Ashley Paintsil, editorial director of FashInvest, was nine years old and growing up in Newark, Delaware when she realized she wanted to work in fashion.
She filled her spare time watching the Style Network, now known as the Esquire Network, on cable television, initially lured to the channel by a particularly mesmerizing Calvin Klein commercial. It was the late ’90s, around the time of the internet boom, and luckily her family had recently purchased a computer on which she discovered Google and conducted countless searches on the fashion world. While searching for the Style Network’s website, she was misdirected to Style.com, and a full-blown fashion obsession was born.
For Paintsil, the internet was vital for gaining accessibility to the fashion industry, which in the U.S. remains largely centered in New York City and Los Angeles. She was able to score fashion gigs and freelance fashion writing assignments largely through contacting people on Twitter and LinkedIn, a practice that served particularly prudent when she was pursuing jobs after graduating from the University of Delaware. “My parents weren’t rich, I didn’t grow up in New York City. I didn’t have the resources to be able to join the industry. But I had a lot of passion and curiosity, and that took me to where I am now,” she said.
However, for the less plucky members of the fashion industry, lack of proximity to New York City and low-starting salaries can be particularly discouraging. Even for those living in the city, the job market is competitive. It often requires several unpaid internships in order to secure a coveted job spot.
“What the school projects is that it’s the dream, going to Parsons. You think you’re going to be a fashion designer. It’s misleading a little bit,” said Kaimu Lee, a recent graduate of Parsons. “There are not many paid internships going on after you graduate, and you get pretty low pay when first starting out in the industry.”
According to a survey conducted by Fashionista last year, entry level salaries are typically below $40,000 across fashion industry categories, including design, editorial, creative, sales, marketing and public relations. An assistant technical designer makes an average of $36,000, while an assistant graphic designer comes in at $33,000. (Comparatively, the average entry level computer engineering salary is more than $60,000.) While these positions have high earning potential down the road, most are located in New York, which holds the highest cost of living in the U.S.
This is particularly challenging for students trying to build up their resume with summer internships. Several fashion internships remain unpaid, or provide a small stipend or college credit in consolation. Though there have been concerted efforts to fight unpaid internships — most notably a lawsuit by former interns of Condé Nast, many of whom worked at fashion publications — it still hasn’t alleviated the gap for people who can afford to work unpaid jobs in the city and those who cannot.
Lee said she was lucky that her parents were able to cover the pricey Parson’s tuition, particularly since the school has few scholarships available to international students like herself. Not having to worry about accumulating personal debt also alleviated stress from having to purchase additional materials and equipment for school projects that aren’t covered by tuition. Lee said she had friends who shelled out for studio space or storage units due to a lack of availability on campus — privileges that can help aspiring designers get ahead.
Like all industries, having money also allows certain luxuries and access that are unattainable to others. For example, this is the tenth year of Fashion Camp NYC, a youth summer program available to kids between age 12 and 18 that offers immersive fashion courses and hands-on mentorships from fashion executives. These connections, even at such a young age, can prove invaluable to eventually getting jobs. Julie Singer, director of marketing at Fashion Camp NYC, said campers often reach out to her to share their experiences pursuing fashion professionally in college and beyond.
However the camp comes at a steep cost: The five-day event costs $1,200 and doesn’t include housing for out-of-towners, though Singer said the program tries to be accommodating as needed.
“Since we’re small, we have the ability to work with each camper on a case-by-case basis,” she said. “We’re currently offering a 10 percent discount in honor of the ten-year anniversary.”
Regardless, Paintsil said that while financial status and geographic location can certainly impact job prospects, ultimately tenacity and a dogged work ethic will get you far in the fashion industry.
“At the end of the day, we’re not all dealt the same card, but we have the ability to make it happen if we put in the work,” she said.