Wednesday, 28 July 2010

Plus ça change (plus c'est la même chose) - fashion interns and exploitation

I have just finished reading an article from Saturday's Guardian on the exploitation of fashion interns. Singled out for particular criticism is Alexander McQueen, but there are also quotes from former interns at a number of unnamed houses of all sizes, from boutique labels to large multi-nationals, as well as fashion magazines.
Quite why the Guardian has chosen to talk about this now I'm not sure. It's hardly news, is it? And it seems unfair to single out McQueen when this kind of thing is fairly rampant in fashion.

My first job, over 10 years ago during the blissfully long summer between GCSE's and A levels, was working at a small but achingly hip fashion company that was essentially run by interns and students on compulsory work experience placements getting paid £2.50 an hour.
£2.50 an hour was fine for me - it was just a bit of pocket money. I loved the whole experience of working there. Taking the tube and the bus to the label's warehouse in Wapping every morning felt terribly grown up as did hanging out with the much older fashion students. I loved that I was given responsibility for cutting cashmere and painting the British Isles onto white t shirts using dye made out of old tea bags.

But those poor students, living in London on £2.50 an hour for six months in order to pass their degree, did not have a good time of it. They were shouted at, asked to work insane hours and never given any credit for their work even though they were what held the company together. The atmosphere was usually tense.
And it was hardly the worst place for them to be. At least this company paid them something (it went bust, not for the first time, shortly after - make of that what you will). And they did find a small sort of revenge by stealing pattern scissors and sewing supplies.
Most of the students had horror stories. One talked about an internship at Vivienne Westwood that had her working 12 hours days boning corsets until her fingers bled, but she stuck it out because her tutors kept telling her how lucky she was to be there. I don't know how much of that was exaggerated, but it was enough to scare me off.
They were also all hugely in debt from buying the materials they needed for their course and to put their collection together.

Years later, after deciding to pursue a career in journalism, I worked for free at a number of glossy fashion magazines. Rare is the intern at a fashion magazine who gets paid. Some will work for free for six months in the hope of getting a job. At magazines many end up doing nothing more than sending returns back to fashion PRs or handing out the mail - I've also had first hand experience of this.

Fashion is now an even more popular career choice than it was then.  But there simply isn't enough space in either fashion or fashion journalism for all the people who want to be there. That's the reality that a lot of students, and indeed the colleges and universities that make money out of training them, don't want to face up to. Treating people like unpaid lackeys isn't ethical, but they do it because they can. Because if you quit there will also be someone to take your place. Everyone is desperate for experience because they can't get a job without it and there aren't enough entry level jobs to go around. Aside from asking students to abandon their dreams, there is no obvious solution.

And actually, unpaid interns are in some ways crucial to the success of British fashion. Smaller fashion houses need unpaid interns as much as those interns need the experience. For some of them, making a profit, or indeed just assembling a collection and sending it down the catwalk, without unpaid interns would be impossible. That doesn't make it right, but of course if they received more support it wouldn't be necessary to ask people to work for free. Sadly, fashion apprenticeships, which would be the best solution for this whole thing, aren't common. Will this government do anything to help? Given that it is in the middle of slashing funding for almost all of our cultural institutions and education providers, what do you think?

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