Are Fashion Internships worth the fuss?

From emptying bins to paying £1k for a placement, we explore the reality of fashion internships . . .

Working for free is the harsh reality for entry level creatives. As of 2018, 86% of interns in the media scene were unpaid, making matters worse, the minimum cost for a London internship is around £1019, as reported by The Sutton Trust. This staggering figure makes young creatives question the worth of their work placements. 

In an interview with Doris Domoszlai-Lantner, exclusively for Shift Fashion historian and Editor for the Fashion Studies Journal, explains that “unpaid internships are unavoidable in the contemporary fashion industry”. She says companies hire unpaid interns as “they do not eat away at profits, but instead enhance them because of the extra productivity they contribute to the company”, even going so far as making interns do the same work as their higher-paid colleagues.

In other cases such as Evie Wallis, a student at LCF, and previous intern for Drapers, witnessed peers in other placements “stuck washing up and taking out the bins”, pointing out this; “deters many from doing internships, especially if they’re going to be unpaid”. Wallis’s experience with Drapers was positive, as it challenged her, and taught her more about the industry, adding “I felt valued by my fashion editor’s appreciation”, something not every intern receives. A recent survey showed students felt unwelcome and under-appreciated in their internship. 

When internships do work well, benefits include “experiencing your desired field of work before committing to it in the long term” as said by Domoszlai-Lantner. Many in the industry agree that having a prestigious placement on your CV is an advantage – even if you haven’t had a positive experience while there. The optimal placement, then is one where students can learn industry skills, without be exploited doing menial tasks for long periods.

Paid internships lead to full-time jobs 65% of the time, compared to only 39% for an unpaid. Consistently committing yourself to unpaid placement for only a 39% chance of success, it becomes difficult to stay motivated. Many students were unsure about repeating their unpaid internship experience, as demonstrated in our survey. Satisfaction levels showed no correlation with whether they were unpaid, expense-only, or paid. 

Some schemes go even further with a company called Fashion Week Internships charging interns a minimum of £950 to partake, with no expenses included. Rachel Andrews, who works in the support team for Fashion Week Internships said; “potential interns need to decide whether or not they want and can afford to make this investment into their futures”. Quite an investment indeed!

Despite this, being paid does not guarantee a good experience. An ex-intern for a large fashion house noted she only stayed because of the pay, and because “it’ll look good on my CV when I finish”. She also told us that she “doesn’t give up that quickly, I’m patient and I can handle a lot but mentally this was too much”. Overall, it’s the quality of the learning experience that matters most.

There is hope to turn this damaged working culture on its head. Domoszlai-Lantner, Fashion Historian, believes that some factors could improve this landscape. For example, “companies could introduce their interns to others in the industry, facilitating connections that could then lead to future, paid work”, and allowing students to receive “college or university credit for completing an internship”. However, she notes that this isn’t ideal, as “you are paying to work, rather than the other way around”. Although, with ‘who you know’ being key in this industry, the concept of companies being solid references for their interns is crucial, and already at play in a small pool of brands. 

Wallis, Draper’s intern, says, “I was asked what I wanted out of my internship and with that we could create goals and tasks”, being the main reason for her enjoying her experience, feeling like she “was being seen and heard rather than an extra pair of hands”. 60% of students also reported that they would’ve benefited from set learning goals.

Ideally, all internships would be paid, as Domoszalai-Lantner notes, “companies should be taking the initiative to provide stipends, or pay their locale’s hourly wage”. Maybe only statutory regulation will ensure that graduates and students are getting more out of their internships than they are putting in. As for now, it will be the norm to work for free, and students are expected to. However, as said by Domoszlai-Lantner, “just because this is the current status quo, does not mean that it has to remain this way in the future”.

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