One day, as part of her intern duties, she was returning accessories borrowed for photo shoots to their showrooms….As she struggled to hang onto the thousands of dollars worth of products, Wang dug through her own not-designer handbag to find her subway card. She swiped, twisted her body and pushed, but couldn’t fit through the narrow turnstile.
“It was so frustrating,” Wang says. “I swear, if the surveillance cameras outside the Hearst building were ever leaked to the public, you’d see dozens of girls hauling these bags through the doors, up and down the elevator — shopping bags and garment bags they could fit into.”
It seems like a trivial — even comical — story, but it’s one Wang, 28, has told often since her internship ended in December of last year. In February, she filed a lawsuit against Hearst, the publisher of Harper’s Bazaar and 19 other U.S. magazines, for violating labor laws related to unpaid internships. In July, it became a federal class-action suit.
I would actually like to thank Hearst because my semester-long, unpaid internship in the fashion department of one of its magazines had a huge impact on me. It made me realize that I actually wanted nothing to do with the fashion industry ever again.
I was one of an army of about a dozen unpaid college students working in the fashion closet and I’m not even really sure the editors we worked for knew any of our names. The job basically required me to be a combination of messenger and FedEx clerk. Most of our days were spent “checking in” fashion samples that came from the brands’ publicists’ interns, by taking Polaroids of each item and hanging it on one of the many clothing racks. Once the editors were done with them, we’d package them up to send back to the interns at those PR firms, via messenger service or FedEx. All of the interns in the fashion industry are basically passing the same items back and forth, day after day, like demented pen-pals with expensive tastes.
For particularly important or last-minute items that the messenger service couldn’t be trusted with, sometimes we’d be sent to deliver them ourselves — and, let me tell you, carrying multiple nylon garment bags filled with heavy clothing is no cakewalk because those bitches are slippery. However, my most challenging task was buying approximately 15 yellow balloons (I don’t even remember why…probably for some dumb photo shoot) on a ridiculously windy day. I made it back to the office with most of them in one piece — a few burst against some scaffolding — but I felt like I was going to fly away like Mary Poppins.
As a journalism student who was learning the ethical rules of the profession in my courses, the internship was pretty eye-opening, in that regard. I’d often be tasked with filing lookbooks (basically, mini catalogs of a brand’s current collection) and the ones sent from companies that advertised in the magazine were put in a special drawer. They needed to be accessed more easily, since editors were encouraged (or perhaps required) to feature more of their items in fashion spreads. And the amount of free shit was astronomical. There was an entire bookshelf known as the “free table,” where all the editors would put the junk that publicists sent them that they didn’t want. Of course, they kept the really good stuff (like the $2,500 Fendi bag the model booker received as a holiday gift), but even the swag they were discarding was pretty great. I definitely took my fair share of it, which I guess was a sort of payment in itself, although you can’t really buy lunch with a free pair of gold strappy heels that happened to be just your size.
None of the editors were particularly mean (well, the editor-in-chief did have a bit of a hissy fit when she saw us tossing stacks of back issues into a trash bin, as we were instructed to do by an editor), they were just really…disinterested. Disinterested in their interns’ faces, names and thoughts, but also the world at large. The real one, I mean, outside of the fashion industry. This is not to say that everyone in the industry is like this, but I never heard anyone in the office talk about politics (even though it was late 2008) or culture or books or anything remotely entertaining. The main conversations that I overheard daily were about a) How fat they were, when they were all about a size 2 b) What kind of salad they were eating for lunch, due to the aforementioned fatness or c) Which trendy, expensive purse/pair of shoes they recently attained. I was pretty much bored out of my mind.
So, when the semester ended, I went on my way. I soon took a paid internship at a PR firm that represented magazines and online media properties, where I got to learn things I didn’t already know how to do, and the rest is history.