Corruption in the Industry - The Price of Unpaid Internships

Illustration by Megan Hannigan

Working in the fashion industry is a dream for many, and for most it remains just that. When I first started university, I had little experience in the industry and was swiftly informed that my degree wouldn’t be enough. To get ahead I was told it was crucial that I interned and that this experience would make me stand out. This was not - and still isn’t - shocking to me, as it is no secret that hard work and experience always pay off. It also did not initially shock me that the work you would be doing would be unpaid, as I was so desperate for some sort of experience that the terms and conditions were easily brushed over. You see you’re made to feel like it's an honour to be working for free, full time, doing menial tasks for long hours and little thanks. It’s what everyone has had to do so you too must follow the unfair rite of passage. When people asked about my internship, I used to reference The Devil Wears Prada, but Anne Hathaway was lucky enough to get paid.

But before you face the reality you are told only of the grandeur of working for a big name and the necessity to do so. And here within lies the problem - it is necessary to secure that job you have been dreaming about. Looking at paid positions online, most require at least a year of experience in the industry, which means many face up to a year of free labour to be deemed ‘worthy’ of payment for their creativity. This leaves all of us in a conundrum; no one wants to work for free, but no one wants to fail either. And sadly, there will always be someone to replace whomever decided to voice their complaints.

This leads to an either larger question about the industry – who are the people who can afford to work for free? Even as a student who receives a sizeable maintenance loan, I have struggled financially with both internships I had. My first was part time, which meant that alongside university I was working five days a week, without factoring in time for me to do any of my coursework and leaving me unable to work shifts at my part-time job. I lived out of my overdraft, ending up in almost £1,000 of debt and spending the whole of my summer holidays paying this off. For the second I had it was for a much shorter period, but full time. I could not afford to take the time of work while on break from university so ended up skipping my first few weeks of second year so I could steam clothes for 9 hours a day. I also could not afford to skip out on paid work this time so worked Saturdays as well, leaving me with little free time.

Although not ideal my experiences were manageable, and I was fortunate enough to have the comfort of knowing that if I was really struggling I could ask for help from my family. I am writing from a position of privilege as many are not financially able to take a week off work to pursue their dreams, let alone a month or more. This has led the upper echelon of the industry full of the same kinds of people, lacking diversity and creativity and implementing the same systems which were created with the rich in mind. It is obnoxious to have the ‘I had to do it too’ attitude many have when approaching the subject, as the ability to perform the required free labour is a privilege in itself, as it suggests that you have been able to receive additional support, or never even had to consider the possibility of struggling.

It is not that I believe in the abolition of internships - I in fact think they are a brilliant indicator of skill and perseverance - I just do not believe they should also be an indicator of privilege. Change is not going to come from above, but it can from below. From a younger generation of creatives who believe that financial stability should not overshadow creative talent and who can see that the current system is outdated and upper-class. Stop underselling yourself.

Written by Isobel Gorman-Buckley