It is very hard to get internships at fashion houses like Oscar de la Renta and Balenciaga. They are the jobs that every young aspiring fashionista desires. But now you can get them, if you have $10,000 to spare. Oscar de la Renta, Balenciaga, M Missoni and Valentino are auctioning off month long unpaid internships with pre-sale estimates of $10,000 in collaboration with the auction site CharityBuzz. The money will benefit charity, which is great, but do these people know what usually happens during a fashion internship?
Apparently the people who bought these internships watched that Glee episode where Sarah Jessica Parker played a Vogue editor and was the nicest, most supportive boss ever who frequently burst into musical numbers from Annie. In reality, fashion internships are very different. We have even dared to ask if fashion internships are the worst job in the world. This question was prompted by the lawsuit filed by Xuedan Wang, a former intern for Hearst. She sued the company for not paying her for hours of work. The suit seeks millions in compensation for interns across the country and for a subset of people who worked in New York. Experts are saying it could significantly rattle the publishing industry and change the way interns are treated forever (though new evidence shows that Wang may have not been an ideal intern.) Wang has been called the “Norma Rae of fashion.”
The web site Fashionista recently did a piece on the horrors of a fashion intern. Young women’s experiences included washing a urine-soaked dress for a fashion shoot for Vogue, scooping up dog poop, retyping to-do lists and returning yogurt to a store. My personal favorite was the intern who wasn’t allowed to drink out of the same water fountain as the paid employees. That might actually be illegal. Melissa Reyes, who had an internship with Diane von Furstenberg told The New York Times that she often worked 9am to 9pm, five days a week and felt she was taken advantage of.
There is also the issue of fashion interns simply not being paid for a ton of work. More than 100 prominent fashion houses are being investigated by HMRC concerning the payment of their interns. Fashion houses including, Stella McCartney who has been notorious for using unpaid interns, Burberry, Mulberry and Nicole Fahri have all been sent warning letters stating they must pay their interns the minimum wage or risk prosecution. “A few years ago you hardly heard about college graduates taking unpaid internships,” Ross Eisenbrey, a vice president at the Economic Policy Institute who has done several studies on interns, told MSNBC.“But now I’ve even heard of people taking unpaid internships after graduating from Ivy League schools.”
And clearly some people are actually willing to pay for these coveted unpaid internships. Balenciaga’s summer 2013 work opportunity has attracted the most interest, with current bids reaching $1,350 (though according to The Daily Mail these interns get free Balenciaga bags possibly worth $1300 at the end of the month. So interns could possibly earn $50.) The bid for the Oscar de la Renta internship currently stands at $1,100, while the Valentino and M Missoni lots are yet to receive interest (could they be doing something worse than making people return yogurt to the store?)
But I actually have a feeling that these condensed internships will be more about learning than running these auction winners ragged or giving them the real fashion internship experience. Job descriptions for each of the New York-based placements promise experience in the sales, press, merchandising or PR departments.
This charity, though great, reinforces the stereotype that in order to work in fashion, at least in the beginning, you need to have money. And a thick skin.