Interns Make the World go ‘Round

“Do the interns get Glocks?”

“No, they all share one.”

The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou (Wes Anderson, 2004)

A QUICK ONLINE SEARCH for fashion internships and you will find ‘dream jobs for fashion divas’ alongside ‘fashion intern horror stories’ as top search results. Unpaid fashion internships have gained notoriety as a critical – and highly coveted – first step to engagement with the fashion system.1 Glorified by marketing, and romanticised in pop culture there is an enormous demand in the industry. The fashion intern community mascots the image crisis and socio-economic issues2 regarding unpaid labour where the economic value of work is diluted in an otherwise rigorously capitalist industry. As a full-time intern in New York City for several luxury brands, my experiences have revealed the unstable and highly idealised culture of unpaid fashion internships and the power play that exists between intern and industry.

As a relatively recent global phenomenon, understandings of the fashion internship are vague and generally undefined to both industry and intern alike. The term is perhaps best understood by the rhetoric that circulates within the industry and proliferates marketing.  Phrases like, ‘an exciting opportunity’ and ‘a great way to get experience’ saturate listings on fashion internship listing websites, constructing an understanding of internships as career-focused, offering positive situational learning for the intern’s benefit.3 The true experience of fashion internships often contradicts these luring ideals. Positions are unofficial, unpaid, unstructured and largely unsupervised, comprised of menial tasks, errands and observations. This reflects the allocation of interns by the industry to supporting productivity and cost-effectiveness. This insecurity within the workplace reflects the insecurity of the intern identity: anonymous, disposable and subservient. Phrases like, ‘I’ll get the intern to do it’ which often circulates fashion studios, reinforce a nonspecific, homogenous image.  Indeed, the purpose and identity of the fashion internship are open to interpretation and subsequently, widespread misuse. As a new entrepreneurial spirit underpins the fashion system,4 the application process, serial interning and intern inequality are highlighting serious complications for the fashion intern community.

The interview setting crystallises the fashion industry’s authoritative relationship with its intern community.  For interns, the interview is a critical first point of contact with the industry where the applicant’s best work is showcased for approval and validation. Despite that the work is usually unpaid and informal, the company accepts the intern; the intern does not accept the company. Motivated by reputation value to charm and impress employers, prospective interns are processed like employees where a position must be earned. In my own personal experience, at an interview for such a position, upon showing my portfolio I began to explain the construction of a particular garment I had made, provoking  the comment, ‘we just might have to use that idea!’ from the interviewer.  I replied with, ‘thank you’ despite feelings of complete anonymity and disempowerment. Lured by the cliché rhetoric, ‘It’s who you know’ interns become willing victims for the exposure and self-marketability provided by fashion internships. The interview represents a doorway to this new entrepreneurial spirit of contingent labour.5 Free agency, autonomy and self-direction are positive aspects favoured by unpaid interns. However, this new spirit also signifies a casualisation of the workforce of which self-exploitation is a direct consequence.6 Marketing and media reinforce this stigmatic image through which a promotion of subservience and submission as seemingly necessary to progress, underlies romanticised pop culture imagery and glorified accounts of insider status. While Free Fashion Internships describes ‘fashion intern hopefuls like you’ like contestants and Intern Queen advises interns to ‘know their place’,7 the interview setting solidifies fashion internships as exclusory and interns as insecure. Indeed, the formalities of the interview perpetuate disempowerment as part of the fashion intern identity.

From desire and desperation for a covetable reputation rises a subculture of serial interns. A market saturated with demand for unpaid labour and little opportunity to progress, serial interning have become habitual within the fashion system. Reputation capital is the key incentive mechanism for interns where respect, references, networks and experiential learning are quantified.8 Prestigious, respectable internships often require the completion of previous internships and most placements do not result in an official paid position at all. Undertaking multiple internships simultaneously or consecutively has become an obligation in response to this. I have undertaken six unpaid internships at luxury brands globally, sometimes three at a time five days per week. Since none of them realised into an official position, my references are critical supporting material for self-marketability as confirmation of my reputation through an association with these studios. The bargaining powering of respectable references is outweighing remuneration value.  Indeed, why pay for labour ever again if it is accepted for free? A ‘race to the bottom’ is highlighted by unpaid interning, reinforcing the perception that certain kinds of work have no economic value. Serial interning has normalised the subservience of fashion internships where reputation serves as insurance against a perilous job market. The value placed on talent and labour in the fashion industry is no longer clear-cut, and the necessary distinction between intern and employee is an increasingly exploited grey area.

Privilege is a critical factor in the widening socio-economic inequality that defines – and divides – the unpaid fashion intern community. To work for free, interns commonly rely on external, most likely parental support to undertake a full-time internship. This has been my own experience and that of many of my interning contemporaries. To undertake unpaid work with minimal sacrifice to quality of life – that is, to have all financial needs met – therefore signifies socio-economic privilege. This lifestyle of quasi-inequality is romanticised by the aspirational characters of pop culture; from Blair Waldorf at W Magazine in Gossip Girl and Hannah Horvath in Girls. This majority group is less likely to feel discontent with the lacklustre conditions of unpaid fashion internships because they sacrifice less for the experience, normalising intern exploitation.9 In this inherently exclusive and self-preserving culture in the fashion system, the already-privileged continue to benefit, empowered with a head start to respectable credentials. For many young people, the financial hardship accrued through unpaid labour restricts them from entering the intern community at all.10 This discrimination highlights a growing outsider majority of non-interns, those limited within the widening gap between outsider status and industry involvement.11 Pressured by limited entry-level alternatives and intern experience as a pre-requisite, not undertaking an unpaid fashion internship is considered more detrimental than the unfavourable circumstances they present. Indeed, socio-economic privilege preserves access to industry opportunity, diluting meritocratic values and perpetuating an intern hierarchy.

Rigorous quantifiable research into the widespread effects of unpaid labour within fashion must be undertaken to legitimise the intern community. Structured, enforceable, educational programs and financial incentives would reform and improve the identity of fashion interns and appreciate meritocratic and economic values otherwise diluted by the casualisation of contingent work. Indeed, without interns the fashion industry would grind to a halt; it is in the system’s best interest to nurture them.

  1. Henderson, J.M. (2012). Are Creative Careers now Exclusively Reserved for the Privileged?  Forbes. August 31. 

  2. The legal complications pertaining to unpaid labour are too extensive for this discussion. 

  3. Perlin, R. (2011). Intern Nation. P.3. New York City: Verso Publishing. 

  4. Wark, M. (1991). Fashioning the Future. P. 61-63. New York City: Taylor and Francis Publishing. 

  5. Florida, R. (2012).  The Rise of the Creative Class. P.94. New York City: Basic Books Publishing. 

  6. Andrew Ross notes “the flexibility [which free agency] delivers is a response to an authentic demand for a life not dictated by…excessively managed work” (Perlin, R. 2011, P. 37). 

  7. Carstens, C.I. (2009) and Perlin, R. (2011). Intern Queen Inc in Intern Nation. P.151. New York City: Verso Publishing. 

  8. Florida, R. (2012). The Rise of the Creative Class. P. 74-75. New York City: Basic Books Publishing. 

  9. Perlin, R. (2011). Intern Nation. P. 168. New York City: Verso Publishing. 

  10. Perlin, R. (2011). Intern Nation. P. 159, 163. New York City: Verso Publishing. 

  11. Perlin, R. (2011). Intern Nation. P. 159, 163. New York City: Verso Publishing.