After years of being relied upon by fashion companies big and small for unpaid labor, and by students hoping to get their foot in the door of a notoriously exclusive industry, internships have become an increasingly contentious and precarious topic.
There are so many conflicting opinions on them — even within individuals. I, for instance, spent years interning at a fashion PR company, doing the work of an assistant for 14-hour days without pay or school credit. At the same time, it was a genuinely incredible learning experience that led to life-changing connections and opportunities, including an internship at Fashionista, where I obviously still work. At the same same time, I was only able to take advantage of these opportunities because I was privileged enough to attend college in New York City, and afford housing there during the summers. Even if I had no personal connections and couldn’t afford to shop anywhere other than the Urban Outfitters sale section, I still had a significant leg up over so many aspiring fashion professionals around the world.
I see both sides of the (admittedly, somewhat tired) argument: Traditional fashion internship programs are prohibitive to the underprivileged, and often exploit young people desperate for a way into an increasingly competitive job market. They can also be invaluable learning experiences that help students figure out what they want to do, and reward hard workers with full-time jobs, as they did for myself and most of my peers. I used to feel strongly about being grateful for all opportunities and “paying one’s dues,” but lately I’m questioning whether or not that’s a healthy perspective.
As with so many aspects of the industry, time has brought about questions and realizations about the long-held and often-glamorized institution of internships: Are they legal? Are they ethical? Are they perpetuating fashion’s problematic homogeny? Are they always as beneficial to students as they’re made out to be? From former interns suing Hearst and Condé Nast in 2012 and 2013, respectively, to 2020’s devastating pandemic and long overdue racial reckoning, a number of incidents have forced companies to rethink their programs. Like the “imperial editor,” have traditional fashion internships “gone the way of the dodo?”
In the world of glossy magazines? Kinda, yeah. After initially eliminating its internship program altogether in 2013, Condé Nast introduced a new, more tightly regulated version for summer 2021, where participants work full-time for 10 weeks and are paid accordingly. And interestingly, most of the listed internships were in the business side of the publishing house, rather than the editorial side at glamorous titles like Vogue.
According to a recent piece in WWD questioning whether “glossy fashion magazine internships still exist,” InStyle now brings on small cohorts of apprentices and summer associates instead of interns, while Hearst now takes far fewer interns than it used to, and pays the ones it does. There’s nothing like a highly publicized lawsuit to scare a big company straight.
And while many companies have become more thoughtful about offering hourly wages or school credit since these lawsuits, and the debates they ignited, came about, things didn’t exactly change overnight, across the board. As recently as September 2020, a report from the Sustainable Fashion Initiative at the University of Cincinnati (based on two years of research) highlighted several problems with the fashion internship pipeline. It found patterns of students taking on significant debt just to be able to afford to intern, or otherwise having to ask their families for financial assistance — a luxury not everyone has. Other trends included interns being forced to exclusively take on menial tasks and being ignored by supervisors, robbing them of the educational and networking opportunities internships are supposed to provide. They also found instances of verbal abuse, sexism and racism on the job.
After the mid-2010s, the internship debate seemed to go relatively quiet, only to be reignited by the events of the past year and a half. It’s become clear that the lack of diversity within the fashion industry — and a lot of other industries, for that matter — can be directly traced to the unpaid internship pipeline, and the level of privilege required to participate. In the span of one week this past May, Forbes and Harvard Business Review both published op-eds calling for a definitive end to unpaid internships, for good.
As we know, the pandemic was particularly tough on the fashion industry, especially during those first several months of closed offices and production facilities, cancelled retail orders, slashed advertising and marketing budgets, and ensuing layoffs and furloughs. One might think summer 2020 would’ve been an optimal time to hire some unpaid labor, but in fact, internships all but disappeared. A report by the Center for Research on College-Workforce Transitions found that, in 2020, only 22% of college students had internships.
“It seemed that companies were either cancelling programs or transitioning their interns with proven track records of being effective and reliable to a remote work structure,” explains Carla Isabel Carstens, founder of FreeFashionInternships.com and fashion career coach. It wasn’t the time to take on new interns; it was a bit chaotic. So many functions in fashion are nearly impossible to transition to a completely remote work structure. Publicists and merchants need samples, designers need access to fabrics and mannequins. But front and center was the anxiety surrounding the future of their businesses.” There was also perhaps a lot of hesitance to potentially expose an unpaid worker without benefits to a horrible infectious disease.
Career-minded students, as a result, were anxious, too. “I had clients and followers messaging me, incredibly distraught that their upcoming internship programs had been cancelled, that they were let go a few weeks into their internship, or that they were being ‘ghosted’ by their contact at their upcoming internship and didn’t know what to do. Their anxiety was palpable.”
As bad as that time was, it gave all of us time to rethink some of the things we took for granted — going into an office every day, fashion week, the wholesale system, and, yes, internships. One result was the devision of remote, virtual internships.
“The pandemic has a major impact on the availability of internships for FIT students, and students throughout the country,” says Dr. Tardis Johnson, associate dean for Student Academic Support at the Fashion Institute of Technology, which embeds internships into many of its degree programs. “The overwhelming majority of internships that were offered, were offered in a virtual format.”
Companies like Macy’s, Kohl’s, Urban Outfitters, Hearst, Condé Nast and Bustle Digital Group are among those offering them.
The Fashion Scholarship Fund (FSF), which works with schools and fashion companies to facilitate mentorship, industry networking, professional development and internships for underprivileged students, has seen these as an opportunity to bring more equity to fashion internships. It allows people who aren’t able to move to expensive cities like New York or Los Angeles to still connect with a major fashion company. The hope is that they’ll continue to be offered even after people begin returning to offices.
“It’s kind of that thing people have been saying, we’re never gonna go back to 2019, and so maybe this is the way forward,” says Peter Arnold, executive director of the FSF. “We’ve been able to place students from places where it would be hard for them, for lots of reasons, to get to the physical location.” The FSF also works closely with Virgil Abloh on his Post Modern Scholarship Fund, and he’s currently working with his partner companies, including Louis Vuitton, Moncler, Rimowa and Baccarat, to create remote internship opportunities.
The question is, then, can a virtual internship really be as rewarding as an in-person one? With enough resources and people to support them, maybe. Last year, Eva Boryer, a recent Savannah College of Art and Design fashion design graduate and FSF scholar, had planned on an IRL internship with Kohl’s, which pivoted to virtual. It turned out great. Boryer tells me one of her main concerns was having the right technology to work remotely, but the retailer provided all interns with company computers and tablets.
“We participated virtually right alongside the teams we were supporting, who were also working from home,” she tells me of the experience. “We had many intern-specific meetings and trainings, as well as dedicated projects we worked on to present to Kohl’s leadership, which was an amazing opportunity and design challenge. Kohl’s assigns each intern a coach and a manager. I felt really supported and I always knew there was someone I could ask for help. I think in terms of actual job experience, I did get as much out of it as I would have in-person as we were still doing the same tasks we would have been doing. The social aspects of the internship weren’t quite the same as if it had been in person, but Kohl’s made a really big effort to provide us with virtual ‘extracurricular’ opportunities like yoga or workshops for us to meet other interns virtually.”
To be fair, this is a best-case scenario. For one, not all fashion internship tasks can be done virtually, and perhaps that’s part of the problem.
“I spoke to various friends in the industry, and the general sentiment was that they didn’t know how an intern could be helpful in a remote setting, and they were unsure how they could even effectively train and manage one,” says Carstens, “This said a lot about the state of internships. Think about the bulk of the tasks most internships consist of: packing and unpacking boxes, picking up and delivering samples, tracking samples, tidying showrooms and closets, handling check-in at events…menial tasks like these are off the table, so they didn’t see value in having interns.”
Carstens also heard from students who participated in remote internships and described feeling disconnected or underutilized.
“I was coaching a client yesterday who has an internship with a two-day-a-week time commitment, but she only hears from her manager once a week, and thus far has only been tasked with designing the brand’s weekly email marketing campaign, which she accomplishes in two hours,” she says. “It seems that students are having to manage up in order to ensure they are being utilized. What 20 year-old knows how to manage up? I’m still figuring it out at 36. It’s daunting. But, if you are able to turn around a remote internship situation like this…watch out world, we’ve got a star on our hands!”
The other defining event of 2020 was, of course, the racial justice movement. Following the hullabaloo of performative statements and aggressively publicized DEI hires, some brands, as well as organizations like the CFDA, began making long-overdue commitments to diversify their talent pipelines — including efforts to make internships more accessible.
“One of the most significant observations I have witnessed is the movement of sponsors to embrace, hire and support diverse candidates for internships and employment,” says FIT’s Johnson. “In addition, many sponsors are recognizing that it is not only important to hire and support diverse candidates and employees, but to also retain them.”
The FSF, which does help provide scholarships for students to attend out-of-town internships on a case-by-case basis, has never seen so much inbound interest from brands. In addition to Abloh, it’s forged new partnerships with Brandon Maxwell, Neiman Marcus and Pacsun.
The CFDA committed to creating a mentorship and internship program focused on placing Black students and recent graduates. Gucci debuted its Changemakers program (which was actually in the works pre-pandemic) which includes internship opportunities at the house for people of color. The organization RAISEfashion partnered with the Anti Racism Fund to establish a paid summer internship program for students at HBCUs to work for companies including Cartier, Saks Fifth Avenue, Richemont, Bloomingdale’s, Shopbop and Tory Burch. Antoine Gregory’s Black Fashion Fair partnered with Brooklyn Sewing Academy on an initiative that includes providing Black students with internships with Black designers. Prada unveiled Generation Prada Internship, a paid internship program including room and board for “diverse talent” to work across the group’s corporate and retail teams, starting with a group of 20 U.S.-based students. To name a few.
But for every company that’s committed to dedicating internships for underprivileged people of color, or simply designed their internships to be more equitable by providing things like pay, housing and real support, there are many others who won’t or can’t. Those unpaid, exploitative internships are very much still out there, and not everyone is hopeful that they’ll go away
“The fashion industry is historically understaffed, so the idea of training an intern to do more feels overwhelming,” Carstens explains. “You also run into the fact that, legally, internships must provide more value to the intern than the company, which clearly isn’t the case in most internships. If you were to have an intern learning how to write pitches that were ultimately used for clients, designing items that made it into the collection, it’s only right to pay them for their contribution. I think people feel a lot better not paying someone who ‘just’ packs boxes, versus someone who is contributing in a way that is perceived as being more valuable.”
She adds that the threat of lawsuits hasn’t necessarily made things better. “I want to be optimistic, but it just doesn’t seem to change. I interned from 2005-2007 and its the same shit, different year. Sure, some brands have made some changes, but if anything, the various lawsuits and brands being called out has led to companies cancelling their internship programs out of fear, or making them available by word-of-mouth only, only creating a bigger issue.”
At this moment, internships are just starting to come back from the pandemic. The FSF says it has placed 60% of its junior and senior scholars with summer internships, which it says is significantly better than 2020, but not quite at pre-pandemic levels.
Carstens notes that this continued dearth of internships has made them more competitive for students. She has a few words of advice for those having trouble securing them, whether it’s an issue of privilege or pandemic-induced competition.
“Be proactive and create your own opportunities! I refuse to buy into the idea that you can only get internship experience if you live in NYC or L.A.,” she says. “There are amazing designers and boutiques in every city. Read internship listings as inspiration, create an internship description, and pitch it to a local business. I did this when I lived in San Diego, and I’ve had so many clients find success with this method. When they were able to intern in NYC for a summer, they secured higher profile internship opportunities given they had great experience.”
So what does the future of internships look like? Aside from becoming more equitable, whether via remote opportunities or scholarships, how else could they evolve?
“I don’t think they’re ever going to go away, but I think there’s a sort timeworn aspect that I’m not sure is helpful going forward,” says the FSF’s Arnold He likes the idea of structured (and paid) apprenticeships and fellowships like the ones Condé Nast introduced, especially versions where students could rotate through different departments of a company to get a stronger sense of where they fit. He also brings up more gig-like, project-based opportunities, which the HBR op-ed called “micro-internships,” which could allow students to take on multiple opportunities at the same time and diversify their experience, which could be more beneficial than spending 10 weeks coordinating sample returns.
“I love that it feels as if people are becoming a little bit more creative and flexible about what constitutes an internship, what constitutes project-based experiences and what might allow for an apprenticeship post-graduation.”