In February, Xuedan Wang, a 2010 graduate of Ohio University, received modest attention after she filed a lawsuit against the Hearst Corporation claiming that the company violated labor laws when it did not pay her for the work she had done as an intern at Harper’s Bazaar, one of its magazines, over four months last year. Speaking to New York magazine last week, on the occasion of Fashion Week, Ms. Wang, who goes by Diana, explained that she had spent more than half of her life dreaming of Bazaar and approximately 12 months working at a pharmaceutical company in Columbus in order to save enough money to realize her Manhattan vision.
Then she found herself spending as much as 55 hours a week at a job she likened to “working in shipping and receiving.” At the end of it all, she couldn’t secure a paying job. For someone with her particular aspirations, only the HVAC industry could have contained greater indignities.
Internships are a problem, as Ross Perlin wrote in his 2011 book, “Intern Nation,” and others have effectively argued, not only because they impede efforts to reduce unemployment, but also because they assist in perpetuating inequality, privileging the already-fortunate who can afford work without pay.
The alienation is heightened in the linked worlds of New York news media and fashion, where even affluence can be insufficient in the absence of good lineage. Any 22-year-old seeking an internship at Ralph Lauren or Condé Nast, for instance, would benefit from being able to say that she received her first instructions in skirt length and seating arrangement from her godmother Lauren Bacall and her uncle Tom Wolfe.
Fashion internships proliferate in New York for the simple reason that lots of people want to toil in fashion. Although reality television has made it a populist preoccupation, fashion is a reflexively elitist and needlessly self-serious field that, like others, has professionalized itself to the exclusion of incorporating a broader work force. (As anyone who has watched pseudo-improvised MTV series like “The Hills” or “The City” can say, you’d seem to need no more than a high school equivalency diploma and a neurotic sense of urgency about all things to succeed in fashion publicity.)
Begun five years ago, the Web site Free Fashion Internships lists hundreds of positions in the city, some asking far more of applicants than the jobs themselves would seem to require. A posting for an unpaid position in public relations at Eugenia Kim, a well-known milliner, for example, demands that prospects not only be “enterprising,” but also be “brilliant.” Speaking to the mythical candidate who is presumably forfeiting a Marshall scholarship to cold-call accessories editors at InStyle, the posting explains that “if you have ‘down time’ you are looking up recent celebrity images to see if any celebs have been spotted wearing the brand.”
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Plenty of jobless people who haven’t gone to Vassar are capable of returning shoes to their designers after fashion shoots. But enlisting the edgy and chic to do the job free deprives an entire class of people from whole categories of entry-level work. Beyond that, the belief that performing these chores for no fee provides entree to a more meaningful career is challenged by a survey conducted last year by the National Association of Colleges and Employers that indicated that graduates who had paid internships were more likely to receive job offers than those who took unpaid work.
While it’s arguably the case that you ought to be well-groomed to work in the image business — as you ought to have Dr. Seuss books in the waiting room if you’re a pediatrician — it is much less clear that you need to be in college. Higher education provides many employers with the loophole through which they can staff their offices with uncompensated assistants. The Fair Labor Standards Act requires that employers pay everyone, but exemptions exist for purely educational positions that are exclusively for the benefit of the intern (few internships, of course, would seem to meet that standard). Like Hearst and the design firm Eugenia Kim, many employers offer college credit in lieu of a salary for performing tasks that often seem menial and exploitive to those who do them. To Ms. Wang’s complaints, Hearst has countered that she misrepresented herself as a student and that all sorts of young people “have studied” in dozens of different internships at the company.
Our reliance on unpaid interns has become so pervasive that even retail outlets now deploy them. Anthropologie, purveyor of faux haute-bohemian clothes and housewares, uses interns to help produce its visual displays, again in exchange for college credit. This past week, the Chelsea branch was seeking candidates to assist in creating its holiday windows. One young woman who was applying was a senior at the Fashion Institute of Technology and had held a paid job at a boutique in Brooklyn and the Hamptons. She had been writing a blog and photographing merchandise, but when she left, her job was turned into an unpaid position. Her competition at Anthropologie was someone with a master’s degree in architecture.
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