Fashion internships are notoriously cutthroat and intense, but the industry at large tended to turn a blind eye to this reality until 2013, when lawsuits began rolling in against top publishers like Hearst and Condé Nast. Complaining of poor treatment and minimum-wage salaries—if they had a salary at all—over 7500 interns ended up supporting the Condé Nast lawsuit, which was settled last April with $5.9 million to be divided among the group.
But not everyone was on their side, especially after the lawsuit caused the publishing house to shut down its intern program altogether. “I’m disappointed on behalf of all future interns,” one student told The New York Times in October of 2013. “We’re no longer going to have that foot in the door.” Others argued that the struggles that had become inherent to interning were worth it, even the 15 pounds lost to fit in at Vogue, according to the now editor in chief of Fashionista, Lauren Indvik. “It [was] so valuable,” she concurred.
So, with all of this newfound scrutiny on its internship programs over the last few years, the fashion industry has essentially been put to the test. Would it change its long-held ways or continue old patterns that many considered unnecessary and abusive? The results, as always, have been mixed.
When asked if any overhead changes had been made at her company, an editorial recruiter from one of the major publishing houses, speaking on the condition of anonymity, told me, “We’re definitely more cognisant of how our interns are being treated, and have spoken to the whole company about the importance of both not crossing the line with the tasks they’re given and reimbursing them for any errands that pop up. That said, an intern's experience largely depends on who they’re working for, and we don’t have the bandwidth to be constantly checking in on them all.”
An editor from a well-known fashion magazine echoed this sentiment, noting that she had always been rather easy on her interns anyway, but that she felt she watched her tone more and tried to deliver fewer errand-based tasks after the lawsuits came out. Whether or not her colleagues are following suit, she noted with an uncertain laugh, is “anyone’s guess.”
When I posed the same question to an editorial assistant who hires all the interns working under her and her boss (the editor in chief of a major fashion magazine), she told me that she hadn’t noticed much of a change in intern treatment since the lawsuits, other than insisting they use a company-purchased Metro card to traverse New York City. “We still ask a lot of them, it’s still pretty intense, and, yes, sometimes a little absurd,” she admitted, though not quite with remorse. “I was an intern once too, so I get that it can suck, but I do think a lot of what you do [during that time] is helpful in the long run: a thick skin and a go-getter attitude are crucial in this industry—interning taught me that more than anything else.”
And what of the interns themselves? How do they feel they’re faring these days? “My older sister had a really brutal internship experience, so I was expecting the worst when I started here,” one current magazine intern told me. “But the thing is, I’m in the features department, and she was in fashion, and I can tell from just being here that those interns have it worse.” The fashion closet, especially, got a bad rap across the board, with numerous current and former interns complaining of days spent entirely on foot, running around Manhattan in uncomfortable weather conditions (usually with very heavy bags) and rarely having time to eat lunch or even go to the bathroom. “The only thing comforting me is that a lot of the editors here actually went through the same thing,” one girl pointed out, implying that the suffering is a rite of passage of sorts.
One young man who had a particularly awful first internship experience last fall echoed the sentiment of the aforementioned editorial recruiter, saying it all comes down to who your boss is. “My first internship was awful—my boss was all about making The Devil Wears Prada a reality—but then I moved to a different publishing house to work for a hilarious, lighthearted lady who managed to assign me various tasks (some still a bit ridiculous) without coming off as heartless and cruel,” he explained. He claims he lost over a hundred dollars in errand-running fees at the first magazine and was kept at the office until 9 or 10 p.m. every night, whereas his second internship expensed all of his errands and only occasionally kept him at work until 7 p.m., rather than the usual 6 p.m. “There’s a way to have an intern that still gets sh*t done for you without treating them like your whipping dog,” he half-joked, “but not everyone seems to realise that.”
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