This piece appears as part of our initiative on Identity & Representation, a six-month-long project highlighting different facets of identity and how they shape the practices, conventions, and conversations happening in the Highsnobiety world. Head here for the full series.

When it comes to the fashion industry, internships are still the most popular way for young creatives to claw their way in. These grueling positions – often unpaid or compensated with wildly-underestimated “expenses” – are designed to teach interns the business basics, but most companies see them more as months-long job interviews, meaning the pressure to perform can be high. Appearances also matter – especially in fashion. But how do interns afford to keep them up while juggling financial worries, the stress of a new role and, in plenty of cases, a series of side-hustles?

“I absolutely feel the pressure to look good at work – I’m often in meetings with big clients and important people,” Cat, a fashion PR intern who declined to share her last name for anonymity, tells me via email. Her hunt for a position in London was met with a series of roadblocks: a lack of pay was often one; the requirement of a degree or a year of relevant experience (somewhat counterintuitive for an internship listing) was another. Eventually, she settled on a part-time role that offered expenses – although these don’t cover even half the cost of her commute.

Although Cat has always loved fashion, she never felt the need to make sure her own wardrobe was on-trend until she stepped into the industry. “I’ve actually started putting aside around £40/£50 each month to buy new clothes for work,” she explains. “Sometimes I’ll spend it on something cheaper, or I’ll save up for designer [pieces]. This is something I never did religiously before I started working at the agency.” She also works part-time as a sales assistant to supplement the occasional splurge, but explains that even this wouldn’t cover her costs if she weren’t living at home. “Some months, it’s still tough to make ends meet."

The heavy concentration of internships in huge, expensive cities creates an accessibility issue, meaning that fashion – and media more generally – is dominated by privilege. A 2016 British survey found that the journalism industry was 94% white and 55% male; another found that 51% was privately-educated. The extent of the problem in fashion became painfully clear in 2017, when then-Vogue editor Alexandra Schulman shared a photo of the magazine’s all-white staff, sparking an industry-wide conversation about a lack of diversity.

“Interning in fashion has always been problematic,” says Lakeisha, a former fashion intern at various high-profile publications who also wishes to remain anonymous. “Both because of the financial restraints and the expectations companies have when it comes to working excessive hours.”

In her experience, employers regularly ask interns to travel to events and work late (with no extra cash for a second meal); she even landed a fashion week invitation, which brought yet more pressure to look the part. “I would often borrow pieces from my friends, or from the fashion cupboard at work – with permission, of course! But nowadays I buy pieces myself or get them discounted through friends. I’d like to think I’m less of a slave to the machine now, but when you’re young, interning and not getting paid, it’s easy to fall victim to the glitz and glamor of it all.”

Luckily, things are changing. As a student, Jasmine MacPhee grew frustrated at the difficulties of finding paid fashion internships, so she launched her own platform: FYI (Find Your Intern). “I wanted to create something cool, current and unlike the rest,” she explains – better still, the site only shares listings which pay minimum wage and above. “It’s a platform for the community to come for prime guidance; to feel safe, and to feel worthy.”

She spent time interning back in 2014, although says the landscape has since changed dramatically. Like Cat and Lakeisha, she acknowledges that privilege makes a huge difference: “Things are really hard for interns that don’t come from an affluent background. Even if your family can just about pay to keep a roof over your head, there isn’t much for anything else – like having fun, and basic living. I’ve known girls to work a full-time internship and then go to work in a bar. It’s brutal!”

But she does dispute the idea that interns put cash aside for new clothes, praising platforms like Depop for making it easier to look good on a budget. “Again, it’s the elitist thing: The interns that can afford unpaid internships are probably the ones that may have spare cash for designer clothes. [Otherwise], the only interns able to set cash aside would probably be the ones taking paid internships.”

Hetty, a London-based intern speaking to us anonymously whose expenses are fully covered, tends to scout out designer pieces and then hunt for cheaper alternatives – either vintage or high-street. “If it’s somewhere in the £70-£200 mark then I would save up,” she explains, “but you don’t get that much – it’s usually just a T-shirt or something, rather than a bigger piece.” If anything, she says that the industry has made her more experimental with her style: “I just want to feel the most ‘me’ in terms of confidence.”

Like many interns, she lives at home – and highlights the inaccessibility built into the industry. “I’ve worked with interns from different backgrounds, but I would say the majority have come from more middle-class backgrounds,” she recalls, citing a lack of appreciation for the arts sector as a key reason. Again, this is dependent on privilege: “The quality of arts education and results in state school is declining, but in private education it’s doing really well. The government isn’t investing, despite the fact that creative industries are growing at such a fast pace.”

As a result, fashion internships usually come with enormous financial stress. This is unsurprising in an industry which arguably glamorizes hard work to the point of total burnout – especially among its lower ranks. With this context in mind, it’s understandable that interns are too busy surviving to think about budgeting for that new Supreme drop.

But for those interns still keen to stay on-trend, the key is priority-conscious budgeting. “Definitely think first about what you need that month, and how much money you can afford to put aside per week,” says Hetty, who explains that she usually prioritizes going out with friends over buying new clothes. These are wise words, but definitely easier said than done. “I do sometimes budget in reverse – I’ll get paid and end up splashing it on a big(-ish) buy, or several smaller pieces I’ve had my eye on, and then have to cut back a lot for the rest of month. I’m working on following my own advice!”

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