Words by Florence Hardy
To be paid, or not to be paid? If you’re looking for a temporary paid position, then you might as well give up. The sad reality of an industry with an estimated worth of £21 billion a year within the UK, is that hardly anyone in the high-end sector of the fashion industry can afford to pay you.
After reading a deeply resonating article by Clive Martin entitled, Our work culture is killing us, I have decided to offer my own perspective on the working ‘norm’ in Britain using first-hand experience within the fashion industry – famed for its competitiveness and cattiness. In the aforementioned article, Martin covers the very poignant issue of unpaid work. He states that according to the Trades Union Congress the average paid British employee works an extra 7 hours and 18 minutes worth of unpaid work per week, and explains how this has led to the blurring of our professional and personal lives. After witnessing this in extremity – from catching a 1am tube home before a 9am start, to my supervisor passing out in the studio, to my boss paying for regular cosmetic improvements in order to mask the effects of stress – it is not difficult for me to accept the Trades Union Congress’s statistic.
This year I made the conscious decision to take on an unpaid, three months worth of experience with a high-end ready-to-wear designer in central London. My reasoning, along with the vast majority of other interns, was that the luxury sector of the industry is so competitive that stable, permanent entry-level jobs are few and far between. When they do rear their fastidious heads, they request candidates with a minimum of a year’s experience. This provides little chance for fashion graduates, let alone full time students looking for a placement. Due to the obscenely high numbers applying for roles at the likes of J.W. Anderson, Jaeger and Alexander McQueen, what better way for these fashion houses to improve their profits than to allow the desperate interns to work for free? The interns gain valuable insider experience, while the brand needs to hire one less permanent member of staff. Win-win? Maybe, in some cases.
Initially I was overjoyed at the prospect of working for a reputable fashion brand but, ultimately, my expectations did not reflect reality. Contrary to my joking friends’ assumptions of the tea-making skills I would hone, I was given immediate responsibility. Thrown into the deep end of research, design development, CAD flats, technical packs and photoshoots, responsibility grew as interns left. By the end of the second month there were just two of us out of seven remaining. We were relied upon to produce some fifty digital designs each per day, for both womenswear and menswear, with an ever-underlying expectation to stay and complete them, quite often until ten or eleven o’clock at night. On top of this, I was dealing with overseas suppliers, taking my boss’ dog for walks, while simultaneously teaching new interns how to use Adobe Illustrator – regardless of being informed during my interview that the working hours were from 9.30am until 6.30pm. Telling myself in a stereotypical Devil Wears Prada way that ‘a million girls would kill for this job’, I obligingly accepted every hour of overtime that I was given. The situation became an issue when it got to midnight and I feared the dark journey home with my laptop across dodgy parts of South-East London. My optimistic attitude had altered.
Take Moritz Erhardt, a 21 year old intern who tragically passed away from an unexpected epileptic seizure after allegedly working twenty-four hour shifts at a bank in London. Our society has somehow accepted that working long hours comes as part of a job, and there is a widespread hush of questioning it when it becomes too much – for fear of losing one’s job in favour of someone more willing. Teamed with no wage, it comes to the point where we ask, ‘how extreme will this get?’ I completed my internship in July, and was regularly contacted to send documents through right up until September.
While the media is looking to unsatisfactory working conditions in emerging international markets, our own growing issue is being ignored – not solely for unpaid jobs but for paid roles too. I do not complain for the experience I was given, but take this as a sad realisation of just how macabre our government’s working legislation has become.
Florence Hardy studies for a degree in Fashion at Manchester School of Art (MMU). She is interested in archaeology, business and fine art. You can view her blog here archetypesandsketches.wordpress.com