03 February 2012

Fashion Friday: Internships

Classic Overworked Assistant: Andy from Devil Wears Prada
This week, after Fashionista.com announced that a former intern was suing Harper's Bazaar for working without compensation, I knew what I wanted to write about. Internships of all industries, but especially fashion and entertainment, have been the topic of a lot of conversation in the past few years and they are not without their controversies.

You see, the problem is that most internships in these fields are compensated by giving school credit. This works really well for those who really do receive school credit for their work and who are in turn treated fairly. However, there are many schools out there who do not give credit for internships, and the reality of many of those internships is running for coffee and stapling papers, not actually learning valuable job skills. And when you stop to consider that the students who are receiving credit have to pay for those credit hours - well, you kind of have to see how crazy the system really is.

As Fashionista points out, the real problem with these internships is that they heavily favor those who can afford to work for free, which in this economy, is more likely than not those who have parents who can support them. Full disclosure: I myself recently looked into breaking into the fashion industry, and the response to my resume was good, getting responses in a few hours time. "Would you be available to intern immediately?" they would ask, "You have to be eligible for school credit." Once I pointed out that it states on my resume that I have received both my B.A. and my Master's, the emails immediately stopped. That was a huge bummer. I frantically searched for a few weeks for a school that would allow me to enroll so I could qualify for an internship, which would cost me anywhere from a few hundred to a few thousand dollars that I don't have. And while my parents, who are lovely and wonderful parents who are incredibly supportive of my goals, make enough money to take care of themselves, they certainly don't make enough to finance a life in New York City for their 25-year-old daughter while she takes work for free (and I'm not certain that if they could, they would, because I'm an adult and responsible for myself).

I am not the only person who would be in this kind of position: paying a living expense in NYC, the one of the most expensive cities in the world; working at minimum two jobs, one of which I would not get paid for; and paying for the privilege of making connections and working for a magazine, which still does not guarantee me a job at the end.

I have taken an unpaid internship in the past during my time as a Master's student, at Women's Wear Daily in Paris. As I have blogged about here in the past, that internship was incredibly rewarding. My supervisor was respectful of my time and my other obligations (nannying and school) and really fostered an environment of learning and growth. Did I have to do mundane stuff? Yes, but even the mundane stuff - like transcribing an interview with Karl Lagerfeld - was exciting and enjoyable because it was an insider access to the things that I loved. But for every story like mine, there is a story of the intern who worked 40+ hours a week, picked up dry cleaning, and was mistreated at every turn.

Personally, I think the worst part of this whole thing is that these internships are widely accepted amongst those in the industry as some kind of hazing ritual. "I did it, so you can do it," says every fashion editor with a shoulder shrug. The attitude is that if you can't suffer through one bad internship for the chance to work in the industry, well, you just don't have what it takes. You're lucky to be working with your team at all/a thousand girls would kill to fill your shoes. And I understand that. But something has to give. The labor laws, as they stand, do not support many of the internships as they exist today. An intern can not be used to replace a paid position. In other words, the internship must be mutually beneficial - the organization gets work done and the intern learns valuable job skills.

I just can't see the harm in compensating interns financially. It might mean having less interns, or using interns more wisely, but I think that it is the right and fair thing to do. I feel it really opens up the talent pool and allows these young girls - many of whom intern every semester they're in school, often at the expense of their education - to breathe a little bit. Perhaps it makes the internship a little less elite but I think it makes the interns as a whole stronger.

It's going to be a really interesting development, that's for sure. I'm curious to see if this gains momentum, like the Law School law suit is doing. This is definitely one to watch, and I'm sure it will send waves through the industry.

PS - I have actually just started working with the Fashionista website as an intern, and I couldn't be more excited! Look out for me over there. :)

2 comments:

  1. Congrats on your Fashionista post! :) I absolutely agree with what you said on Fashionista's "Are Fashion Internship Fundamentally Unfair?" I'd like to interest you in giving to the fashion internship community by submitting your internship experience on our site, QC. In order to help the future of fashion (who are the interns), we want to support valuable internship that offer a good experience at minimum.

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  2. You are absolutely right. I just got done writing a post on this because I spotted it on Fashionista. It's absurd. And I was thinking to myself about a week ago, Fashionista is the type of publication I would be proud to work for. They report on things that major fashion magazines turn a blind eye to because they don't want to jeopardize the ad revenue coming in. They aren't going to tell us the ugly truth about a company if they are also pushing their product content. Fashionista gives us the dirt. They tell us what's really going on. You're so lucky you've gotten to intern at the fashion publications with the most integrity. Good luck at Fashionista!

    http://fabfixation.tumblr.com

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