do fashion interns today have it easy?

Following a slew of lawsuits accusing publications and brands of unfair labor practices in the early 2010s, have internships improved? Or is the mutually beneficial internship ideal still a fashion world fairytale?

by Blair Cannon
20 October 2016, 9:10pm

photography mitchell sams

In 2014, I wrote a piece for my first journalism class at NYU about the state of the fashion internship in New York. I had interned at both independent magazines and major publishing powerhouses that year. It was a confusing time to be an unpaid intern, a newcomer to the city, and a fresh recruit in the fashion industry.

A few brazen older interns were consistently taking their complaints to HR (and others to court), telling us that our free labor and dedication were undervalued; the rest of the industry was telling us that we'd only land a job by first paying our dues. In November of that year, Condé Nast had settled a lawsuit led by W magazine intern Lauren Ballinger and New Yorker intern Matthew Lieb, agreeing to pay $5.85 million to previously uncompensated interns ($700 per individual), and in the same breath, terminated its internship program. Hearst, and more recently Elizabeth and James and The Row, have also notoriously come under fire for allegedly exploiting fashion interns, and the lawsuits have not stopped.

In 2014, the ever-growing list of Andrea Sachs'-turned-Norma Raes placed the rest of us in a tough spot: would we question the unbelievable opportunities being handed to us, or would we — as a fashion director once advised my fellow interns and I — keep our heads down, keep our mouths shut, and be good kids? Fast forward to my senior year, and the fashion intern world has seemingly transformed from my freshman experience. But is it just me, or has not that much really changed?

The primary reason interns have decided to retaliate is lack of pay. It is clearly problematic that many prized internship positions still go to the Lauren Conrads of the world: those who can afford to not get paid. And while school credit or a lunch stipend were not bad offers in the pre-lawsuit days, they were not a paycheck. After working in a fashion closet in which 30 interns "shared" one unlimited Metrocard for sample trafficking — while I was also working a retail job on the weekends to actually pay for my garment-bag schlepping subway trips — I know that an internship can feel like an overpriced resume garnish. A large part of me still believes it was worth it, in retrospect, but it certainly helps that I haven't had an unpaid internship since then. I wonder if Ballinger, Lieb, and Diana Wong (who sued Harper's Bazaar and apparently now sells granola) really helped my career as an intern, even if, in the process, they risked obliterating their own.

A fellow former Hearst intern and college senior, Madison, informed me that the publishing company's internships now pay nine dollars per hour. Despite the fact that she was not afforded a salary during her tenure at Hearst, where she completed several fashion internships, she says, "Honestly, I would have been ecstatic if I was paid nine dollars an hour when I worked there. In comparison to Condé Nast, who had to end their program completely, it's great that they not only still have interns, but now they're paying them." But it can feel like a backhanded compliment. Even though Madison says she was not paid to write for and while interning at Hearst, she was freelancing for other Hearst publications on the side, receiving $50 per article. "So I was interning at Hearst unpaid, but on the side, I was freelancing for Hearst and getting paid. That juxtaposition was weird because I was literally writing the same exact things I would write at my internship, but I was getting paid," she says. "Obviously, they could afford to pay that much for their websites."

But now that both many major publishers and also some smaller, independent companies, are paying their interns, is a paycheck the only difference? Condé Nast is no longer hiring interns, but at some publications "freelancers" have taken over similar roles, since the jobs that interns performed remain fundamental to the running of any major publication or showroom. Somebody has to pack trunks and check clothes. So is the change purely semantic? Madison says she thinks compensation for internships is making the positions more competitive and also more prestigious. It wouldn't be a reach to assume that interns, or whatever title a company assigns its entry-level labor force, are receiving better treatment from their employers now that they're being paid. Now that they're literally more valuable members of the team.

At the same time, there is no shortage of horror stories about life in fashion, even now. We've all read the sensationalized accounts of Vogue interns who cried themselves to sleep and the occasional confessional piece about life in the fashion industry (this month, Glossy published one titled "Sweat and Tears"). We've heard the campfire stories of the girl who had a meltdown and screamed at the editor-in-chief and the girl who burned down the fashion closet. Is the psychological trauma of life as an overworked, glorified messenger or click-bait producer easing up at all?

College junior and serial fashion closet intern Sabrina recounts her early experiences with an air of exhaustion. "Once those editorials are in and you're the one who checked in all those clothes, who cares?" she says. "No one cares. The editors don't even know your name." She says the sheer number of other interns in the closets she's worked in (seven so far) thwarted her from making connections as an intern — and she wasn't even making money. Now that she's a paid styling intern at Refinery29, Sabrina says that not only is her treatment by her bosses different, but also that her whole attitude has shifted. "In a paid internship, I just want to help more. I'm not just an another intern," she explains. "If I get an email on the weekend and have to respond to it, it's fine because I value my boss and they're communicating with me. I feel more connected to what I'm doing." After all, a paycheck is the first step to feeling like a real employee — a valuable part of the greater machine — which is all interns are really seeking in the first place.

Sabrina remembers arriving in New York thinking, "How many internships can I get?" This mentality, she says, stems from the narrative that racking up internships is the only way for recent graduates to score the jobs they want in fashion. And even where she realized that she was no longer learning, she says, "You see where these editors come from, and a lot of them do have that past [of interning in fashion closets]. It's that struggle [about] what actual experience will get me to where I want to be." Reflecting on her seven internship experiences, she does think things are looking up, noting, "I can say which ones have really positively affected me because of the way my bosses treated me." At the same time, she wonders "if the industry has changed in terms of interns, because based on the lawsuits, this has been happening for years."

Madison says she found solace in beauty closets, where everyone "is very into health and wellness," unlike frequently over-caffeinated, under-slept fashion teams. The sample trafficking and photo shoot cycle of a beauty closet is significantly calmer, as samples are small and not returnable. She's ultimately decided to leave the industry as a whole after her experience in fashion, but is adamant that she has no regrets. "I was glad that I started early," she explains. Even though the industry was tougher on her in the early years, she says that, "After working with all these magazines — even though sometimes I wanted to pull my hair out — I feel 100 percent a more professional person. There's a difference between me and my peers who never had the experience of working at a magazine where you continuously have to communicate well and look good. Not every job requires you to get dressed up for it and be presentable, but you always have to at a fashion magazine. There were just so many things that it taught me about being an adult. Now that I'm changing careers, it's especially apparent."

Working in fashion certainly isn't for everyone, and perhaps the intern experience — whether you land a great one or end up with your own horror story — is vital to making that decision. What I can say with certainty after five years as an intern, and three years as a fashion intern, is that receiving a paycheck is a game-changer. I've experienced this shift within the industry as it's happened, and knowing how it feels to be both unpaid and paid for the same labor, I appreciate my experience as an intern now even more. Two years ago, an art director chuckled and told me that I had things so easy, that I should have seen what internships were like in their day. Perhaps I'll be saying the same thing to my future intern.


Text Blair Cannon