Rethinking Fashion Internships

It was a relatively peaceful weekend. I was drinking Indian Chai tea and enjoying surfing online very late at night when my Tweetdeck, which I leave on by habit, went crazy. Someone mentioned strange tweets from the Marc Jacobs account, and I went over to see what the commotion was all about. As it turns out, a  Marc Jacobs intern was having a meltdown online. Fashionista.com reports:

“Remember how Marc Jacobs was looking to hire someone to manage their Twitter, via Twitter to replace CEO Robert Duffy? Well this intern did not get the job. The MJ intern hijacked the@MarcJacobsIntl twitter handle and tweeted gems like, “‘You guys and gals have no idea how difficult Robert is. I am only an intern. My last day is tomorrow. I wouldn’t be tweeting this if not!…”

At the time of the meltdown, I was having a fun time reading the tweets and reading people’s reactions. It was a clear divide between sympathizers and haters – and a sprinkle of bemused onlookers like me. Those who were currently interning at a fashion firm or had worked as an intern had clearly taken to this anonymous person’s side. Those who condemned him came from a wide range of backgrounds from what I could tell, but I can wager most have never interned in fashion before. Then there were those who condemned the tweets only to later ask for the job via Twitter. Most were half-joking, but there were some serious ones there.

So this begs the question – is this simply an isolated incident or indicative of a larger problem in how fashion is sourcing and cultivating its talent pool? The purpose of an internship is to give a someone hands-on experience in an industry. In exchange for their skills, time, and labor, interns are compensated by exposure to the industry and monetary compensation. In many industries, this model is virtuous, acting to tap into the talent pipeline by finding future employees early on and developing them before they even join full time. The financial world and consulting industry come to mind as being top-notch, with their summer associate programs. However, fashion is a completely different story. The Guardian wrote a powerful article about the exploitative nature of the fashion internship – unpaid and unthankful.

I would go a step further and say that our industry is in a negative, self-perpetuating cycle. First, the fashion brands structure their internships to fail. Do you really think an unpaid internship doing grueling work is going to attract talented workers? Even if you kept your internship unpaid, having them fetch coffee and make copies teaches them nothing. The promise of “exposure to the industry” is nothing more than an illusion; being in the office and seeing people work while transporting samples is not “exposure”. A meaningful project that lets the learn what actually goes on with the firm is true exposure.  From my point of view, most brands fail by nature of their internship structure. Brands like Macy’s, Coach, Polo Ralph Lauren, LVMH, and Gucci are better since they do have a structured internship program to source talent from a younger demographic.

Because fashion internships are so unsavory, many talented people choose to go to other industries. There are so many smart, talented, and brilliant interns I have met in the fashion industry, but I will take a risk here and say that there are many more untalented, poorly trained, and unhelpful interns in fashion. I have had my fair share of fashion horror stories with interns – like the time a group of 10 PR interns couldn’t figure out how to alphabetize a contact list. I am not joking here either. I’ve read so many tweets and posts demeaning interns as being stupid or incompetent. I used to be upset, because my time interning with firms like Google and Youtube made me think all interns were brilliant, smart, and capable people. I have since come to realize that there are indeed bad interns, but fashion suffers particularly from this problem because it can’t attract a lot of capable individuals.

As the quality of fashion interns deteriorates because the industry fails to draw in talent, interns get pegged more as being incapable and fashion internships become even more unthankful and demeaning. It’s a downwards spiral.

I don’t mean to say that interns can’t become successful or that there are great fashion internships. However, I think the Marc Jacob’s intern meltdown has opened the kettle on one of fashion’s darker and uglier aspects.

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