Apr 11th, 2018, 05:00 PM

A Peek Into the World of Unpaid Fashion Internships

By Izzy Christian
Image credit: flickr/alachua_county
Frequent to the industry, unpaid fashion internships are being snapped up quickly, but are they ethically viable?

Business ethics are an important factor in any company. But do these ethics trickle down to how interns are treated or managed? Some would say no. More specifically in the fashion world, unpaid internships are a common occurrence and most would argue a "rite of passage" in the industry. The number of unpaid internships is mushrooming due to the fact that students are keen to gain experience to add to their résumés. An internship has now become the "gateway into the white-collar workforce", and most young adults are expected to participate in one and do it for free.

Knowledge-intensive industries and creative occupations are the largest and fastest-growing segments of the freelance economy, so it makes sense that the fashion industry would want more freelance workers or unpaid interns. Though the structure for internships (whether paid or unpaid) varies from country to country, here in France (taken directly from the AUP Internship Guide) interning without an internship contract is illegal. Whereas in the United States, there is a “primary beneficiary test” to determine whether an intern or student is an employee under the Fair Labor Standards Act.  This test allows courts to take a closer look at the economic reality of the intern-employer relationship to determine which party is the "primary beneficiary" of the relationship. Of course, it is possible for companies to find ways around these rules by handling terms with interns individually under the table. A recent cracking down on unpaid internships has come to light due to employers seeking free labor with no intention of hiring the intern after the work is done.

Image credit: Flickr/flazingo_photos

So what is the motivation behind doing an unpaid fashion internship? In Lisa Shaw's book, SAGE Brief Guide to Business Ethics, she discusses the theory of "consequentialism". In short, the end of a task justifies the means. In most fashion internships, the culmination is usually a fashion show, photo shoot, or big event. Interns do whatever they have to do to make it to this event, including staying up until the wee hours of the morning or running errands across Paris. Working behind the scenes at Paris Fashion Week is the pinnacle or dream for countless young women and men. Unpaid internships in the fashion industry seem to be viewed as a rite of passage. Young adults have gone through it before and many more will continue to do so in the future. But is it ethically ok to give interns menial tasks that don't further their knowledge of the industry? An AUP sophomore, who would like to remain anonymous, said, that " [unpaid internships] are a lot of work, so I do think the fashion industry takes advantage of younger people who really, really want to work for [these companies]. They know that they're going to get excited about the brand name and be able to put it on their résumé, but it's also a bit ridiculous not to get paid." For this intern, the incentive was experience driven- "the resume building aspect was motivation for me, as well as I want to be in the fashion industry and I knew that I had to experience it first-hand." Is it ethical to take advantage of these students who want the experience on their resume and are willing to do anything for it?

Image credit: GoodFreePhotos/ Kris Atomic

Another AUP fashion industry intern reached out to a stylist of a popular rap group on Instagram after seeing her Instagram story looking for interns in Paris. This culminated in a weekend of visiting luxury boutiques on Avenue Montaigne for said-stylist inquiring about clothing consignment processes. From then, the tasks included going to showrooms and taking photos of clothes to which the intentions were unclear. Two days later, the intern was told the photo shoot was called off and finally met the styling team at their hotel. She had to return all the clothes and pack up the rest into suitcases with them so they could catch a flight back to LA. She said that she "hadn't even met the stylist or her team, and they had me running around Paris with instructions that came with little respect through text messages from one of the assistants who was three years younger than me." Searching for internships and work experience in the fashion industry has become so casual (through Instagram for example) that, in this case, it allows for basic formalities to be forgotten- such as meeting face to face. In the digital age, it is easier to connect with people around the world but that comes with new implications that did not exist in the industry before. 

Image credit: Flickr/ Perzonseowebbyra.se

Unpaid fashion internships are a rite of passage in the fashion industry, but that doesn't make the unethical treatment of the unpaid interns acceptable. Industry goals, personal motivations, and résumé building experience are what keeps unpaid interns in it for the long haul. As demonstrated by the two interns interviewed, they show the lengths that are gone to improve their status in the fashion world. But do these lengths pay off in the long term? Only time will tell.