Upland, Ind. isn’t your typical fashion capital. But for J.D. Fritzeen, a junior at Taylor University, the move to remote work during the pandemic means he can intern for a fashion house in New York City in between classes in the small Midwestern town.
In the spring, Fritzeen’s original internship plans were upended when his dream role with Anthropologie’s visual merchandising department was canceled along with the rest of the company’s summer program.
“It was obviously really upsetting, but I was just trying to keep perspective of what was happening in the world versus a canceled internship,” he said. “Pretty much the night I got home, I pulled out my laptop, got on LinkedIn and started looking for more internships. Because I was like, ‘There has to be someone that still needs help.’”
It’s a situation familiar to thousands of college students and recent graduates across the country this year. Even now, more than seven months into the pandemic, many major companies have taken their internship programs virtual or put them on hold altogether as they continue to encourage or require employees to work remotely. The fashion industry has also seen widespread layoffs and several major bankruptcies, causing further challenges for those seeking to gain work experience.
“This is really a big disrupter to what’s happening in the industry for that pool of talent,” said Tammy Chatkin-Newman, executive vice president of global search at 24 Seven, a Los Angeles-based creative recruitment agency.
For companies, foregoing a semester of interns means losing out on valuable training and recruiting opportunities — and, less charitably, being deprived of the free or cheap labor that interns provide. For students, it’s one less chance to make connections, try out different roles to find their fit and bolster their resume in an already competitive field.
Rather than write off 2020 entirely, however, schools, students and employers have experimented with new programs to fill the void. Virtual internships, online professional-development seminars, webinar series and digital networking groups have proliferated in recent months, drawing industry hopefuls as well as newly furloughed or laid-off professionals.
With the outlook for the pandemic still so uncertain, it’s unclear whether these stopgap measures will become a more permanent solution for some or whether internships will ever revert to the way they were.
Fritzeen, at least, was right to think there would still be opportunities: By May, he’d landed a part-time in-person internship with Pattern Magazine in Indianapolis, and in June, he started a remote PR and marketing internship with the designer Romeo Hunte. Because Covid-19 cases were relatively low in Indiana early in the summer, he said he felt safe going to the magazine’s headquarters two days per week. Masks and distancing were required, and he was excited to have an office and co-workers after months of virtual classes. With Romeo Hunte, he said he’s in constant communication with the team over Zoom, text and email — pulling together press clippings and designing email blasts when celebrities appear in Hunte’s designs.
Often, the concern about remote internships is that they won’t provide the same networking opportunities, said Marjorie Silverman, the chair of internship studies at the Fashion Institute of Technology in New York City.
“It’s different, as we know, because the five-minute chat by the elevator or while you’re at the coffee machine — it’s not going to happen. But we encourage our students to take initiative,” she said. “It means being proactive and putting yourself out there, and an internship is a perfect opportunity to really stretch past your comfort zone and just take the initiative for a one-on-one meeting.”
Most FIT programs require students to complete an internship, so the school had to pivot when New York entered lockdown. It ran its first fully-remote internship program this summer. For the fall semester, it has encouraged all students and sponsor companies to go remote. Those who do want to participate in-person must sign a waiver accepting the associated risk.
While the industry has undergone a legal reckoning in the past decade regarding unpaid internships, many positions still don’t offer payment. Even now, during the pandemic, several Manhattan-based fashion companies have postings looking for unpaid in-person interns, though only about one in 10 office workers in the borough is back at their desks.
More remote internships could also mean more opportunities for students outside of New York and Los Angeles, where the cost of living is a barrier to many students who might hope to work in fashion. A recent report from the Sustainable Fashion Initiative at the University of Cincinnati found that fashion design students at the school paid $37,607.50, on average, for the expenses related to their internship experiences, financed primarily through family contributions and student loans.
Of course, not every task can be done virtually. As photoshoots restart, Gucci gowns don’t unpack themselves on set, and sample closets need to be maintained in-person. But companies are finding new ways to bridge the digital divide every day. Technical design, for instance, is moving increasingly online, said Silverman, through tools like BrowzWear 3D fashion design software. And for internships in fields such as e-commerce and social media, remote participation is a natural fit.
Ruth Samuel, a senior at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, was supposed to start her integrated marketing internship at Tommy Hilfiger on June 1, but the company canceled her summer placement. While she was disappointed, she answered a call through her scholarship alumni network for a remote marketing internship at Sani, a South Asian fashion brand that launched on Rent the Runway earlier this year.
Home in North Carolina, Samuel worked on growing the brand’s Instagram and TikTok followings (now at more than 11,000 and 80,000 followers, respectively), and crafting the messaging for its line of bandana-inspired face coverings. She also landed several pitches with Teen Vogue and has used the time since to build her freelance portfolio.
“I’ve just been pivoting and swiveling, and understanding that, one, senior year is not going to be perfect at all,” she said. “I’m also graduating in the middle of a recession, so I’m finding ways to come up with contingency plans and figure out what I’m going to do after all of this.”
While no one can predict what’s ahead, Silverman recalled the classes she taught following 9/11 and the Great Recession, and how those students ultimately found their way.
“Resiliency is something that is so important throughout your career,” she said. “It might not have been the job that they initially thought they would have, but there are some really creative things that came out of it.”