andy-sachs-the-devil-wears-prada-204938_1400_912Most people do not understand how breathtaking it is to stand in a room filled with almost ‎£1 million of clothing.

However, I do. In 2014, I interned at one of London’s most prestigious fashion public relations firms, The Communications Store. I was working in a glittering showroom of marble and waifish models. It smelled like Chanel’s No. 5 and cigarettes.

The first time I laid my eyes on the House of Holland collection, Debauched Debutantes, I grimaced. House of Holland was a British brand, newly discovered and mainly associated with its kitschy tee-shirts.

Of course, managing the House of Holland rack was my first assignment – isn’t that how the fates work.

A rack is the area of a showroom where a designer collection is kept. It serves to make the collection as appealing as possible, so stylists can visit the showroom and pull pieces for shoots.

From my perspective, the House of Holland collection was – for all intensive purposes – a mess. A cacophony of destroyed hems, glitter appliques, and ripped ruffles. It was as if the 80s had a roaring kegger with Upper East Side gossip girls.

Here I was, assigned to the most deplorable brand in this mecca of material… and I got to work.

Lessons Learned

I didn’t whine. I didn’t moan. I didn’t demand re-assignment. I adjusted my H&M top and sat down on the floor, flicking away a dust bunny and grabbing clothing off the hangers.

Unpaid interns everywhere should make a mental note of that statement. The absence of a paycheck is not an automatic license to bitch.

I poured over that collection as if it was a doctorate thesis, organizing the rack by color, material, and pattern. I turned it into a labor of love – and ironically, I fell in love.

As I pieced it apart, bit by bit, I saw House of Holland’s design aspirations to come to life. I got inside the designer’s head. I understood what he was thinking. I found myself wishing I had been invited to this raging kegger of disco divas and Coco Chanel’s.

My appreciation has only grown with it, as I flashback to those hours spent on the floor, I realized I was learning how to properly evaluate a collection.
It was one of the first lessons that I would learn in an unpaid internship.

Paying Your Dues

This was the first of what has now become five internships in the fashion industry. Now, at 22, I can identify what I learned from each and every single one. I have worked as:

  • a beauty assistant
  • a fashion merchandiser
  • a public relations intern.

I’ve run the gamut of fashion-related internships.

Surely, I must have quite the savings account after working so many hours; after spending so much time on my hands and knees for the sake of a trivial pursuit. But I never earned a dime – and I never complained once.

Every industry is different, and those within them can identify the industry norms. While more and more industries are slowly adapting to paid internships, fashion is not one of them.

Perhaps it’s a curse of working in an industry of creatives, but there is a long held belief in fashion that unpaid work is character building. Everyone has been an unpaid intern at one point in their career.

According to the National Association of Colleges and Employers (NACE), 48% of students have done unpaid internships.

Some critics believe that unpaid internships do not lead to jobs, and an unpaid internship is equivalent to not having an internship.

Every mega-designer, every celebrity stylist, each public relations tycoon – they all started on the showroom floor, organizing collections they might have thought were heinous.

You leave with your head held high, with a greater understanding of your industry, and the strength of character that comes from learning how to dedicate yourself to tasks that maybe aren’t your “dream job.”

fashion-intern-1Why Lawsuits Help No One

But recently, slews of lawsuits against fashion houses, publications, and brands have caused entire companies to shut down their intern programs – including Vogue and Conde Nast – taking away these valuable opportunities from potential interns.

While internship opportunities vanish, the requirements to break into the industry stay the same. You won’t get far without some entry-level experience. An incredible 95% of employers said that experience is a factor in even entry-level positions.

Perhaps the most ridiculous of these lawsuits was recently filed by Shahista Lalani against Mary Kate and Ashley Olsen’s design company, The Row.

Lalani claimed that during her time at the company, her weeks were filled with, “inputting data into spreadsheets, making tech sheets, organizing materials, photocopying, sewing, pattern cutting, among other related duties.”

Lalani also claims that she had to haul “50 lbs of trench coats” through New York in the summer, and it was “like 100 degrees.” Additional claims include that she had to “fetch her boss Advil when she had a headache.”

I’ll wait for a moment while the human right’s activists gather.

Lalani’s job description is a role that I’ve fulfilled five times over. I’ve run for a subway car to take a bag of fur coats to a shoot on the Upper East Side. I’ve done lunch orders, Starbucks orders, and hopped to six different drugstores to get the right issue of a magazine.

Lalani signed a job contract that stated she would be unpaid, and stayed for the five-month duration of the trip. This was not slave labor. She was, and is, a free American.

Couldn’t Lalani have simply quit if she felt as if she was being so outrageously abused?

Every single time, there is a lesson to be learned – even if it is a character building one.

These frivolous lawsuits bring down the entire working population’s opinion of the millennial generation, and I can’t say I blame them.

Lalani’s name will be attached to this lawsuit forever. For someone who wants to work in fashion, and is facing a 7.8% unemployment rate for millennials, filing a lawsuit was most likely a bad decision.

I’ve walked away from each unpaid internship with more knowledge, information, and connections than any minimum wage salary could ever supplement.

Even with the internships that were ‘duds,’ I believe I walked away with a better understanding of how to be a professional when in a position I don’t love. Something that every professional will face at least once in life.

According to the Bureau of Labor statistics, 91% of millennials are expected to change their job every three years; learning multiple life skills is more crucial than ever.

I strongly believe that the unpaid internship is a crucial part of beginning to understand an industry and earn your stripes.

Quite frankly, most of these lawsuits settle outside of court – once the plaintiff has received a hefty sum, they disappear. They don’t stick around trying to change court laws or change the standard for future interns.

It’s just greedy.

Know Your Rights

While I am an advocate of the unpaid internship, I also believe you should select your internship carefully.

According to the Department of Labor, an unpaid internship must meet this criteria:

• The internship is given in an educational environment.
• It’s for the benefit of the intern.
• The intern doesn’t displace paid employees.
• The employer isn’t directly benefitting from the intern.
• Unpaid internships are not paid job “try-outs.”
• Both the intern and their boss understands it is unpaid.

From Lalani’s lawsuit, it seems clear that she was learning under other employees and that she was aware this would be an unpaid position.

I’ll remember my time as an unpaid intern fondly – and I’ll take those lessons into my full-time career path for the rest of my life. I suggest you do the same.