I get a lot of students asking me how they can get into the fashion industry and I always end up telling them to get an internship. I don’t know anyone who didn’t start out with an internship. I had one when I was in school and before that, I apprenticed with a tailor. Since then, I’ve interviewed a lot, hired many, and had to fire a few interns over the years. I’ve been baffled, frustrated and insulted by interns. I’ve also taught, been inspired by, and become friends with some. I know I might have scared a few too. I’m really sorry if I did because I always believed they are valuable, talented, and hard-working people and the fashion industry would hardly survive without their support.
One day a few years ago, I was hopped up on anxiety and adrenaline and composed the following email when I was asked about embarking upon a first fashion job. It’s a little stress-inducing so I peppered it with
scary and humorless smart and serious ladies:
I’d say it’s not unlike applying for any job, first off. You’ll definitely need a cover letter and resume, a portfolio of some kind, any garments or treatments you may have sewn or experimented with, and it’s always nice to have a design journal that shows your true creative side. Most interns, after I interview them, give me a “leave behind” piece which is a little creative summation of their work. It can come in various forms but it’s supposed to help me remember them. I interview at least 30 interns a year. I know bosses who don’t even bother to remember the names of the ones that get hired.
And finally, you should always follow up with a thank you email with a question or thoughts about the company or position. I would never ask when they can tell you if you’re hired or not. Also, as a test for people I interview, I often give them my business card and ask them to contact me. If they do, then I know they can follow simple directions. If they don’t, I probably won’t hire them.
As far as the interview goes, you should know as much about the company going in. I get emails and interviewees who misspell or mispronounce the company or even worse, don’t have even a general question about it or who I am or what I do. It’s okay to not know what you want to do or how the industry runs but at least have an idea of what the company is about.
I know this sounds intense, and you may just be going into boutique shops and seeing if they need a hand but I still strongly suggest you prepare everything you can in order to be taken seriously. But don’t expect to be seen immediately if you’re going in cold. Ask or call ahead to know who to speak to. I know that even the smallest apparel operations with a single home sewing machine in the back are struggling and want people to help and support them and treat their 24/7 business with as much respect as you would Donna Karan’s. It will also show that you’re a hard worker and don’t intend on zoning out over fashion sketches and gossiping over the patternmaking table. We get many unprofessional (albeit enthusiastic) inquiries but I’ll hire you in a second, even if all you have on your resume is a hostess position at Chili’s, over a semi-professional, die-hard fashion lover with fresh talent any day.
And unfortunately, it’s customary that fashion internships are unpaid. There are some out there that are if you’re lucky. This sucks and I have some valuable interns I would love to pay but the argument is that this is a skill that takes a long time to learn that most people don’t end up having a stomach for. I do a lot of hand holding and damage control even with the best but I don’t think of them as free labor. Further, there just isn’t enough money in the industry to make paid interns feasible. I hope this will change one day.
Hopefully, you will work for someone who is kind, appreciative, patient and really good at what they do. These people are few and far between in any industry. If you can find someone who is simply good at what they do and willing to take you on, you’ve hit the jackpot.
Thank you for staying with me. To tie this all up, and get those daydreaming embers going again after a heavy dose of reality, I want to revisit and remind you of what inspires you. As I mentioned before, your inspiration has all the information you need. When you lock into it and honor it, it’s authentic and people recognize that. And what you thought were scary fashion ladies are only your imagination getting ahead of you.