‘Sweat and tears’: Confessions of a serial fashion industry intern

Pop culture has often given people a glimpse into what it’s like to be a fashion intern: long hours, demanding bosses and little pay.

There’s usually no shortage of job listings to work for brands and fashion companies, but without experience, recent fashion graduates or students can struggle to get a foot in the door. While the debate over the ethics of unpaid internships surfaces every so often, most interns are willing to take unpaid positions in the hope it could lead to a paid job.

In this edition of Confessions, in which we grant anonymity in exchange for honesty, we talked to a serial fashion intern who has completed four internships at three major luxury fashion houses, and who has gone on to work in the industry.

Answers were slightly edited for clarity.

Were you paid for your internships?

I was only paid for one of the four. There are a lot of interns who only worked for two days a week, but I worked five days a week over a period of seven months at one of the companies and wasn’t paid.

Do you think that was fair?
I don’t think it’s right. I was there Monday to Friday like everyone else, so I feel like I should’ve got paid. In saying that, I learned a lot and if you’re not getting paid it’s only fair you learning something. The brand’s name on your resume is what you’re paying for, what you’re working for.

How were you treated as an intern?
There were some people that were really hands on and explained every step of the job and would take time to make sure you understood what you’re doing and why you’re doing it. Then there are the internships that want you to do the dirty stuff and don’t care about you. They just need you to do things like get coffee, move shoes from floor to floor, unpack boxes, and organize files because those things have to get done and the paid staff don’t have the time.

Did you feel like the brands were preparing you to become an employee?
Yes, two of them. My bosses made sure I knew what I was doing and why, and they wanted me to learn a lot. But there were some instances where you weren’t treated like an employee. Town hall meetings for example, where the designer would be present to discuss how the brand planned to reinvent itself. I’d get the email saying, “please come,” and then my boss would come over and say, “You’re an intern, you’re not allowed to come to this.” They didn’t want interns knowing the strategy.

Did you feel the internships were accurately described?
One of the internships was described as “menswear sales and commercial support.” I wanted experience in sales, which is why I applied. I ended up predominantly doing re-orders and claims, which meant dealing with retailers which weren’t paying for clothing orders, citing clothes were damaged or other reasons. The brand I was interning for would then blame us when a retailer wouldn’t pay for clothes. How are we meant to take responsibility? It put us in a difficult position because I never saw the clothes, or knew whether they’d be damaged, and I was a middleman.

The only thing I got to do in sales was clean up the showroom every single night and fold the clothes. That was horrible and not what I signed up for.

How did you get the internships?
I had family connections but I still had to interview. They were like “Other than connections what else do you have to offer?” You have to show what you’ve done and why you want to work for the brand. Basically if you don’t have connections it’s very hard to get in.

And once you’re in?
I feel bad for interns because it’s like sweat and tears. Even if they start yelling at you, you just have to take it because it’s so hard to get a job in the fashion industry, it’s virtually impossible. There are also so many interns, the turnover is crazy. One intern leaves and the next day you’d have a new one and she was completely forgotten. You just have to constantly prove yourself.

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