Some shocking news broke in the fashion space yesterday: Publishing powerhouse Condé Nast confirmed that it would be discontinuing its internship program across all properties, effective in fall of 2014. Many people working in the industry—myself included—were disappointed to hear that getting a career jump start at places like Vogue, GQ, and Glamour will no longer be possible, at least for the time being.
I know very few people working in fashion editorial who did not get their starts interning at a major magazine, and the general sentiment among our colleagues seems to be that this development is a huge blow to all aspiring editors who benefit greatly from the experience. It's true that unfair expectations have been placed on students and industry hopefuls to work for free in order to move up, but without time spent interning, students might not be able to figure out whether or not they're choosing the right career path. Plus, they will certainly miss out on the networking that often opens the door to their first jobs.
While it goes without saying that working at an unpaid internship should be seen as an investment in your career, interns are often given duties that an entry-level paid worker should do. Condé Nast was recently sued by two former interns—one from W and one from The New Yorker—because the company failed to pay them minimum wage for their services, and a similar suit has been raging on at Hearst. With the lines between the duties of a junior employee and an intern becoming more and more blurred, publishing houses will be forced to change their daily workflow in a huge way if internships are outlawed.
One woman we spoke to, who is currently an assistant fashion editor at a Hearst magazine, got her start as an intern at one of the publishing house's top titles, where she was later promoted to a salaried fashion assistant. She was in charge of the closet, which she claims hosted between 15 and 20 interns each semester.
"Every book is different, but if we couldn't have interns, it would be a shit show," she told us. "The staff would have to be much more self-sufficient and the magazine would need to hire freelancers galore. Most of our interns weren't going on errand runs—they were doing the work of an employee. Things that the editors didn't have time to do themselves." Another young woman we talked to, now an editor at a major fashion website, interned at Condé Nast's West Coast Vogue office for a semester—which is home base to a very small number of salaried editors—and spoke similarly of her time there. "I was definitely doing the work that a paid employee could be doing," she said. "We were often required to work after-hours, and when it came to working shoots and events, it was expected that we had all hands on deck."
In the Hearst editor's situation, interns worked very closely with the staff to call in products for shoots, keep track of samples, coordinate pick ups, and perform market research. If this help suddenly vanished, many fashion departments would undoubtedly be in a very tight spot. "It's far too much work for the one or two fashion assistants in the closet," she told us. "The company would probably need to hire one employee or freelancer for every two interns that it lost."
One man we spoke to, who is the co-founder of a successful accessories brand, spent time interning at Vogue in New York, and essentially performed the duties of a fashion assistant. While he wasn't paid, he received one-on-one attention from high-level editors that has proven to be invaluable in his career. "They treated me like an adult, because they needed an adult," he said. "It's sad that a few people didn't appreciate their experiences and ruined it for everyone else."
The unfortunate truth is that relying on interns is an easy way for companies like Condé Nast and Hearst to minimize expenses, but with the current bad press they've received due to former interns suing for lack of compensation, it's clear that they needed to mitigate their risk. New York State law also declares that unpaid interns cannot "provide an immediate advantage to the employer" or displace regular employees, so it's probably for the best that Condé is stepping back to reevaluate (and hopefully restructure) its internship program.
We have no doubt that Condé Nast will devise a better system, whether it's a paid apprenticeship or one-one-one mentoring with an editor, and for the sake of future generations of journalists, we hope that they figure it out soon.