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Op-Ed | What It's Like Being a Black Fashion Intern

As Black interns at a high fashion magazine, we were largely confined to the fashion closet and denied opportunities for advancement enjoyed by others. It’s time for change, write Jasmine Burgos, Abigail Cherubin and Christopher Akintonde.
Magazines on sale at Soho News International on Prince Street, New York | Source: BoF
  • Jasmine Burgos,
  • Abigail Cherubin,
  • Christopher Akintonde

F.U.B.U. by Solange played in the background of the fashion closet while we unpacked garment bags of ready-to-wear for the next day’s photoshoot. Beyond the samples, we also unpacked cultural phenomena ranging from blackfishing on Instagram to Barry Jenkins’ stunning portrayal of Black love in Moonlight. Inside of the fashion closet, we cultivated a sacred space where we felt safe, bonded together not only by our blackness, but by our visions of what the fashion industry could be.

Each time we stepped out of this sacred space, however, we were confronted with the sobering reality that no person sitting in the rows of desks that spanned the office looked like us. This visual disparity between the intern closet and the main staff made us question the possibility of advancing within an inherently exclusive industry; it also motivated us to work three times harder to ensure we’d get a seat at the table, so that one day we could build our own.

The recent murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery and Tony McDade have spiked momentum in the fight to end police brutality. The movement has also forced entire industries, including fashion, to confront their own complicity in, and contribution to, systemic racism in America.

On social media, fashion executives have expressed their solidarity for Black lives by posting black squares and sharing PR statements promising to do better on behalf of their companies. But how much value do these promises hold when Black interns at a prominent fashion magazine have yet to see themselves represented at all levels of the masthead?

People need to be able to tell their own stories rather than having their stories told for them. Fashion, at its best, has the power to enable just that, allowing us to visually express ourselves in all our complexities and multiplicities. But for a language that speaks to so many, fashion has a bad habit of excluding Black voices from the conversation.

More often than not, the images of Black people we see on glossy covers and spreads are produced by teams of entirely non-Black creatives. They present diversity in a superficial way, creating a chasm between the image and the image maker. “The power of the image in our industry has the ability to shape the world around us. Imagine if those sitting at the table were multicultural voices who could reverberate and amplify the plethora of beauty in all of our stories,” says Liana Jaime-López, a former fashion intern who worked with us.

Being tucked away in the fashion closet meant that we would cease to be seen and heard. We were conditioned to be silent, to work while remaining invisible, to stay in our sacred space.

As my internship progressed, I realised that non-Black interns were being offered opportunities that I was not.

“As my internship progressed, I realised that non-Black interns were being offered opportunities that I was not,” says Taylor Warner, another former fashion intern with whom we worked. “I interned for four months and my workload consisted of running around Manhattan picking up samples, while others were getting invited to assist on shoots and NYFW events.”

Despite being overlooked, young Black creatives still manage to create powerful images of ourselves that encapsulate the fullness in which we exist in the world. Observing from afar, it may seem as though the industry has evolved into a more “diverse” one by rendering the Black experience visible. But as you take a closer look, the truth is far from this.

The opportunities we are granted are inauthentic if we are deprived of the proper mentorship, support and resources to execute our vision. As author and activist Angela Davis said, “I have a hard time accepting diversity as a synonym for justice. Diversity is a corporate strategy.”

Tokenism cannot be the antidote to racism and lack of representation in the workplace. In addition to hiring Black people, structural transformation must also be implemented to support and make way for upward mobility. It’s never been enough to sprinkle us on covers or on runways; there needs to be a pipeline in place that allows for Black talent to graduate to leadership roles. Because of systemic barriers in place, we are often beset with a premature disillusionment with the industry, questioning our place and purpose.

“Since this internship, I've gone on to begin a career in PR in home and design, deciding that I no longer wanted to pursue a career in fashion. I was disappointed by the lack of diversity not only in the magazine's staff, but also in the content being produced,” says Jordan Hampton, a former editorial intern with whom we worked.

Let this revolution ignite us to break down old systems, rebuild new ones and reimagine the future of fashion. It’s time for the industry to loudly — and financially — proclaim its support for Black lives. It’s time to adopt hiring practices that authentically integrate diversity at all levels of the corporate ladder. It’s time that we see the multitudes of blackness represented in the sector — including different body sizes, people with disabilities, transgender and non-binary identities, and all ages. The revolution must not be limited to black squares, PR statements and inclusion training.

As young Black creatives, we want to see the industry radically transformed from the inside out. Our generation is amassing the greatest buying power our country has ever seen and we are increasingly leveraging that power to hold companies accountable, ensuring real change beyond optics. Our experience taught us that we could reach greater heights than we ever could from within the confinements of the fashion closet. As Nina Simone sang, “To be young, gifted and Black / Oh what a lovely precious dream… There's a world waiting for you / This is a quest that's just begun.”

The views expressed in Op-Ed pieces are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Business of Fashion.

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