How do you break into the fashion industry from the outside? Ask almost anyone – including me sometimes – and the suggestion will be to intern. I feel a bit mixed as I give this advice because it is advice I never took.
While other fashion students were volunteering their time at acclaimed designers and national magazines, I hit the pavement with my meager portfolio and held out for a fashion job of any description – but for financial reasons, only if it paid. I managed to find a few jobs, the two major ones were working as a cutting and alterations assistant in the basement workshop for a boutique designer and counting threads-per-inch on fabric samples for the private label department of a national retailer. In many ways my experiences were the same as many fashion interns – with two major differences. One, I got paid a modest wage and two, I rarely had the opportunity to network on the job.
When trading shop talk with my friends and colleagues now I wonder sometimes if I sold myself short for minimum wage. There are some amazing internship opportunities out there for the ambitious young go-getters. I asked a couple fashion blog friends to comment on their own experiences. Ophelia of The Eternal Intern tells me,
In my opinion, internships are the only way (other than personal contacts) to get into the fashion industry. I have found that the best jobs/internships are never posted online, but spread by word of mouth through what I call “the Old Girls Club”. I got wind of an internship at FASHION via twitter and since then my former boss has put me in touch with people hiring for jobs that a “contact-less” job seeker would probably never see. The fashion industry is very incestuous, but once you know the right people all kinds of doors open! The best way to get in is by interning (and doing a stellar!) job so people take notice and want to call in favors for you.
Ophelia has interned at magazines both in Toronto and Paris and has seen many facets of fashion intern existence – I asked her what she looks for when applying for an internship.
When looking for an internship, I always consider the following:
The company: Is it well-respected and globally recognized? If I am going to work for free, I want to make sure I at least have something amazing to put on my resume!
The internship description: I have done internships where I am treated like an employee and have gained so much experience and then others where I photocopy alllllll day! The only thing an intern gains from an internship is the experience, so I always look for a chance to learn something new.
The benefits: A paid internship is a dream come true! Even if they pay for lunch and a metropass, it’s better than nothing. For me, the company and the job description definitely outweigh the other criteria. Working for Vanity Fair for example, would be such an incredible learning opportunity that I would overlook just about everything else!
Length, days/week: I it is an unpaid internship, being able to intern 3 days/week and then work the others is key. It gets a little frustrating giving all your time away for free, so having a few days off really helps.
If you’re really interested in intern dish, you must check out Ophelia’s blog – The Eternal Intern – where she and two friends document the dreams and dramas of scoring a job in the glamour industry.
Another fashion blog friend who entered the fashion industry through some prestigious internships is my friend Truc of Deeply Superficial who spent time as a design intern at Marc Jacobs and as an editorial intern at Teen Vogue. Truc and I are opposite sides of the coin when it comes to our approach to entering the fashion industry so our conversations on the subject can get feisty. The gist is that Truc believes in working inside the system and I tend to work outside the system. Truc says,
I have done almost a dozen internships over the years, ranging from museums to fashion designers to small business retailers to national mass market chains. I think I gained a great deal from these internships, and the body of knowledge really build up my understanding of various facets of the fashion industry, and complemented my education in fashion design and later on for my MA research. Most of my internships were unpaid, at least at the beginning. Some I hated and others I stayed on for years at.
What I gained:
1) The internships exposed me to all the different parts of the “fashion” industry, and I was able to really learn what it means on a day to day basis to be, for example, a “fashion designer” in Toronto or a museum curator at the ROM. I discovered my strengths and weaknesses, and what I definitely didn’t want to pursue.
2) I think you have to start somewhere, and being an intern is great because the level of commitment is lower – if you don’t like something, you can walk away easily after the term is over! For me, I’ve always been fortunate that several of my internships (four) lead directly to paying freelance and assistant positions with the same company, which I wouldn’t have necessarily been hired for otherwise.
3) I made valuable industry contacts in Toronto and New York through my internships, and having all that work experience was incredibly helpful when I was looking for my first job (now, 3 years after graduation, I only have 2 publishing internships out of all of them listed on my resume). Even now, I keep in touch with some of my internship coordinators from companies such as Joeffer Caoc and Marc Jacobs, and these women have become my mentors and friends.
4) Thinking back, I was an awful and amazing intern at various points, sometimes during the same internship! But I don’t regret a single experience or lament the loss of potential wages (ie if I had been working retail and getting paid instead for those hours), because I can pinpoint so many things that I’ve learned about businesses and being an assistant and managing others through these work experiences.
Truc is one of my favourite fashion friends – all the more so because we’re so different – and a truly thoughtful fashion writer. Her take on fashion at Deeply Superficial is highly recommended.
Considering others experiences, it is clear to me that given the right opportunities an internship can be a valuable, wonderful, and even life-changing experience. I certainly missed out on a world of opportunity by not being inside. Yet I am skeptical that internships are the only way – or necessarily the best way – to get into the fashion industry. And via Final Fashion, I am essentially betting my own career on this.
Without diminishing the considerable talents of my peers and friends, I think it is fair to state that internships are the most conventional way of entering the fashion industry. As a system, the fashion intern industrial complex has some issues which are a whole other post – exacerbating financial and social inequalities – which sometimes turn bridges into barriers for the talented and underprivileged. Except, talent can fly.
Two examples. One, the bohemian ideal is exemplified by Viktor & Rolf who created couture in the bubble of a one-room flat in Paris, showed how ambition can manifest success outside the system. Two, the magic of the internet allows a teenager in suburban America to share her passion for style and offers her the opportunities of a lifetime.
My own bid for an unconventional entry is not as meteoric (yet) but takes inspiration from these kinds of stories. The essence is that if you fiercely want to live a certain kind of life and you manifest it even with meager resources – whether it is a blog or in V&R’s case, a miniature collection in 1996 that galvanized their desires – it is possible to enter the world of fashion on your own terms.
Hard work, talent and persistence is a potent combination whether it is inside or outside the system. It is probably not good advice for most people to subvert established channels – unconventional success is rare for a reason. But I would say that if circumstances determine that you can’t get your dream internship, to not give up, and to consider alternatives that would allow you do what you desire, now. Even if it is just in a small, symbolic way.