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A Gen-Z’s guide to being employable

PAPER Magazine's Alyson Cox gives her tips for young students trying to make it in fashion

For young people, finding paid work in the fashion industry has been an extremely difficult task for a very long time. Add in a post-Covid world and cost-of-living crisis and it’s not surprising that Gen-Z graduates might find breaking into fashion daunting. But, while the current state of affairs can be demotivating, achieving your dream job is not impossible – the fashion industry is changing in real-time, and people are calling out for new, fresh faces.

Shift spoke to PAPER Magazine’s editorial producer, Alyson Cox, who has worked on a collection of cover shoots featuring talent from Edward Enninful to Christine Quinn, about how to maximise your employment potential, leave behind imposter syndrome and use your youth to your advantage.

For those of us without the privilege of a model for a mother or an actor for a father, fighting for a place on an unpaid internship is a necessity, and something that Cox is no stranger to. During her time at NYU, she powered through an array of fashion internships before finding out about an open call for the editorial producer position at PAPER Magazine through a friend’s Instagram.

One of the biggest hurdles for young people entering the fashion industry is imposter syndrome. It is easy to feel overwhelmed and out of place among older, more experienced people that don’t always share the same attitudes or experiences. But, Cox explained how, though you may feel under-qualified or intimidated, it is important to take the chances when they come – even if they come in the form of an open call on Instagram.

“I felt like I had no chance of being offered the job, but I thought I might as well apply. I would say that you should throw yourself in there, even if you think that haven’t done anything of a similar calibre before. Take your chances and if they see potential in you and have faith in your abilities then it can work out,” she says.  Although you may feel like a less experienced outsider to an extremely gatekept industry, youth is always an advantage in the ever-changing fashion world, something that this time of economic struggle may even contribute to.

“In any business, companies will always try to maximise value over cost, so they will often take their chances with younger, untapped potential; people straight out of university with a lot of drive and passion because of their newer, fresher perspectives, and the fact that they have something to prove,” she says. “This often outweighs the stagnant institutional experience that older professionals may offer and I think that’s where young people have an advantage.”

So there’s lesson number one: you don’t have to be technically qualified for a job to apply for it – it’s free – you have nothing to lose and you may just have everything to gain.

But what about when you have the job or internship? Fashion is an industry that revolves around relationships and connections. How do you build a good reputation?

“You always have to know exactly who you’re talking to and where they stand in the industry,” Cox told me. “As a producer, sometimes I have to put my foot down and be harsh about things. It took me a while to realise the balance between being polite and being direct… everything in fashion does reflect back on the individual. It’s very important to not piss anyone off even if it’s something that you need to get done. It’s just figuring out a communication style where you can be firm and respectful at the same time.”

It’s also important to share the ideas that you have. It may not feel like it, but we’re living in a rapidly changing world where people are always looking for fresh perspectives and innovative ideas. If you’re lucky enough to get in the room, or even just a foot in the door, it’s important to speak up and show people who you are and what you know. “One thing I would say to young people coming into the industry is to put themselves in the supervisor’s position.  If the goal is to find solutions to something, take some initiative. You don’t have to act on it but offer some solutions without being asked to show them you’re on the ball and doing more than just taking instruction. Anyone can take instruction.”

Lastly, one thing that Gen-Z do better than anyone else is social media. No matter what sub-section of fashion or beauty you may be looking to enter, it’s imperative that you build an online presence. As an editorial producer, Cox finds many of the creatives for shoots on Instagram: “We find a lot of the people online and the first thing you see is their social media. I think on a good online portfolio you get a good idea about their vibe and how their brains work, and it’s something that older generations don’t do as much. Something that is also changing a lot is that people like to go directly to creatives rather than through an agency. You get quicker responses, and, I think, more artistry.”

Cox is an example that there is not only a space for young people in this industry but also appreciation and understanding. It is easy to feel hopeless entering a career in such turbulent and intense times, and standing alone surrounded by people that feel more qualified and accomplished is difficult.  But if you move with confidence, work to your strengths and use your voice, you can forge a space for yourself.

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