Fashion internships are fraught with bad press, to say the least.
After multiple past interns (some of whom worked for W Magazine) brought a class-action lawsuit against Condé Nast in 2013 for not paying them minimum wage, the publisher was forced to settle for $5.9 million, and send out notices to a slew of other interns offering them compensation between $700 and $1,900. The company has since replaced internships with a six-month, paid fellowship program that operates on a full-time basis.
Rival publisher Hearst was hit with a similar lawsuit in 2012 from a previous Harper’s Bazaar intern, but ultimately ended up winning the case.
However, it’s not just an issue for fashion editorial: Designers, including Mary-Kate and Ashley of The Row, have faced similar complaints. After a group of 185 former interns sued them for poor work conditions and wage theft in 2015, the duo wound up settling for $140,000.
Nevertheless, young women and men still clamor for the opportunity to get their foot in the door of an exclusive, glamorized industry, and many of their role models champion interships’ necessity.
For our latest installment of confessions, in which we grant anonymity to someone in the industry to speak openly about their profession, we spoke to a current intern working in one of the editorial fashion departments at Hearst. Now on her third internship, she opened up about everything from their lack of payoff to the consistently catty environment.
What do you do on a day-to-day basis, and is it rewarding?
I work in the fashion closet, helping prepare clothing for photoshoots and tracking all of the samples that editors have requested for shoots or events. That means a lot of my time is spent on the computer, answering e-mails, or packing and unpacking boxes, garment bags, etc. I also end up running errands for my boss, the magazine’s fashion director, like picking up her breakfast or taking her shoes to the cobbler. It’s not very fun, and, other than getting a more realistic look at the industry, it doesn’t feel rewarding.
Why do you continue to seek out these internships if that’s the case?
Even though everyone knows they’re pretty shitty, there’s still a sense that you have to participate in order to get a real job in fashion. I guess I’m hopeful that one of them will be more enjoyable and pay off. I have made some decent friends, and there’s a small group of editors who are nice and seem willing to stay in touch, so I hold onto that as a silver lining. I think it’s nearly impossible to make the connections you need in this industry without interning a bit; no one is just going to respond to your cold email these days and take you out to coffee.
What’s the dynamic amongst you and your fellow interns?
Since I first began interning two summers ago, I picked up on really competitive energy from the other interns. You can tell that many people aren’t here to make friends or don’t believe that we can all “make it” together. I’ve had other interns completely ignore me when I first start somewhere — never offering to help or give me advice when I’m new — and many of them seem to see themselves as higher in the hierarchy. They might have been there only two weeks longer than me, but they’ll act very senior and above speaking to anyone else in their position.
The sad part is that the full-time employees always seem to gravitate toward these interns more. It makes me feel like I need to kiss more ass on the surface, and be more of a bitch when they’re not looking.
Do you find your superiors to be similarly catty?
It’s a mix, but, most of the time, yes. Many of them seem to think of us interns as a giant nuisance, showing immediate disgust just because we ask a simple question. The woman I’m reporting to now is very moody, and you never know what’s coming. She might act like my best friend one minute, but then completely ignore me the next. I’ve spent hours doing a whole lot of nothing, because she’s either forgotten or refuses to give me further direction.
A few of the higher-ups are definitely nicer, but you can tell that there’s a real divide among the larger company: those who really go for a “Devil Wears Prada” vibe versus those who don’t.
What have you found most surprising about the internship?
I’m not necessarily surprised by this, but it still stuns me how outdated most fashion magazines are. There’s not a lot of collaboration, and most people still seem to operate by fear. No one can speak to the editor-in-chief, for example, without first running it by her assistant. It just all seems so silly to me.
I’ve worked with other interns who have been so afraid to speak up or chat with their boss that they avoid it all costs, and practically shake when they have to. You could blame them for that or call them “weak,” but I think it says more about the culture at these magazines than anything else.