflect on their own experiences now that almost eight years have passed. (Side note: these two incredibly amazing and inspiring ladies helped me hold onto my sanity throughout the experience, and I feel so #blessed that the internship brought the three of us together and made us friends for life.)
After sharing a list of unpleasant but kind-of-funny memories, it became clear that talking about this internship experience brought back very bad feelings for all three of us, and we were STILL mad, despite having found success in our respective careers. As I write these words, I can feel my own blood start to boil in a way that hasn’t happened in years, but I can’t tell if my resentment is more towards this person or my own self, as I still feel deeply embarrassed for how stupid I was to fall for such a tremendous amount of grade-A bullshit.
Fresh out of undergrad, I was convinced that styling photo shoots was the right career path for me (ha!), and was thrilled to drop my paid editorial internship at DailyCandy (R.I.P.) for the chance to work for a stylist who seemed cool and happened to live just a few blocks from my apartment in Williamsburg. This fashion designer-turned-stylist was about ten years my senior, and had amassed a set of celebrity clients and artsy fashion magazines that she styled for semi-regularly. Although she appeared to be quite established, well-connected, and “in-demand,” I was surprised by the fact that this freelance stylist asked us to work out of her apartment, which was not much bigger or nicer than my own post-college abode. (Later, we were more surprised to discover that she was deeply in debt and unable to pay her rent, but, hey! I’m getting ahead of myself.)
On paper, the job was essentially this: email showrooms on her behalf in order request items for photo shoots; travel to these showrooms via subway or her own car to retrieve these garments/accessories throughout Manhattan and bring them back to her apartment in Brooklyn; bring these items to photo shoots and assist her through organizing the items and steaming the garments; return each of these items to their respective showrooms and begin the cycle again and again. As one of her emails stated, “I expect a 3 month full time commitment from interns. At the 3 month point we decide if you will become my assistant. Learn quickly and make my life easier and you will have a job within 3 months.”
So, where were her former paid assistants, and why was there no record of them? I believe we asked to be connected to some of her former employees at one point to no avail. However, it quickly became apparent that there were a lot more, err, complications that came along with the internship, and none of the promised forms of payment or steady positions would ever exist. “The only thing I remember her giving us was, one time, after a really long day, she bought us bagels and cream cheese,” remembered one of my fellow interns. “But only that one time.”
I won’t bore you with details on how things went from “normal internship” to “full on shit storm”, but highlights include: arriving at her apartment early in the morning and working in her living room while she slept until noon; cleaning up cat vomit and walking her dog in the cold; making countless trips between showrooms and her apartment each day while carrying heavy bags of samples on the subway; being asked to drive her car around Manhattan to return larger groups of samples knowing that she was one ticket away from getting a boot; waiting for her as she ran to the liquor store; being completed degraded at photo shoots in ways that I don’t care to list. While her initial job description indicated that our days would “usually” be from 10am-6pm, it became increasingly normal to work ten to eleven-hour days, six days per week. As time went on, taking lunch breaks became a sign of laziness, so resorting to street vendor hot dogs became standard fare for lunch and sometimes dinner (if we were awake enough to eat). As one of the other interns reminded me, “She told us to keep almonds in our bags so that we don’t pass out when we’ve been working hard and don’t have time to eat.”
To help illustrate her general demeanor, here are a few snippets from my plethora of emails from this person:
“When we are not shooting, do not expect to see me up before 11am. […] I expect you all to be busy working when I get up. I will always let you know what you should be doing via email the night before. If, the night before, you have no idea what you are doing the next day- email me and ask!!! Don't always wait for me to tell you.”
“When I send you a text or email I expect an immediate response, so I know you go it. Something like "got it" or "received".”
“I expect you to reflect me when you are on shoots. Do not over accessorize. Utilitarian and minimal are best. Think APC, Vanessa Bruno, simple and chic without a lot of fuss.”
“On set, I like QUIET and for my team to look busy, even when there is nothing to do. When all else fails, STEAM.”
“I am going to have a birthday party this Saturday and I need your help doing a facebook invite. That is first job of the morning.”
I could go on and on with her list of Devil Wears Prada-style demands, which now amuse and irk me in equal measure. However, these aren't the things that made the internship so deeply disconcerting. Rather, it was the psychological effects brought forth by a series of private “talks” in which this person expressed her dissatisfaction with my inability to meet her (truly impossible) list of demands. These “talks” mostly happened late at night, when I would return to her apartment after ten or more hours of running around the city for her, usually to the point where my body was past exhaustion and I hadn't eaten since the morning. At these vulnerable times, she would sit me down at the table while she consumed a glass (or three) of red wine and told me that I was too sensitive, I probably wasn't cut out for this, and that I wasn't trying hard enough or doing enough things. Other times it was that I was trying too hard, or perhaps doing too many things. Typically, when these “talks” happened, my wounded psyche gave way to tears that my body wasn’t able to control. I could tell from these conversations that she genuinely thought I was rather stupid, weak, and relatively useless, and her red wine-stained smirk seemed to indicate that she enjoyed having the upper hand. In these vulnerable situations, I was never in adequate enough physical or mental shape to prove that I was a competent worker and cognizant being, and these bizarre “talks” and long hours would have a noticeable effect on my physical and mental well-being.
Yet even as I write this, I can’t help but think that I’m being overly dramatic. I mean, really… who am I to complain when millions of young women have suffered to a far greater extent? However, I am reminded that this is exactly how the cycle of abuse is perpetuated, as victims often repress painful memories, decide things weren’t that bad, and even convince themselves that they are partially to blame. And hey, maybe I was! Looking back, it seems that my lack of professional experience and yearning to be accepted by this person led me to a series of bad decisions and embarrassing behavior, which certainly did not help the situation. However, after being asked to do a long day of subway schlepping in a snow storm after my fellow interns had gone home for the holidays, I finally quit through this (abbreviated) email:
“I’m sorry to say this, but I think that I need to stick up for myself. […] I don’t want to be taken advantage of just because I live near you and happen to still be in town. […] it’s not my job to sit in the car while you run into the liquor store and listen to you have a conference call. I don't think I can work with someone who completely disregards my needs. […] It’s a lot to expect someone to work 11 hour days for you, do endless returns and pick ups, and not offer to compensate them in any way or give me a chance to be present on photo shoots. […] I just don’t think I can work in this type of environment anymore, which is hard for me to say because I’ve cared deeply about this team and I truly wanted to help you.”
While I can’t help but cringe slightly from reading this email, mostly from being faced with my younger, naïve self, I’m also relieved that I didn’t let the abuse continue any further. While my payment was supposedly the “experience” and being able to put this job on my résumé, I never did. However, I still gained something extremely valuable from this internship, which is the knowledge that I wanted to pursue something entirely different from fashion styling, and knowing when to set boundaries for myself. (Full disclosure: I haven’t always been good at keeping these boundaries. In fact, I’ve had a few other jobs in which I’ve allowed extremely controlling bosses to affect every aspect of my life, but that’s another story…)
So, where is she now? Doing well, so it seems. Her portfolio is packed with more artsy magazine creds as well as corporate gigs that (hopefully?) pay the bills. While I feel strangely happy for her and her success, I can’t help but wonder how many other interns were treated in the same ways that we were. Over the years, I’ve run into her a few times at the local wine shop (surprise!), and once outside of a photo studio. A part of me hopes that she changed for the best, and whatever interns she had waiting inside were actually free from her controlling behavior.
So, if you’re reading this and thinking about interning for a freelance stylist, just remember to set some boundaries, and, if possible, talk to some past interns who can help you find out exactly what you’re getting yourself into. I know tons of people that can attest that there are plenty of rewarding and sometimes enjoyable styling internships out there. While they may be extremely tough and sometimes unpleasant, they don’t have to be exploitative or viciously demeaning. I only wish that I knew that before.