The fashion industry is notoriously competitive and difficult to break into. Lured by a glamorous image portrayed in TV shows like Ugly Betty and America’s Next Top Model, tens of thousands of hopefuls arrive in fashion capitals like New York and London every year looking for their break. In 2011, Diane Wang was one of them. Arriving in New York, Wang secured the holy grail of internships, working as head accessories intern for Harper’s Bazaar. For free. With so many more applicants than positions, fashion magazines and the big fashion houses often don’t pay their interns, claiming the ‘invaluable’ experience that the interns gain is payment enough.
Wang regularly worked 12 hour days, five days a week, managing as many as eight other interns. Following a four month stint Wang failed to secure paid employment. Her supervisor at Harper’s Bazzaar refused to give her a reference, claiming that she wasn’t ready and that she should do another internship. Wang didn’t agree. Instead she packed her bags, left New York and filed suit against Hearst, Harper Bazaar’s parent publisher. The suit claims violation of labour laws for not paying her for her work. She has since been joined by 3000 other former interns, making the case one of the biggest class actions the world of fashion has seen. If successful the case could have far reaching changes for the industry, which many claim would collapse without the thousands of unpaid interns supporting it.
The mood for change has also been felt here in the UK. In 2011, HMRC wrote to each of the fashion houses taking part in London Fashion Week, warning them about non-payment of minimum wage to workers. In February 2012 , students staged a protest at the opening of London fashion week at Somerset House. They argued unpaid internships are unfair, creating a barrier to opportunities for those who can’t afford to work for free, and exploit those who can. Stella McCartney have also announced that they will only offer paid internships in a move that will surely influence other designers.
The fashion industry has not responded well to Wang’s law suit. One commentator has stated ‘when it comes to internships there are a few dos and don’ts. Do learn as much as you can, do make lots of contacts, and don’t later sue those contacts’. Meow! While it is unlikely that Diane Wang will ever work in the fashion industry again, she will potentially change the future of thousands dreaming of a career in the fashion industry. Wigsandgowns salute you!