When fashion editors are asked how they broke into the business, many of their stories start and end with a single word: internships. An elusive peek into the industry where college students trade (usually free) labor for the opportunity to learn the ropes and make connections that will ultimately lead to a full-time job. The internship model, especially at magazines, has changed drastically over the last few years with some of the bigger publishing companies overhauling traditional programs — like Condé Nast did in 2013 — in favor of fellowships or paid temporary positions.
While it's easy to see the benefit of internships in the fashion world, they're few and far between and often geared toward those who live or attend school in New York City, as well as those who can afford to commit up to four months of unpaid work. For a number of top editors and writers, having a job in retail has provided a valuable introduction to the fashion world. Not just in terms of selling trends and styling mannequins, but seeing firsthand how customers interact with product and what they ultimately buy. Everyone has to start somewhere, and these eight professionals are proof that the first step towards your career in fashion could be as close as your local mall.
Rebecca Ramsey, Fashion Director at The Cut
The retail job: For four months during her last semester at college, Rebecca Ramsey clocked in hours for some extra cash at an outdoor retailer called Bivouac in Ann Arbor, Michigan. "I thought it was cool that this outdoor sporting goods store also sold Kiehl's products and the ever-popular designer jeans and nylon totes every girl at Michigan seemed to wear," says Ramsey.
How it helped her fashion career: "I learned how women, not just myself, relate to a garment in terms of their identity. Yes, even with things like Citizens of Humanity low-rise boot-cut jeans. I was able to have exposure to how many different types of women use clothing to project their identities and personalities, and later apply that to my work life. One of the first things we did at The Cut was start shooting a large range of real women — not just models — and connecting to whom these women were and having extensive conversations about how women want to portray themselves to society. Hearing each woman explain their likes, dislikes, hesitations, fears, goals and motivations was thrilling and important when trying to capture each individual's personal tastes and styles."
Eric Wilson, Fashion News Director at InStyle
The retail job: Throughout his junior year at NYU, Eric Wilson sold jeans at the A/X shop-in-shop at Saks Fifth Avenue to save money to spend a summer abroad in Paris. "The uniform was cute, the employee discount could also be applied to sale items and my co-workers were some of the funniest people I have ever known," he says. "But working retail in midtown Manhattan during the holiday season is a maddening, monotonous, claustrophobia-inducing torture of refolding sweaters and directing tourists to restrooms."
How it helped his fashion career: "Surprisingly, that job had a big impact on how I started writing about fashion. Besides introducing me to some key players who I still know today, including Giorgio Armani and Gabriela Forte, I was able to see the industry from another perspective. I observed how customers reacted to the clothes and I discovered there were such things as sales plans and merchandising meetings. I met people with fascinating jobs, including, one day, a reporter from WWD who was covering an event Mr. Armani had planned with the singer Nona Gaye. The reporter asked us how many jeans we had sold that day, and we exaggerated the number wildly. And something really clicked in my mind in that moment: Someday, I would be the one asking the questions."
Shilpa Prabhakar Nadella, Fashion Market Director at Glamour
The retail job: Shilpa Prabhakar Nadella spent almost four years in high school working at a sportswear store in Royal Oak, Michigan. "I worked alongside the buyers to help select the merchandise for the next season and got to interact one-on-one with customers," she says. "It taught me a lot about how people shop and how they pick the styles that suit them."
How it helped her fashion career: "As a market director, instead of deciding what the stores are going to stock, I scour the market months in advance to decide what clothes we are going to place in the magazine. The job was a stepping-stone to teaching me about the industry. In a way, interacting with customers back when I worked in retail in high school relates to how I lay out a page to feature items that will entice our magazine readers and work for them in real life. They all tie in together hand-in-hand in the broader picture."
Ruthie Friedlander, Special Projects Director at InStyle
The retail job: For two years, Ruthie Friedlander worked at a small, multi-brand retail store on New York's Upper West Side called BOC. "I loved fashion, and knew I wanted to eventually work in magazines, but I needed to make money and at the time, internships were unpaid. I felt like my organization skills could be put to good use there," she says. "It's a small store, so I got to learn so much — from pricing and buying to how to decorate store windows. I learned more than I could have anywhere else."
How it helped her fashion career: "It made me scrappy. Everyone sort of did everything. I understood very quickly that it was as important to know how to sell clothes to the customers, as it was to make sure the air conditioning was working and the boxes were broken down properly for the recycling department. So, when I went into magazines, I knew that having a title — being 'editor' — didn't mean just one thing. It's important to know and be involved in lots of different areas and never feel like you're above a task. Salespeople sometimes needs to break down boxes. Editors sometimes need to, too."
Elly Ayres, Branded Fashion Editor at Bustle
The retail job: Before Elly Ayres moved to New York, the Florida native worked at two stores in high school and college: an independent boutique called Rusty Crickett's and Pink Narcissus, a Lilly Pulitzer signature store. "At the time, our small coastal town really didn't have a cool, close-by boutique like that for girls my age," says Ayres. "Rusty Crickett's was almost like a style community center, where you'd check in regularly to see what everyone was wearing to the next dance or event, and I loved the conversations I had with other women about style. And Lilly Pulitzer is a Florida-born line, which thrilled me to no end."
How it helped her fashion career: "Those in-person experiences from 10 years ago inform my branded fashion writing to this day. It's still about what looks actually translate to people in real life, and speaking about those looks in a genuine way. New York City can be a bit of a style bubble, but having that Florida retail experience to reference helps remind me that people are dressing for all kinds of weather, occasions and places all over the country. What makes sense in a big walkable city might be unnecessary in a small town where you drive everywhere, and vice-versa. When I write a fashion piece, I think about how people get dressed, whether they're from my hometown, my bigger college town or my New York home base."
Lauren Eggertsen, Fashion Editor at Who What Wear
The retail job: For a year in college, Lauren Eggertsen worked part-time at a Free People store in California, hoping that it would boost her chances to garner an internship at its parent company's headquarters in Philadelphia. "I enjoyed working with customers and educating them about the brand while helping them style pieces in Free People's very specific aesthetic," remembers Eggertsen. "But the worst part was closing, which I'm sure most people would say. I remember having to organize the intimates section, which was always inevitably the messiest."
How it helped her fashion career: "It taught me how to work with people who are really different from me. It also taught me how to represent a brand and sell that brand to a new customer. I also think it's important to experience the nitty-gritty of any industry. It gives you perspective."
Eliza Huber, Fashion Market Writer at Refinery29
The retail job: Eliza Huber has worked several retail jobs in her life. First at Everything But Water in her hometown in Illinois, then in college at All Saints and a vintage shop called Revival in New York City. "I worked in retail for four years or so. Some places I stayed for only a few months, others a few years," says Huber. "I always wanted to work in fashion and when you're young, retail really is the only way to do so — at least that's what I found growing up in a small town."
How it helped her fashion career: "I think that working in small boutiques drove me to love finding new, up-and-coming brands. It also helped me to better understand the wants and needs of consumers, which is something that I now use on a daily basis as a fashion market writer."
Brooke Shunatona, Senior Beauty Editor at Cosmopolitan.com
The retail job: Brooke Shunatona worked retail a few times in her life, but most recently it was a five-month stint at Free People after graduating from college. "I wanted to save up money to travel before I started my career," remembers Shunatona. "I chose Free People because the shops are small and not overwhelming, unlike some other stores at the mall I shall not name. I got a nice discount at all of the [affiliated] stores — Free People, Urban Outfitters and Anthropologie — but I had to try and save and not spend the money I earned with said discount."
How it helped her fashion career: "A lot of people hate working retail, but I really enjoyed it. I learned how to be efficient at doing tedious tasks — organizing, steaming, folding, re-stocking — all of which were important things to know when I got my first fashion and beauty assistant job. I didn't know much about fashion or beauty at the time, but I knew how to do those basic tasks pretty well, which was enough to get me that first shot. Not only that, but also doing those things with a good attitude. If there's anything retail can teach you more than any other job — except maybe waiting tables — it's how to assist people and do so with a smile on your face."