From making industry connections to email etiquette, how an intern conducts themselves within their role at a company can be a deciding factor to their career trajectory. The connections made while emerging talent gain experience can help lead to introductions across the industry, or even into a full-time position within the company itself. According to a survey by the National Association of Colleges and Employers (NACE) of over 5,200 interns in the intern class of 2020, over 66 percent received and accepted full-time offers off the back of their placements.
Having found an internship; completed the application; received the offer and start date: now, you need to prepare for your internship and learn how to behave within a professional environment, so you can make the most of a work placement in the fashion industry.
BoF Careers gathers advice from industry experts, hiring managers, careers coaches and current interns to understand how you can impress in your internship — and make the most of it — to launch your career in fashion today.
Be Prepared and Professional
Before your internship begins, ask the recruiter or hiring manager what you can do to prepare, if you need to bring anything with you or, if the internship is in an office, whether there is a dress code. Plan how to travel to an office, especially if relying on public transportation, and double check key information like your start time or the office address before the first day of your internship — as well as a refresher on key company information from your application research.
“You’re a grown up now; you’re in a job. Be there on time; show up; listen; learn; be interested; show enthusiasm. Even if the task is mundane, if you can show that you care, that you’re interested, and if the company is worthwhile, they will want to help nurture you,” say Joy Campbell, brand partnerships director at Graduate Fashion Foundation, which works to place talent at companies including Asos, L’Oréal, TikTok and Gymshark.
Good time management and organisational skills are basic but critical to impress your co-workers and manager. Take thorough notes of processes and requests, and keep an up-to-date list of your tasks.
“Always be on time, even though the rest of the company won’t be, [and] always have a notebook with you,” says Jon Zeiders, president of womenswear and accessories label Staud and a partner on non-profit RaiseFashion’s internship programme. “You would be shocked at how many people nowadays I see in meetings where no one’s taking notes.”
Prioritise Quality Over Quantity
“‘Listen’ is one of the first pieces of advice that I give to students. [...] Try to speak with everyone, ask questions, and don’t worry about saying, ‘I’m sorry, I don’t understand what you’re asking me’,” says Eugenia Mirri, a careers coach at Milan’s Istituto Marangoni and former talent acquisition specialist at Gucci.
If you need clarification on a task, try to ask at the time it is set to ensure your first attempt is closer to the correct outcome, thereby saving yourself and your manager time. If you need to follow up with further questions, consider the best method of communication, which should be guided by how busy or senior the person of contact is.
“If you have an idea, don’t be scared to share it,” Browns’ buying director Ida Petersson previously told BoF. “It is about finding the right moment and part of that is about psychology — it’s understanding the person who is managing you, how they do business and how they operate in a business environment.”
Ensure to set realistic timeframes on projects so you do not rush a task or over-promise on delivery.
“Speed is only important if it’s done correctly,” adds Zeiders. “If you’re feeding through a project [that has] mistakes on it, you’ve actually wasted time. This business is so detail-driven, that a number can shift a lot of things. [...] Spend the time on getting it right [and] asking questions.”
Listen and concentrate in conversations to understand what tasks are asked of you, and the general workings of the business and industry. Listening skills are highly valued and will help you develop a positive reputation because, simply, it shows you care enough to pay attention and means your manager won’t have to repeat themselves.
“The biggest lesson I learned was making sure that what you are putting out there is actually sound and correct,” Grazia UK’s deputy editor Kenya Hunt previously told BoF. “And if you make a mistake, take responsibility and own up to it so you learn from it rather than try to pretend it didn’t happen or not address it.”
Learn the Nuances of Digital Communication
Most companies utilise instant messaging applications and email to communicate, often with opaque, idiosyncratic etiquette attached to using each method of communication, all the more keenly felt since entire workforces, including interns, moved to remote operations due to the pandemic. Indeed, approximately 72 percent of employers who hosted internships over the summer of 2020 pivoted to provide them virtually, according to the NACE survey.
If you have a quick and informal request for a colleague, remember the delayed feedback loop of asynchronous online communication — workloads are heavy and responsibilities in one’s personal life can cause delays when working from home.
“Make it easy for them — let them know ahead of time what your question is, and let them know that you’re looking for a short amount of time,” says Betty Wang, former VP of merchandising and omnichannel retail for Saks Fifth Avenue, and advisory board and internship committee member for non-profit RaiseFashion, advancing the equity of Black talent in the industry.
Make it easy for them — let them know ahead of time what your question is, and let them know that you’re looking for a short amount of time.
If your query is longer and requires multiple stages of explanation, write an email with relevant but concise context and hyperlinks. Consolidate all questions into one email so you do not require multiple follow-ups, and avoid paragraphs of information. Write in bullet points where possible — and always consider etiquette.
“I get emails without any acknowledgement or address: so there’s no, ‘Dear’ or ‘Hello’; the subject is short and doesn’t make sense; and then there’s no sign off. There’s an email etiquette — it should almost be a reflection of a letter,” says Campbell.
Constantly Assess Your Interests
An internship will help you hone skills and abilities, but also expand your areas of interest and knowledge base. For instance, you might learn you prefer channeling your creative skills into social media rather than design; working in commercial strategy rather than creative execution; in-house instead of at an agency.
“I think the internship is critical [to] reflect on, ‘What did I like about it? What did I not like about it? Can I see myself doing this when I’m 45?’ Those are basic questions but so important to be able to filter out in your early days,” says Zeiders. “The sooner you can decide the path that you like, the earlier you will achieve the level of success that probably is in your mind for the future of your career.”
If there is a particular area of the business you are interested in and wish to learn more about, ask your manager if you can sit in on a meeting. This can provide a reference point if you wish to reach out to a member of the team involved in that field after the meeting.
“Don’t be afraid to try and fail,” Petersson previously told BoF. “You can’t go anywhere without risk. Understanding what you’re up against but taking those leaps of faith is how you make things happen.”
No internship will be wasted if you do decide that function, or even industry, is not for you. After all, skills are transferable — and a wider knowledge of different departments can only better inform your context and understanding later in your career.
“I’m not looking for internships just to get experience alone, but also to get a more varied understanding of the different roles and sectors in the fashion industry,” says Cambridge Dantzler, Howard University student and former Louis Vuitton digital merchandising intern. “I’m just enjoying the ability to go from company to company and see what the different roles are, what different skills I can learn, [and] what different kinds of challenges I might find.”
Be Proactive in Making Connections
Internships enable emerging talent to make what remains all-important interpersonal connections, which could lead to a job or further networking opportunities to kickstart your career.
“The fact of the matter is: these internships are pretty short. It’s up to you to use that time to make the connections that will lead you to your next opportunity,” says Dantzler. “Every time that I had an opportunity to even say ‘hi’ to somebody, I capitalised on it, asking what department they worked in, how long they’d been [at Louis Vuitton], [and] where they were prior.”
“In the fashion industry, the higher up you get, the smaller the circle gets. A lot of people that work at one business have already had an entire career at three other great businesses. You would be surprised what you find out,” he adds.
Depending on the size of the organisation, it can be hard to know who you should be making connections with — and where your effort and energy is best placed. To help you prioritise the people you want to connect with during an internship, Harvard Business Review created an Interaction & Influence Matrix to assess how valuable a potential contact could be.
These internships are pretty short. It’s up to you to use that time to make the connections that will lead you to your next opportunity.
“In any industry, in any position, networking is key. Email someone, ‘I’d love to put some time in your diary, I have some thoughts I’d love to share with you, if you could spare 20 minutes’,” says Campbell on reaching out to more senior members of staff.
Sometimes, however, the most valuable, long-term connections you make are those around your own seniority level, as you will rise up the ranks with your peers and can support one another throughout your careers.
“We tend to rise up the ranks in groups — it’s like your graduating classes but in magazines — so there is a real community spirit,” Hunt previously told BoF. “Look at each job or internship as building on another — it’s accumulative experience. You never want to burn a bridge when, ultimately, it’s a community of people you’re going to be working around for a really long time. Even if they’re not necessarily in the walls of your office, you’ll see them at shows or on trips.”
Once you have left your internship, follow up with your former manager and contacts made via email and/or on LinkedIn to thank them for the opportunity, allowing you to close out the experience on a professional note and to gain the extra contacts and connections.
“I think that regular communication is never a bad thing,” adds Zeiders. “The best advice I ever got in my career was, ‘Make them tell you no.’ It’s an example of persistence, which has always paid off in any industry.”
Pursue a Mentorship
In March 2021, Harvard Business Review reported 76 percent of people say mentors are important — and, indeed, to receive guidance from a more senior professional will help you better navigate an expansive, intricate and sometimes intimidating industry.
“The ability to speak to someone one-on-one, and say, ‘Why am I not getting these interviews? Why am I going to interviews and not getting the job? [...] How can I fight for this promotion?’ is invaluable,” says Campbell.
Find your own mentor. No one is ever going to be offended if [you] say, ‘I’d love to chat to you a couple of times and get a bit of guidance from you.’
Some businesses have formalised mentorship programmes to assist junior employees. At other companies — or outside of your internship experience — you will need to actively reach out to ask for guidance.
“Find your own mentor,” adds Campbell. “No one is ever going to be offended if people come up to you and say, ‘I love what you do; where you [work]. I’d love to chat to you a couple of times and perhaps get a bit of guidance from you.’”
Be realistic in who you are asking for assistance. The more senior the professional, the less time they will have to spare to help you. Also, consider formalised mentorship programmes and communities.
“Having a mentor and advisor in one’s career is just so invaluable,” adds Wang. “A key component of our programme [at RaiseFashion] is to have one dedicated mentor within our network who would be there as an advisor throughout the internship for the students. People are a wonderful resource.”
Industry leaders are establishing an increasing number of mentoring programmes to support younger talent enter the industry, like RaiseFashion, Mentoring Matters, R.O.O.M. Mentoring — even at the older institutions like the BFC or CFDA. Consider finding a group or resource for guidance and peer-to-peer community.