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If you’re studying or have ever studied anything fashion related or creative based, the chances are you’ve interned in the hopes of getting your foot in the door of your desired industry. The tales of nightmare internships and placements are rife. I have heard stories about interns sleeping in studios, working almost a full 24 hours without pay or even travel and food expenses covered and having to walk their boss’ dog etc. There is a The Devil Wears Prada stigma attached to interning – the long hours, hard work and of course, the biggest fashion cliché of all, everyone being a total bitch.

Situations like this do occur but things are often exaggerated. Within the industry both I and friends of mine have been lucky enough to bag work placements and assisting positions which we’ve left full of gratitude, having had amazing experiences. My most recent experience interning was at British Vogue where I had a wonderful time. It was somewhere I felt I was learning new techniques all the time and I also learnt how to progress as a fashion assistant. It has definitely influenced my decisions regarding where I’d like to work in the future and the type of jobs I want to go for.

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Throughout the entire time I was at university I interned and I also worked as a freelance assistant for a while, before consistently working as a second assistant for one specific stylist up until early this year. Interning can be hard work and long hours, but it’s a learning process, even if you don’t realise it at the time. For example, you might be stuck in the fashion cupboard doing returns, not the most exciting job – but you are seeing which PR agencies the samples go back to and this is how you find out who is responsible for each brand – priceless info for your contact book. Having this knowledge makes you indispensable as a stylist’s assistant and will stand you in good stead should you decide to become a stylist yourself.

What makes a good and a bad intern? I asked Carly Day – First assistant to Fashion Director Gillian Wilkins of RUSSH Magazine.

Volt Café: You’ve interned at Vogue and assisted Gill Wilkins for almost three years. I am sure you’ve worked with your fair share of interns and second assistants, what are the key attributes in being an excellent intern?
Carly Day: Someone who isn’t afraid to get his or her hands dirty and understands that the world of fashion isn’t as glamorous as everyone imagines. A great intern is as happy doing returns as they are when on set with amazing photographers and models.
Using common sense, someone who is happy to take things into their own hands but also has the confidence to ask for help when they’re unsure. There’s no shame in not knowing something, that’s what an internship is all about but try and use your common sense first before asking for help every time.
Organisation is key. There are too many requests, returns and shoot details to handle if you’re not organised. There’s nothing worse than having to sort through an interns’ (or anyone for that matter) mess to try and find requested look numbers or shoot details. Each stylist and assistant has their own system for managing shoots, but it’s so important for an intern to adapt to this and keep up with the organisation.
Someone who is calm, friendly and has a great sense of humour. Things get stressful extremely quickly and it’s important not to take things to heart or too seriously. With editor’s demands, PR’s hassling you and working with some huge egos it’s so important to have a team around you that lightens the load and doesn’t create extra stress.
Know when to speak up and when to stay quiet. When an editor is on set they don’t want assistants and interns chatting in their ear every minute but on the flip side don’t be the silent intern in the corner either. It’s ok to be shy but an intern needs to make the effort to talk to the team and ask for extra tasks, otherwise it’s so easy to be forgotten and just left with the menial tasks.

VC: And what are your thoughts on what makes a bad intern?
CD: A ‘fashion diva’ with a huge ego and a list of tasks they think they’re too good for. Returns, for instance, are a major part of any intern’s and assistant’s role and if someone is noticeably unhappy about doing them, you know they’re not going to last two seconds in the industry.
Someone who doesn’t take an internship seriously. No matter the length of the internship, the tasks involved or the people they work with, it’s still a business that has to run smoothly and professionally. There’s no room for interns who only want to come and have fun and not work hard.

VC: What are your personal thoughts on interning? Do you think that it is beneficial? Is it fair to have to work for free?
CD: I think internships are a great opportunity to gain experience in the industry, learn more about the various roles and build relationships that could help you in your career. Although it’s extremely difficult to manage financially when interning, especially if the internship is unpaid, I believe if you make the most of your internship it is worth the sacrifice for a couple of months. Long term internships should be paid as some of these positions are actual roles that a salaried employee would manage. I think both interns and companies should re-evaluate what they want from the internship and ensure that the role is compensated accordingly.

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The argument of whether internships are really worth it or whether they are exploitive, is interesting. My inspiration for writing this piece was my conflict around some people’s deliberate choice not to intern. On one hand it is pretty much a full time position where you’re working for free, which can be disheartening if you feel you’re not learning much or being given challenging work to do. It is also something that can be hard to juggle if you also have to do paid work alongside it. To point-blank refuse to intern is somewhat arrogant when this is something that pretty much every student does in the hope of learning more.

The main problem around interning is the financial issue. Earlier this year at the S/S13 shows, campaigners used London Fashion Week as a platform to campaign against unpaid internships. Obviously it would be great if all internships were paid. But what it could also mean is that the amount of internships available now could decrease, as companies might not want to pay for/be able to afford interns. If you look at the London College of Fashion’s Creative Opportunities page, the university supports the idea of paid internships. Since choosing to solely advertise these, the amount of placements displayed on the website has decreased massively. This makes internships harder to obtain, as the level of competition will increase with the growing influx of fashion students competing with graduates and other students, all trying their best to start a career in fashion.

To get the perspective from the fashion industry I spoke to Natalie Hesseck who works for Mario Testino as a trend researcher. Before she worked for Testino, Hesseck worked as a fashion assistant in New York and went on to be headhunted through her blog to become a trend forecaster.

Volt Café: What has been your personal experience of getting into the industry?
Natalie Hesseck: It was a process of elimination. Along the way I think I probably discovered more about what I wasn’t good at and what I didn’t want to do (all learnt the hard way, obviously!). It reached a point where I’d almost given up, was preparing to succumb to a life of living vicariously through magazines and mannequins on the shop floor until I started a blog and got headhunted as a trend forecaster through that.

VC: In your opinion, what makes a good or bad intern?
NH: Honestly, I think what makes a good intern is someone who does their best but more importantly does it with a smile. I don’t care if you’re 10 minutes late as long as the job gets done and everyone is happy. I think you’ve got to think ahead and have natural curiosity too – someone who genuinely wants to learn.

VC: What do you think makes an intern indispensible?
NH: No one is indispensable – not even people with contracts and jobs!

VC: What are your thoughts on interning? Is it beneficial?
NH: Interning can be absolute hell – I know this from experience. In the moments where it got really rough, I’d always think of that Steve Jobs speech where he’s talking about connecting the dots of your life backwards. How even though the smallest, most undignified job that has absolutely no connection to the life you’ve planned in your head, will have major impact when you look at things from a backwards perspective. I think essentially, working in a creative industry is a total luxury so you have to pay your dues first.

As someone who has experienced working unpaid placements, ones where they cover travel and lunch expenses and placements where I’ve counted down the days till it finished, I now freelance as a second assistant (mainly for free) and work a full time evening job with the hopes of becoming a first assistant. While it is extremely tiring, I wouldn’t give it up for the world. I have had the opportunity to work for amazing stylists and through my experiences, have a much clearer idea of what aspects of the industry I would like to pursue in career-wise. I’d advise anyone who can intern to do it, it’s something that helps build character and which can really influence the path you choose to take. It has given me more amazing opportunities than completing my degree has. Also, you never know whom you might meet or where you might end up.

Words by Kyanisha Morgan

Tags

Carly Day, Gillian Wilkins, Kyanisha Morgan, Mario Testino, Natalie Hesseck, RUSSH, Steve Jobs, Vogue,