Former Harper's Bazaar intern Xuedan Wang's suit against Hearst for violating state and federal wage and hour laws has certainly got people in the industry talking.
One thing in particular that's stood out is neither the unsavory working conditions of unpaid internships (read: long hours, menial tasks, putting up with serious attitudes), nor the lack of compensation (whether by stipend or college credit) but the fact that, as Wang's lawsuit states, "the prevalence of the practice nationwide, curtails opportunities for employment, [and] fosters class divisions between those who can afford to work for no wage and those who cannot."
Internships can be a great way to break into the industry--actually we'd argue that they're pretty much the only way to break into the industry (so far, anyway--all of us here at Fashionista, save Leah, started as Fashionista interns first). But could fashion's heavy reliance on unpaid interns be creating an unfair disadvantage for kids who don't have their parents' money to back them up? We asked several industry insiders, all former interns who now work at major publishing houses, and though none would go on the record (out of fear that their publishers are now targets for these kinds of suits), the general consensus was a resounding yes.
"[Internships] foster and encourage [kids who have access to money]—not the kid who actually has to pay his or her own bills," another editor told us. "So if there are two great and equal candidates and one will cost the employer a full salary and one will cost nothing, fashion will take the latter. And if the latter has a famous last name to go with it, well, it's no contest."
Of course, there are always exceptions. "I get how unfair it is," one editor counters. "My mom's annual salary when I was in college was $25,000 a year. And my dad gave us nothing. But I still made it. And I think there is a crazy sense of entitlement with this generation and that maybe working for free and waitressing to make ends meet teaches you a lesson." What's more, those who hustle often fare better in the end--they want it more and they're grateful to have "made it."
Still, another editor posits that fair or not, it's just how the game is played. "I think that rich kids have an advantage anyway, whether it's an 'unfair' advantage relates to how you see our society and economic infrastructures," he told us. "I see magazines as a competitive industry that is closer to acting or art than, say, investment banking. In any creative industry, the first jobs are low paying (or don't pay at all) and people have to work other jobs or borrow to counterbalance those disparities." Fashion, film, media and art are glamorous covetable careers and breaking in is just plain tough.
"I think it's just unfair the way that life is unfair," he added. "But I think it's only remarkably unfair if the person going into an internship or apprenticeship was promised something, in terms of compensation, and then did not receive it. But if you took the job knowing you weren't going to get paid, then I think it's unfair for you to complain about it after."
Still, the problem is that if unpaid internships are, for the most part, only available to kids who can afford to work for free, then the industry as whole winds up having a disproportionate amount of people from only one socioeconomic background. And that leads to editorial content that can be stale, elitist, absurd--or all three. See: Vogue's ridiculous (and infamous) $31, 349 glamping article. Or this gem from Elisabeth von Thurn und Taxis, Vogue's new Style Editor at Large, when asked what parties she looks forward to: "Our wild boar shoot at our home in Germany is always a riot because we invite lots of friends. We spend the day out in the woods, but then we get all dressed up in long gowns to dance around in the evenings." (Yes, that's real.)
But could the industry actually change? A few editors suggested that interns be paid at least minimum wage, while others said they should receive school credit and a daily stipend. One suggested that a change in attitude might be all it takes: "Yes interns have to do bitch work but if you respect them and talk to them like adults that might make it ok," an editor said.
"I guess if magazines took half the money they spend on cars and shoots and putting editors up in the Ritz four times a year they could afford to pay their interns," one editor quipped. While another told us that as long as an intern is receiving solid mentorship and is learning and making connections then it shouldn't matter if they receive college credit or financial compensation.
What's your take? We want to hear what you have to say.