When I was 19 I moved to Arnhem, a fashion centred city in the west of The Netherlands to work as a fashion intern for a year and a half. I lived in a squat in one of the roughest areas (which was lovely by Sheffield standards). I knew fashion was tough, but I don’t think anything could have prepared me for how tough it actually was. Working as a fashion intern made working for a global software startup feel like a walk in the park. It was actually really easy to transition from fashion to business, fashion is so cut throat it makes business seem tame.
1. WHATEVER IT TAKES
Me and my current intern/assistant Jodie have an in-joke ‘WHATEVER IT TAKES’ is our slogan. If my clients ask me to do something that seems tough, at least it’s not physically impossible. I’ve been told to cut a pattern from irreplaceable fabric that is half the size of the pattern, or get to one side of Amsterdam to the other in 5 minutes, to make a size 4 dress go on a size 12 model, or I’m fired, I managed to get those things done (I ran, in heels, at super human speed from one side of Amsterdam to the other). People said I was crazy for travelling home from a conference at midnight and wake up for a breakfast meeting at 5am while 7 months pregnant (I fainted at the meeting but I got there) but it’s not fashion intern levels crazy. In fact it feels pretty easy compared to the madness of preparing for a fashion show and working for incredibly stressed out women from 8am till midnight daily!
2. Hard work, what hard work?
Be the first to arrive and the last to leave is the best advice I could give to someone who’s starting new in an office. When you’re new and you lack the skills to pay the bills, your effort and enthusiasm will be noted. Your energy will inspire your boss (hopefully) to include you in bigger projects. This is how I got promoted instead of fired when my job became replaced by software. I know to do this, because I was fired for slacking on my first fashion internship, and by slacking I mean not working over time, leaving at 5 and showing up at 9, even though I worked till my fingers were literally bleeding while I was there. I never made the same mistake again.
3. Be prepared to be stabbed in the back.
I am incredibly friendly with my competitors, I trust them and I really like them, but I’m always aware that we’re competitors. When I first started interning, I thought the girls I worked alongside with were my friends. But they weren’t, they would lie and say I didn’t turn up to work when the boss had a day off, or they’d say I arrived late and left early all the time, which was untrue. They’d say I complained about the work all the time to my boss. It took me a while to work out this was happening and once I realised it was too late, my boss had lost faith in me and I needed to work 3x harder to get that respect back, I also lost out on a trip to Belgium to run a show there alone.
4. I’m a female
Working in a male industry can make you feel like you need to be like a man to succeed, but working in an all female environment has taught me that my femininity is not a barrier to success. It’s ok to like to dress up, it’s ok to be emotive, there are tears, there is blood, there is pregnancy, there is gossip, but we get on with it and get shit done and that’s what counts.
5. To bite my tongue
As a young girl, I was incredibly outspoken and to an extent I still very much am. But controlling myself and getting a filter has been very useful for me. I learnt this when being yelled at by an arrogant celebrity stylist not to touch the clothes that I had made with my own hands because ‘they’re expensive’, or to not eat my sandwich (on a well earned break) next to a soap star actress (I didn’t know who she was) because I was ‘distressing’ her, or being completely blanked by male models because I’m not pretty enough to talk to, when I’m just trying to do my job. Sometimes you just need to bite your tongue because doing otherwise will make you look worse. I still need to bite my tongue in business, maybe more so, when I feel patronised or people take credit for my work or when people say a competitor is better than me when I know that they aren’t. I put the thought to the back of my mind and think about how I can reframe what I was about to say in a better way. ‘So and so is great at X but he doesn’t have the experience that I do within your industry’ instead of ‘if you think he’s so great why are you wasting my fucking time on this meeting????’
6. If not me, there are a million other people.
Fashion internships are competitive and very hard to secure. So are social media jobs. If this job isn’t given to me, there are plenty more people lined up willing to take it. If I make one screw up, just one, there are many more people just waiting to jump in and fill my boots and there will be no sentiment about ditching me. I have competitors on my back all the time, they’re always there, and I’m ok with that and used to it, it’s kind of part of the fun and it pushes me to NEVER screw up.
7. I might not get credit, but that’s ok.
People behind the scenes of a fashion show or label don’t get any credit whatsoever. Everything I made and designed, all the concepts and ideas I had, all the beautiful drawings I did, all the sweat blood and tears left me with no credit, at the end of the show the head of the label goes out onto the catwalk and takes a bow as if they did it all themselves. And that’s fine, because the only person who will ever shout about my achievements is me (and my mother). And so I have to shout about them if I want people to know about them. It’s something we as women are discouraged from doing as little girls, don’t brag, let someone else have a turn. We enforce this on each other in some ways ‘who does she think she is’. But the alternative to letting people know your achievements is to let them go unseen and I think too many people in history have fallen victim to that.