Gen Z's impact on trends, shopping habits and social awareness is unlike anything fashion's ever seen. And this summer, they're ushering in yet another, albeit unexpected, shift — this time, on the hiring side of the industry.
According to the Fashion Scholarship Fund, 72% of fashion internship placements for Summer 2023 went to people who had already graduated college. Typically, roles in these coveted programs are reserved for college juniors and seniors looking to get experience as a part of their degree. But this new data suggests that they're becoming a sort of intro to the post-grad job world, rather than an in-school educational experience.
"Every year, we identify a pool of scholars, and we help them get internships if they're still undergraduates and entry-level jobs if they're graduating seniors. That all got subverted two-and-a-half years ago during Covid, when many, if not all, of our corporate partners stopped providing internships and suspended their internship programs and definitely lightened up a little bit on the hiring of entry-level folks," Peter Arnold, executive director of Fashion Scholarship Fund, a non-profit workforce development initiative, explains. Students who missed those opportunities are now seeking that experience before getting a job: "We've seen this shift in graduating seniors who are much more interested in internships because they never had any," he adds, noting that these roles are paid because college credit isn't an option.
While this shift may not have happened intentionally, it could signal a change in how talent is acquired and developed at these brands long-term. Prada, for example, started a program called Generation Prada in 2023, a six-month paid internship "aimed to equip the next generation of fashion industry leaders from diverse backgrounds with professional growth chances," according to the press release. One recipient, fashion designer and stylist Kaitlyn Gilliam, posted about how she got into the program and her experience on TikTok; in a message to Fashionista, she explained that it included "professional development through hands-on training for visual merchandising across all its NYC stores."
Gilliam is experienced with fashion internships, having done them at both Gucci and Oscar de la Renta during her undergraduate studies. A longer post-grad internship (six months vs. two months), she said, allowed her to train in a way that her shorter ones hadn't.
"There's a difference in responsibility and expectation in my experience," according to Gilliam. "Undergrad programs were more to make the team's job easier or felt like 'busy work' to keep me occupied, whereas post-grad, I did assist, but I felt as if I could create more of an impact in daily operations through immersive training."
Gilliam also noted that while the duration of internships is crucial to give students enough time to learn, all that time spent interning post-grad does take away from time in entry-level roles that are needed to move up in the industry. "I find myself in between many positions currently, overqualified to be an intern/trainee and under-qualified to land a coordinator position," Gilliam added.
While these opportunities are certainly needed — and some programs, like Generation Prada, seem to be aware of the long-term implications of working with graduates — Victor Narro, project director and professor of Labor Studies for UCLA Labor Center, says we should be cautious about this shift becoming the norm, especially in fashion, where labor violations are historically normalized.
"There's greater scrutiny today of employers and companies that use short-term internships as a 'trial basis' for employment. Internships shouldn't be used as a probationary period for employment," Narro says. "Qualified students should be hired directly as employees or offered one-to-two-year fellowships with competitive salaries and benefits, and with a pathway to permanent employment or assistance with job opportunities at the end of the fellowship period."
While some of these internships can turn into permanent roles, there's no data yet to suggest that post-grad fashion internships have a clear path to a job. What's more, internships are historically low-paid and can thus be exclusionary. It's already difficult enough for students to afford to take time out of their schedule for a low or unpaid gig; after graduation, that's decidedly harder, as loan payments (and life) get started.
"The internship experience is still a little exclusive if you're getting paid, but you're only getting paid $15 an hour," Arnold says, adding that that pay structure must be addressed for them to be equitable in the long run.
There's also another trade-off if the trend continues: These roles are limited, and if graduates are getting them, students may not be.
"Some schools or programs require an internship, so sometimes, it's a necessary part of finishing a degree," Rainseford Stauffer, author of "An Ordinary Age and All the Gold Stars," explains. "And it's not hard to see how that deepens disparities and exacerbates inequities. If it's already a challenge to find an internship — let alone one that pays you for your labor and is accessible in terms of location, hours or the work itself — internships going to post-graduates feels like it could add an additional barrier for students who need that experience to graduate."
While this change isn't seismic yet, it's worth paying attention to. The toxic nature of fashion hierarchy is folklore at this point. Those in internship and assistant roles have been expected to tolerate poor and sometimes abusive behavior from bosses because the people before them have had to. When those roles become even more difficult to get and possibly have more weight on your next career move, that power dynamic has even more fuel.
Arnold recognizes these potential issues, but sees an opportunity in them.
"It really does allow for people to have an additional experience after college that may shape their interest in a way that will be helpful to them and wherever they land," he says.