Looking to forge a career in fashion? The first step is to get a foot in the door. For most would-be Anna Wintours and Tom Fords, this means devoting some time to unpaid work experience.
While this system of working for nothing isn’t without its critics, it’s increasingly valued by employers and a crucial tool for students entering a competitive market. Thelma McQuillan, freelance stylist and fashion director at Harper’s Bazaar Australia, says internships are an invaluable, instrumental part of starting your fashion career. “You can’t get into this industry without having done an internship,” she says. “We’ve all done them.”
But starting out is never easy, and landing that career-changing stint is a daunting task. In this short guide, we navigate the murky waters of the world of fashion internships with advice on resumes, outfits and avoiding exploitation.
1. Find your niche and do your research
Are you bound for fashion styling? Designing? Merchandising? Or perhaps publishing is more your calling?
Fashion is a broad field, encompassing many different points on a long supply chain, and employing people with diverse skillsets and backgrounds. In Australia, it’s also a thriving industry, employing approximately 220,000 Australians (according to the Minister for Foreign Affairs) and contributing a healthy $12 billion to the national economy.
Deciding where you fit in this well-heeled world is as simple as reflecting on your strengths. If your head is filled with prints and textiles, interning with a designer or production manager might be a natural fit. If you’re a strong writer with a grasp on the latest trends, you’ll benefit from investigating fashion publishing.
For a more in-depth look at career pathways in fashion, check out our guide here.
2. Write a killer resume and cover letter
Once you’ve singled out your passion, it’s time to apply – everywhere.
As well as directly reaching out to the organisations that most interest you, search for fashion-related internships posted on sites such as Jora.com, Pedestrian.tv, and Indeed.com.
The bad news is that this isn’t simply a matter of writing one cover letter and sending it to 20 organisations. Each letter needs to be personalised with the name of the hiring manager and specific knowledge about the company at which you’re applying, including the reason you think you’re perfect for the job. Writing applications for internships can be a time-intensive process, but it’s worth getting it right.
A few tips:
DO research each organisation and track down the right person to address in your application. This probably means making a few unfamiliar phone calls and doing some super-sleuth work on LinkedIn.
DO show a bit of personality: talk about your interests, passions and goals, but…
DON’T share your life story. Keep your cover letter and resume to one page each.
For more detailed advice, see our guides to writing resumes and cover letters.
3. Nail your interview
Whether your internship is a casual chat over coffee or a formal meeting with HR, you need to put your best foot forward.
“Be over-prepared for your interview,” says Alyssa Mobbs, lead designer at luxe womenswear label WINONA. “Show all your skills, your portfolio, and any previous work – whether or not it’s specific to the role – as it may be that extra hidden skill that gets you a paid job in the long run.
What do employers in fashion look for?
Alyssa says that hunger and drive are top of her list. She also looks for someone willing to tackle any task, without thinking it’s too far beneath (or above) their position.
“For us, an ideal intern would be enthusiastic, self-driven and able to pick up new skills quickly,” says Nikki Campbell, Director of SIR the Label, who interned in fashion design, styling, PR, and marketing while completing her studies in Fashion Business. “They would also need to bring a positive and proactive attitude to the workplace and be willing to work in a fast-paced team environment.”
At Harper’s, Thelma McQuillan looks for interns with initiative, common sense and attention to detail, who are – of course – well-presented.
“But it’s not all red lipstick and heels,” says Thelma. “I look for someone who’s chic and elegant, but they have to be dressed in a way that says they’re ready to work. They might be packing boxes and lugging things around.”
4. Work hard, but don’t be taken for a ride
The world of unpaid internships is rife with exploitation – and famously so when it comes to fashion. But, as Thelma suggests, it’s almost impossible to land a paid job in the industry without relevant practice as an intern. So how do you draw the line between experience and exploitation?
Australia’s Fair Work Ombudsman states that unpaid internships are acceptable as long as the arrangement is distinct from the work performed by paid employees. If you’ve thoroughly researched the organisation and think it’s a place you’d like to work, it may help to ask yourself these questions:
How long will you be working without pay? The longer the arrangement, the more it resembles an employee-employer relationship.
Is there a good chance of a paid job after your internship?
Is your work the kind of work normally done by paid employees?
Who is likely to benefit more from the arrangement – you or the company? If the answer isn’t you, that should ring alarm bells.
5. Try, and try again
Thelma’s number-one piece of career advice? “Be relentless,” she says. “It’s a tough industry, and you can’t be put off by being turned down.”
This might mean sending out 50 applications and receiving only one response, which can feel disheartening – especially when you’re asking for work without pay. But if it’s your passion, it will be worth pursuing.