Fashion work placements and internships vary from role to role, across functions, companies and countries — no one programme or position will be the same. Design internships, for example, might see juniors produce CAD and sketch drawings, contribute fabric and trend research, or even work hands-on with a creative director.
Whatever the day-to-day tasks one performs, the basic purpose of an internship is to provide emerging talent with essential soft skills and basic corporate or creative know-how to confidently launch their career, from time management, presentation skills and email etiquette to a network of contacts that can provide access to that first full-time role.
Already a highly competitive industry and job market, the economic fallout following the global pandemic has heightened the challenge to find work placements and internships. A Sutton Trust report on Graduate Recruitment and Access to the Workplace found 61 percent of employers cancelled some or all of their placements due to the pandemic in 2020.
As a result, the first hurdle junior talent face today is locating an internship placement. BoF Careers gathers advice from industry experts, careers coaches and current interns to help junior talent find a fashion internship today.
Where to Look
Colleges and universities often build internships into their curriculums and credit systems. Connections for work placements can be made through careers services, alumni relations and professors, but also through the initiative and persistence of emerging talent.
“I went on an independent search, which essentially means that I went through LinkedIn, talked to family friends, went on websites [to] understand what I wanted to do,” says Kirstin Newell, a Drexel University student in business analytics, marketing and fashion retail, recently completing an internship with a retail platform in Chicago.
Entering the fashion industry with no prior experience or higher education requires much of the same graft and strategic approach as those with formal fashion-specific qualifications.
“The same philosophy applies. Sometimes it starts with figuring out [...] your own type of internship and relying on a network to get introductions to companies, saying, ‘Do you have part-time opportunities, or project work?’ to get your foot in the door,” says Betty Wang, former VP of merchandising and omnichannel retail for Saks Fifth Avenue, who sits on the advisory board and internship committee for RaiseFashion — a non-profit advancing the equity of Black talent within the fashion industry.
“Sometimes start-ups are easier, more nimble, and have more of an appetite for something like that. The onus is a bit more on the individual to show they have transferable skills.”
Websites such as BoF Careers will provide fashion internship opportunities from leading industry employers, such as Altuzarra in wholesale and production at Vetements, or design at Acne Studios and marketing at MyTheresa. Elsewhere, broader internship opportunities are searchable on specific student websites like Handshake or Prospects, LinkedIn and social media.
Sometimes start-ups are easier, more nimble. [...] The onus is a bit more on the individual to show they have transferable skills.
“Most of our students are using Instagram to make contact with other designers and [...] small brands to promote themselves. But be realistic in how you’re using your social media,” says Eugenia Mirri, Istituto Marangoni’s fashion careers coach and former talent acquisition specialist at Gucci.
“Be sure to ask for specific examples of company values and ask probing questions,” Farfetch’s senior director of talent acquisition, Natalie Matalon, shared in a BoF Live on securing employment in 2021. “Those types of questions show that you’ve done your homework, that you are refining your point of view on whether this organisation would be right for you.”
Deciding on a Career Path
Juniors first need to decide what career they want to pursue before gaining the relevant experience to complement and boost existing expertise.
“With your own specific interest and skill sets, what would make the most sense [for you]?” says Wang. “If you’re a good salesperson, that’s a transferable skill [for wholesale]. If you are good with logistics, that could be parlayed into something with the supply chain. If you are analytical and want to play with spreadsheets, you could end up in merchandise planning.”
Gaining experience from a variety of companies, in both product or service offerings and company size, can provide a more holistic view of what a career in your preferred field will look like. For example, in-house PR requires different skills from working at an agency, where you manage multiple accounts.
Larger companies are also more likely to have formalised internship programmes, thereby providing a higher chance of landing a position. However, the exposure to hands-on work can be limited.
Maybe it’s not the same big anchor brands, but there are definitely opportunities in a different way.
“There are some brands where I know students will be designing collections, it will be in stores — they are as hands on as you’re going to get. But it might not be a brand you’d ever aspire to,” says Joy Campbell, brand partnerships director at Graduate Fashion Week. “[However,] they move out of that role with more experience than someone who might have spent six months at one of the big houses.”
The Sutton Trust report found small and medium-sized enterprises were the most likely to have cancelled internships following the pandemic, with 49 percent doing so compared to 29 percent of larger employers. As a result, talent might also consider gaining experience in adjacent industries to learn skills that relate to fashion and its functions.
“Look for ways that you can create transferable skills,” says Cambridge Dantzler, a strategic, legal and management communications student at Howard University, and former digital merchandising intern at Louis Vuitton. “It’s not always about doing specifically what they require [...] but being able to take skills from one industry to another.”
Understanding Roles and Responsibilities
The requirements of a fashion internship will vary depending on the role, the brand or business, the team — even the country or time of year in which you are working.
“Find someone who is or has been in that role and get their advice about exactly what are the important skill sets to have. Speak to people that are hiring for those positions — [and ask what they] are looking for,” says Wang.
Dantzler suggests finding “someone that’s maybe not at that company, but in the industry, and [...] speak to them about what their first interview was like, what they would change” as a good place to start.
There’s a lot of glamorisation around certain jobs within the industry and not a lot of visible content about the day-to-day.
Speaking to professionals should help dispel any myths around what a role will entail, which can be fictionalised through social media.
“There’s a lot of glamorisation around certain jobs within the industry [on platforms like Tik Tok or Instagram] and not a lot of visible content about the day-to-day spreadsheets,” says Newell.
Instead, student resources on social media like 1 Granary can provide more realistic insights into the workings of the industry at entry-level, often told from the interns or graduates themselves.
Don’t Compromise on Compensation
With ancillary costs like transport and food, working for free is not an option for many juniors. Indeed, the CFDA x PVH State of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion in Fashion Report 2021 found 35 percent of entry-level fashion employees supplement their income in the US.
“So many people are out here working without financial compensation — it’s our unfortunate reality,” says Newell. “You have to consider if I’m taking up another [paid] job and my initial job is unpaid, where does my energy really go?”
According to a Workforce Institute 2019 report, 54 percent of Gen-Z hold pay as the most important factor when applying for their first full-time job.
“I feel like anyone who is spending their hard-earned time, intellect and energy to bring to the betterment of anyone’s company deserves to be compensated for that in some way,” adds Dantzler, a former recipient of the RaiseFashion x Anti-Racism Fund trust for interns.
While organisations such as RaiseFashion can financially assist students, the opportunity is finite for all juniors wanting to work in fashion — and the chance of finding a paid internship is a challenge. To avoid the exploitation of juniors, companies in the UK can only hire an unpaid intern for a month, whereas European countries like Italy require minimum wage for entry-level talent — but only when an extracurricular engagement.
Internships ranging from one to six months in Italy as part of a student’s curriculum “could be for free,” says Mirri. “Unfortunately, this is the most requested because [if employers] can choose to [not] pay students, it is more appealing.”
First-time experience does not need to come in the form of a corporate or creative internship programme that is unpaid or poorly compensated. “Think more laterally,” says Campbell. “One of our students wanted to be in visual merchandising, and I said, ‘Get a job in a store.’ You don’t have to go into a VM roll — there’s other ways of thinking about it.”
Indeed, retail is a struggling industry — accelerated by the pandemic and its consequential lockdowns — but it is giving way to other opportunities and new career paths in fashion.
“Many of these DTC, e-commerce-only companies are now looking to add bricks-and-mortar,” says Wang. “So maybe it’s not the same big anchor brands, but there are definitely opportunities in a different way.”
Mirri also suggests freelancing to kickstart some fashion careers, such as styling, because “in Italy, we don’t have a specific job role for stylists. [...] It’s just important to be proactive,” she adds.
Indeed, candidates might also look to non-profit platforms such as RaiseFashion and Graduate Fashion Week, which respectively seek to help entry-level talent through either financial support or increased visibility and careers guidance.
Next week, we deep dive into how to apply for an internship — from advice on CV and resume writing, portfolio recommendations and interview techniques — to help you stand out from your competitors.