Alexander McQueen recently sent an email to several top design schools in London seeking a knitwear intern because their last one had suddenly departed. The “urgent” request was for a “talented knitwear student” to work in the London studio five days a week, nine and a half hours a day, for up to eleven months. Only travel expenses would be paid, as well as £60 per month in lunch vouchers. The company issued a public apology after Shelly Asquith, president of the University of Arts London Students’ Union, emailed back to condemn the unfair practice of unpaid internships at a time when students are already trying to pay off major debts and simply can’t afford to work for free. You can read her brilliant letter at the bottom of this article.
In the apology Alexander McQueen claims that the advert was “issued in error and was not in accordance with our HR policy.” I don’t entirely understand how you can accidentally write such a specific, coherent email in the first place, nor can I understand how you can send it to several institutions “in error”. Moreover, that they would consider food vouchers an appropriate payment just makes it clear how detached from students’ struggles they really are (I earned food vouchers for doing bin duty in 8th grade so I’m thinking that Alexander McQueen could do a lot better). Rather than apologising for perpetuating the exploitative cycle of unpaid internships, the company appears to be apologising for being caught out. Asquith also notes that the company’s late founder, Lee Alexander McQueen, comes from a modest background and would not have been able to undertake an unpaid internship himself. What makes this case even more disgraceful is that Lee McQueen was a graduate of the University’s Central Saint Martins college.
We hear time and time again that the fashion industry is so difficult to break into. Just look at the privilege and elitism that is rife in the publishing industry. There have been several cases where former magazine interns have gone on to sue the publishing houses for unpaid internships, which is particularly risky because whether they win or not the plaintiff will automatically mark themselves as a potentially litigious employee–one thing that doesn’t look good on a job application. What we have learned from these cases, however, is that an unpaid internship can only really be justified (at least in America) if the intern experiences substantial learning, and the employer does not directly benefit from having them there. In other words, the intern should not be subjected to tasks that a full-time paid employee would normally do.
That begs the question: where do we draw the line? If the intern is supposed to be learning, then they must undertake day-to-day jobs that will enable them to gain the necessary experience. This may very well mean completing tasks normally given to a full-time paid employee. I don’t see any way around that. There is an obvious inconsistency here, which means that the system is flawed at its core: if an intern’s responsibilities could be collectively considered “work”, and “work” should be paid, then shouldn’t the intern be paid? Asquith also states that the Alexander McQueen intern was asked to be “knitting on a domestic machine and making knitted samples, as well as research, CAD, presentation, and organising of the collection.” This all sounds like serious work to me!
The disturbing thing is that an intern probably would have come forward if the company hadn’t retracted the notice with an apology. There are thousands of design students who are eager to work for Alexander McQueen–even for free–because the opportunity to walk the same halls that Lee McQueen once walked is one not to be missed. You can learn a lot of skills from the seamstresses, and it may open a lot of doors (interns want to expand their network of contacts), and you get to contribute to the production of luxury ideas before they end up on Kate Middleton or the racks at Topshop and H&M. It’s a dream that every fashion student wants to live out. Working in fashion, of course, means that you’re going to have to make sacrifices. You may have to miss a few friends’ birthdays, or stay up all night embroidering a cruelly intricate piece of lace, and there are sure to be a few narcissistic tantrums every now and then. What’s not okay, however, is forcing a student already drowning in debt to live outside their means simply because there is always someone else, undoubtedly with richer parents, willing to do the job without complaint.
No wonder the fashion education system is in shambles right now. While researching some cases of unpaid internships, I got an overwhelming feeling of mistrust. Fashion students don’t seem to have a lot of faith in the schooling system anymore because (a) the schools are very much like businesses and pander to generous celebrities and rich people in the process of changing their will (b) may not have any actual ties to the fashion industry so there’s basically no hope of finding a good internship and (c) simply aren’t teaching the students what they need to know. The last point could perhaps explain why so many fashion students consider the unpaid internship to be an acceptable practice and why more students are undertaking as many internships as they can, where the brands claim to transfer valuable skills to curious minds, in lieu of paid work.
So who can actually afford to undertake an unpaid internship? Who is lucky enough to be in the position where they can literally work for free? The rich. Only the fashion students with wealthy parents will be able to fully commit to an unpaid internship, which could just be another latent and hence unaddressed case of class discrimination in the fashion industry. For a student who comes from a more modest family background, tens of thousands of dollars in educational fees is too pressing a concern for them to take an unpaid position where the prospect of full-time employment is unlikely to manifest. When a student goes to school for that long and accrues that large a debt, their skills are supposed to be recognised and appreciated by prospective employers. Asking them to work for free is virtually telling them that everything they have learned over the past few years–everything they have endured headaches for and lost sleep over–is worthless because their time at the company is worthless. There is clearly something wrong with that.
It’s time to stop this exploitation. We (and this is really a systematic issue) need to stop reminding interns how lucky they are to even be accepted for a position that every person who dreams of working in fashion would kill for. We need to stop sending off the message that fashion students and their degrees are worthless, that “skill” is a specific corporate contribution, and that there is really no point in pursuing higher education when just about anyone who has money can buy their way into the fashion industry. In 2011 the Stella McCartney company closed its unpaid internship program after much criticism–I guess when you’re the daughter of a Beatle and sell $1152 plastic shoes you don’t really think about the struggles of fashion interns. It’s about time that Alexander McQueen, and all the designers across America (who I haven’t bothered to mention because there are just so many of them) review their policies.