Fashion houses in the UK are currently on notice from HM Revenue and Customs and from deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg to stop mistreating their interns. Reports from all directions are indicating that top names in fashion are in the habit of using unpaid interns for many of the jobs that ‘official’ employees are being well paid to do. The warning from HMRC went out in a letter to around 100 companies: pay your interns the minimum wage or risk fines and prosecution, even jail.
High fashion, like any other big industry, has its upside and its downside. The fashion industry is all about glamour and glitz and to-die-for creations from designers who set the trends and arbitrate the ‘look’ that one must have – or attempt – in choosing a wardrobe from one season to the next. Also, like any profession, there are the stars and then there are back-stage workers needed to make it all happen.
In the case of fashion, many of those back-stage labourers are more like acolytes, willing to serve for no more reward than proximity to the source of all that glamour and the chance to emulate their idols.
Each year, thousands of aspiring fashion artists, many of them just graduated from design school, go to work for one or another of the top fashion houses as interns, theoretically learning the business from hands-on experience with acknowledged experts.
The object of an internship for the fashion novice is to establish credentials in the industry, learn from admired designers and maneuver into a position of responsibility and creative input. Sometimes this actually happens, but more often the interns just work very hard for long hours with no pay, and may or may not learn anything of value. Few of them can afford to work for nothing, with no guarantee of a paying job on the horizon.