Internships are essential for the fashion industry. They provide invaluable experience for students and great opportunities to establish career-long connections. Due to the nature of our industry, solid internship experience is obligatory for landing a job in fashion.
What is an internship?
An internship is a work opportunity, usually 6- to 12-months long, where a student learns the basics of any given industry and obtain professional, first-hand experience. Usually, internships are not paid, especially in fashion design.
Why should I work for free?
In Spanish we have a saying: “Hay que dar del ala para comer de la pechuga.” Essentially it means we must make small sacrifices in order to reap big rewards. Although many might frown upon working for free, seeing this as a type of exploitation, the reality is that there is no other way to enter the fashion industry without previous internship experience. A fashion student should aim at having at least 2-3 internships in the industry by their BA graduation, and the more experience you obtain, the better job prospects you can have.
Some argue that the student should start an internship as early as their first BA year, but I feel this is too precipitated. First year students lack essential skills needed to complete certain tasks; for example, they might not have a strong sewing background yet, or their industry knowledge might be too incomplete, or they might not understand fully how to do research and prepare a collection. It is from the second year onwards that students, after taking core courses that will give them the necessary skills to construct their own collections, have a greater maturity to understand and better assimilate the learning outcomes from any internship. However, that does not imply a student should not be involved in fashion-related events (such as working as a backstage dresser at a fashion show, or helping organize shows and exhibitions). Early involvement in fashion events prepares the student for the fashion industry environment and might facilitate making contacts with professionals and professors that can recommend you for internship opportunities. Volunteering for such type of work experience, which is mostly short-term and unpaid, paves the way for starting a career in any industry.
What if I already know basic skills (sewing, pattern cutting, research, drawing, etc.) and I am in in my first year of BA? Should I wait for second year to look for internships?
Not necessarily. If you acquired core skills before entering your BA then you are probably capable of completing an internship. You should acknowledge that you feel ready to do unpaid work while committing to your full-time (or part-time) studies.
I am ready for an internship. How do I get one?
There are many ways of obtaining an internship in the fashion industry. I recommend that you already have a good idea of who would you like to work with. This is your opportunity to research fashion companies, houses, ateliers and independent designers to see what type of market do you like designing for and what design aesthetic better suits yours. Also, keep in mind what skills would you like to learn or improve on. For example, if you are interested in designing knitwear, your internship should help you learn how to work with knitted fabric.
The best source of internship opportunities are professors or tutors. They are mostly well-connected in the industry and they will certainly help you and guide you towards obtaining an internship. Well-known fashion companies, such as Donna Karan, Oscar de la Renta, Burberry, among others, are more difficult to enter into, but a professor might recommend you to any of these companies, increasing your chances of landing that internship.
That implies that building a good relationship with your professors/lecturers/tutors is fruitful beyond obtaining a good grade. It will help you gain the mentorship you need for making it in this business and it is the first point of contact you’ll have in the fashion industry.
How does the company or designer benefit from hiring interns?
You mean, beside the free labor? Companies and designers hire interns mainly because of this reason, but hiring and training interns takes a lot of time and effort for the employer. They are willing to invest in you because they believe you are an asset to the industry and to their interests.
On a more personal level, internships provide employers with fresh ideas and a close look at the most current state of socio-cultural affairs, a valuable source of ideas to develop into sellable clothes. I have committed into doing a fashion-related project recently, and I have four of my best students as interns so I can receive the help I need. But one of the most satisfying aspects of directing an internship is to mentor these students. They might not know it, because I have not told them, but I have learned from them: they have spotted any mistakes I might have made in the process, they suggest new ideas, they also give feedback on the project. I have learned patience and the importance of mentorship and I know that I have given an opportunity to four deserving students that they might not have had otherwise. They have provided me with unconditional loyalty and belief in the project, hard work, and fresh eyes through which I can see how the public will react to the project before it is made public.
Internships are a fantastic resource for both students and employers/designers. They prepare students for the arduous road into fashion design industry while providing the designer with valuable skills and newer, fresher ideas to put into fruition. Internships are, as we discovered, a two-way partnership where both can win if they decide to do so.
*Edited to reflect a question posted in the comment section:
“Do you need to be a student to do an internship?”
The short answer is no. You do not need to be a student to be an intern, though some employers prefer hiring students because they already have skill sets required to complete any tasks assigned. If you have experience in the industry, and if you know at least a basic knowledge of sewing, pattern cutting, grading, or other technical or software skill, you could get an internship. I would recommend ensuring that your CV or résumé reflects your skills and what you can offer to potential employers. This can help you secure an interview at a fashion company.
If you are still fresh to the fashion industry or you have recently decided to give the fashion world a try but have not yet developed strong technical skills, I do suggest you refrain from trying an internship at this point. It would be more beneficial to take courses to address any skill deficiencies. Now, technical courses will help you improve your skills but they also achieve something more important: build your network of fashion professionals. If you are willing to build positive relationships with your tutors and with fellow classmates, you will benefit by obtaining first-hand information on potential internships and jobs.