Photo: Abby Mitchell, Fashion Week S/S 2013
Hang around Lincoln Center and you might see Occupy Wall Street protesters at a place you wouldn’t expect: New York Fashion Week. They’re heading uptown to take a stand against the industry’s intern labor practices, by handing out swag backs that read “pay your interns,” according to Buzzfeed Shift. It won’t be a full-on Zucotti Park extravaganza, but organizer Peter Walsh, who has filed a suit against Fox Searchlight for the work he did on Black Swan during an internship, said that he hopes they’ll draw a "significant presence."
He told Buzzfeed, "The fashion industry is a for-profit industry — it’s not like they’re working not-for-profit arts organizations. They’re making billions of dollars and the fact that they’re asking their students to donate their labor to these businesses is really outrageous."
To pay, or not to pay — it’s a debate that has gotten a lot of traction in the fashion industry ever since former Harper’s Bazaar intern Diana Wang sued Hearst for, she claimed, violating labor laws for unpaid internships.
To read Buzzfeed’s account of Diana’s intern experiences is like hearing a reel of first world problems: she talks about the frustrations of carrying "garment bags [she] could fit into" and getting assignments not related to her department, like "delivering new outfits to editors between shows at Fashion Week."
And Diana, I’ve been there. In my three years as a college student in New York, I’ve worked fashion internships, one that required me to pick up lunches, walk the designer’s dogs, and even once change a light bulb in his house. But here’s the thing: without that first internship, I never would have gotten to bigger and better things. I learned a lot there. In a world without unpaid internships, you’d never have enough experience to get hired for a full-time job — especially with the employment rate where it is.
Despite Peter’s claim that all fashion companies are "making billions of dollars," the fact of the matter is that many of the designers who they’re protesting simply aren’t. Fashion Week is full of emerging designers, who, despite glowing press coverage and an appearance of glamour, work hard to keep their businesses afloat. And paying full wages to part-time, college-matriculated interns isn’t always a possibility. It might feel trite to say that an internship is really about the learning experience. But even when I was heading to the store grabbing lunches at that internship long ago, I still had an inside glimpse into how the industry REALLY works: from celebrity fittings to actual production.
Last summer, working in the UK, I learned from coworkers that because of their strict labor laws, they were only able to retain an intern for two weeks legally without full pay. I got there through my University, but it was funny to see how the European interns I worked with WISHED they could be in my shoes — working for three months rather than a measly two weeks, ending their time without references and without getting anything out of the experience. If Diana Wang gets her way, that might be the future of internships in the U.S.
I’m curious to see how this protest pans out over the next few days. And maybe they do have a point — an industry that will actually auction off internships to the highest bidder (even if it benefits a great cause) might benefit from some retrospection.
But before you whine about the grunt tasks that you have to do as an intern, remember—you signed up for this. Embrace it and learn as much as you can.