Unpaid Internships Continue to Create Barriers in Fashion

As Fashion Month begins, and the glitz and glamour of street style and runway looks flood our feeds, my heart aches for the many who could not pursue their dreams of entering the field of fashion because of financial restraints. Unpaid Internships Continue to Create Barriers in Fashion.

Bonjour mes amies! I have been in the fashion industry for much longer than I realized (yet I’m the same age as I was when I started.) Throughout my time in the industry, I have been a textile designer in Istanbul, Turkey, fashion designer, pattern maker, visual merchandiser, personal stylist, buyer, trend forecaster, showroom manager, style journalist (for a now-defunct Italian magazine), retail manager, and I’m certain I’ve neglected (or mentally blocked out) a few jaunts.

I studied fashion in both the US and EU, and while geographically and culturally worlds apart, I noticed the same sameness.

I was typically the only Black person in the room.

In this post, I will address the institutional barriers and not my experience (which was worlds away from reality TV shows related to fashion design.)

While in design school both in the US and EU, I worked at least three jobs. A work-study, somewhere in retail, and a nightclub. In addition to three jobs, each semester, I would have to get the dean’s approval to take over 18 credits.

I did this not because I enjoyed being exhausted and burnt out; I did this because I did not know if my financial aid and grants would cover my next semester. I lived in subpar housing because I couldn’t afford to stay on campus. While juggling what felt like one million boulders, towards the end of my studies, I was responsible for finding an internship which was required for graduation and technical experience.

I remember each of my classmates squealing avec delight as they received calls that they’d gotten internships as design assistants, assistant buyers, merchandisers, etc. I would celebrate avec them, and I would then ask the question that mattered most to me:

How much does the job pay?

I would get the same response, coupled with the inevitable chuckle:

Jessie, its an internship silly, there is no pay.

This, in fact, was not silly pour moi by any means. Perhaps I also neglected to mention that I attended a PWI and was just about one of my only friends who had to work.

Time and time again, I received calls of interest for internships, but I had to decline them all. There was no way I could quit one of my paying jobs to work for free.

One semester before graduation, I was hospitalized for an extended period. I lost my apartment and my jobs, which resulted in my blood pressure remaining so high that I could not be discharged. I was stressed beyond understanding. I was over 3,000 miles away from home, and I was homeless and now questioning if I could graduate after all of my sacrifices and work.

Long story semi-petite, a couple of days before I was set to be discharged, I had no ride or money to get a cab to I don’t know where. In my purse, I found the number of a guy who once delivered a pizza to one of my night jobs who was a recent art school dropout because he couldn’t afford the cost. I remembered that he told me to call him if I ever needed anything, and out of pure desperation, I decided to see if he meant what he said. Two days later, he was there at the hospital to drive me to retrieve what was left of my belongings from the apartment I was evicted from and ultimately to my professor’s house, who let me move in with her and her family so that I could graduate and have the opportunity to work and unpaid internship and not stress about money.

This “rebound” is not the reality for most people who look like me.

In an industry that is worth approximately 1.7 TRILLION Dollars, why are fashion students and those wanting to enter the field expected to work for free?

Let’s explore just some of the reasons why unpaid internships continue to affect minorities, disproportionately.

1. Financial Barriers: Approximately 88% of Black students receive financial aid, which makes working for free extremely difficult or impossible. Unpaid internships can exclude those who cannot afford to forgo paid employment or cover living expenses while interning.

2. Exclusivity: Unpaid internships tend to favor those who can afford to work for free or have financial support from their families. Although I had to turn down the “opportunities” that I received, one of the first questions asked by HR was, “Are you currently working?” My employment status was not an inquiry to ensure that there wasn’t a conflict of interest; it was to ensure that I would be available for free labor at any hour (many careers in fashion have untraditional hours, especially for those wanting to enter the field.)

4. Limited Access: We’ve all heard “it’s not what you know but who you know.” Social networking, connections, and personal referrals can influence access to unpaid internships. Working one or many jobs to stay afloat while in uni limits the time and access one has to attend networking events, and that doesn’t include social events that come with a price tag attached. Not being present limits the already existing limited access to these networks, further reducing the chances of securing such positions.

5. Lack of Representation: Whether we like to admit it or not, there is comfort in seeing someone who (you think) “gets you.” Culturally and emotionally, being isolated in isolation can affect your mental health more than you know. I was 18 years of age, over 3,000 miles away from my nearest relative in a city and country I had never visited before.

Not only I was alone, but I was lonely.

When minority individuals do not see others who look like them in certain industries or professions, it can deter them from pursuing those opportunities, perpetuating the cycle of underrepresentation.

Hiring diversity managers and executive leaders does not promote diversity at its elementary level.

Organizations must offer paid internships to ensure that those who are not financially able to work for free still have the same access as those who are financially free to gain the valuable and mandatory experience needed.

In an effort to prevent this post from becoming a book, I’ll end here. If reading more about antiquated policies in the fashion industry interests you, s’il vous plait comment below, and we can keep this going.

Ciao for now 💋


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