I am worth it: learning how to say no in fashion

Taken from the latest issue of 1 Granary.

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Dec 6 2017, 3:42pm

Markus Wernitznig graduated from the MA Fashion at Central Saint Martins in 2017 and is currently consulting a number of international fashion labels. He spent his academic career interning for various luxury labels, giving him extensive experience and unique insight into the hierarchy of bigger organizations. This article was originally published by i-D UK and taken from 1 Granary Issue 5.

It is almost second nature for us industry people to complain. About anything, really. How bad the latest collections were, how directionless fashion is as a whole, or how we are generally overworked and underpaid. We are constantly talking about what is wrong with the industry we choose to work in. However, it happens rarely that somebody openly criticizes something specific, since it is the nature of this trade to present everything as "wonderful, darling," anyway. The last time I remember somebody really speaking their mind was Lucinda Chambers, in her bracingly candid interview on Vestoj.com. Among the many things Lucinda reflects on in the interview is the industry’s inability to nurture creative talent. I agree with what she is saying. I feel that there is a lot of support for designers starting their own label – especially in London – but what I think is completely overlooked, is what kind of support there is for the individuals who choose to work behind the scenes. I think it is about time somebody talks about this from a recent graduate’s perspective.

We all have this naïve and novel idea of what it’s like to work in the fashion industry when we first start our education. Everything is exciting until the harsh reality hits us. When we graduate with a massive debt on our backs, and we can’t find any real jobs which aren’t internships. What I mean by “real jobs” are the kind of jobs one can survive on without having to work two side jobs to make the rent. There is this image of fashion as a glamorous career – please don’t get me wrong, it can be all of that if you like – but the reality of a graduate is more grim. No champagne and ball gowns, but supermarket sandwiches and secondhand designer clothes (that is, if you are lucky). It’s a damaging, vicious circle that starts in university and results in many people turning their back on this career after graduation. How many graduates actually get a job in fashion design in the end? How many get completely disillusioned and start cultivating yogurt in their basement as a second career path?

"How many graduates actually get a job in fashion design in the end?"

Is it still possible to build a sustainable career in this industry? How many people can actually afford to work for free, to eventually get a decently paid job, in some cases years after graduating? Perhaps one would need to define the trendy word “sustainable” first, with regards to fashion education and career. I cannot help but wonder if it is sustainable for a student to intern during their undergraduate studies for, say, 18 months, followed by a master’s degree, and still be offered nothing but internships upon graduating? Are we not educated enough, and therefore only good enough to intern after years of education and interning? Apparently so. Is there a problem in the way we are educated? Are we not fit to meet the industry’s standards?

If one goes down the route of interning upon graduating, one becomes a disposable worker. Interns are replaced every couple of months. There are dodgy policies that HR departments in big continental houses employ in order to bring in fresh talent, suck them dry of their ideas, and then dispose of them. Or simply use highly skilled and trained graduates as cheap labor to keep their HR budgets low. Often a job at the end of the “graduate internship” is promised, but the reality of that is dull. All the big conglomerates have schemes and events to promote how much they are doing to “support young talent.” Images of champagne evenings with their company logos in the backdrop are flooding Instagram, new graduates are seen talking to all the top talent recruiters from the big houses, but hardly anybody gets a job as a result of these PR stunts supported by the universities. These events mainly serve the companies to promote themselves in the most decadent manner, yet there are studios around the world filled with graduates working on minimum wage. With the money it costs to do events like this, dozens of graduates could be given decently paid jobs.

"Do we really need several hundreds of fashion graduates every year, when it is absolutely obvious that there are not even remotely as many jobs to go into?"

The number of graduates going into jobs in their profession a year after graduating is shockingly low. Official figures are always upped by recognizing internships or any kind of job – even a bar job – as employment. Therefore don’t be fooled by the employment numbers of some universities a year after graduating. Employment a year after graduating does not equal employment in the field of study. Schools aren't transparent about their graduates. Companies declare their losses, but schools don’t have to publicly announce theirs. Do we really need several hundreds of fashion graduates every year, when it is absolutely obvious that there are not even remotely as many jobs to go into? Is this part of the problem? Mass education for maximum profit for everybody but the graduates?

Fashion education has become mass production practically at the same rate as fast fashion has grown in recent years. One does not have to be Einstein to realize that fashion is not just about creativity, but also a business dictated by sales. Fashion education is no different; it’s a business that makes money for universities. Is this where the problem lies? Would it be more sustainable to have fewer graduates, but therefore graduates fit for the workplace? It cannot be that after spending thousands of dollars on education, one is still required to work for next to nothing in order to secure a job.

One way we could all improve this situation is by saying NO to interning after graduating. Internships exist to learn from and to improve your skills while studying – they shouldn’t be an alternative to cheap labor. If the company’s supply of cheap labor dries out, they might have to rethink their intern policies, and as a result, the situation could improve. After all, change will come when people collectively start doing the same thing. Something I have experienced myself when interning and doing good work: the company will naturally want you to stay. Your work has to be so good that you practically become irreplaceable to the company. This is not always the case, but it happened to me before. If the people above you are empowering, you can get a job, but you have to demand it. Nobody will come and give it to you without you asking for it. As mentioned before: it is good to say no to people if you’ve interned for 12 months. It’s okay to recognize your own talent and reclaim your title. This will only benefit you in the long run and stop you from doing internship after internship after graduating.

Purchase 1 Granary Issue 5 here.