Have you recently graduated from a fashion degree? looking for industry experience or are you swimming in job applications with a shiny new portfolio? Maybe you’re about to do an internship? Well, listen up!

An exposé penned by Jackie Mallon and published by FASHIONUNITED in 2017 lifted the lid on the fashion industry taking advantage of its young and hungry protegees. The article brought to light the well-known but never-openly-discussed dirty laundry of the fashion industry.

Many designers came forward to share their experience of promising interviews routinely finishing with a request for a project to be completed under the guise of ensuring the candidate and the company were a perfect fit for one another. The homework assignments – often time consuming and detailed – were expected to completed free of charge.

Unfortunately, this is still rife in the fashion industry and although the article served to warn designers approaching companies for jobs, this tactic is still alive and well. So if you’re a new designer about to take your job search by storm, get ready – you’re about to be scammed.

According to industry veterans, completing ‘homework’ gratis is almost expected of job applicants, seen as a rite of passage. Some suggest, however, that this is an abuse of the interview method of days gone by where fashion houses would ask candidates to produce a sample of ideas with some loose guidelines in a genuine attempt to get a feel for the new designer’s understanding of the brand. Today, the guidelines sound more like line planning than a quick homework assignment. Some designers recall being told to create pieces for a specific season, to include the nuances of the brand and a specified number of garments.

As a new designer, it’s hard to not snatch up the proffered assignment, and rush home bubbling with ideas. It’s even harder to ignore the carrots dangling before you: a job with your dream brand, promises of good reviews, references, exposure or more work, with assurances that next time, you’ll be paid.

So what’s the big issue? It seems that brands and fashion houses (both large and small) are asking new designers to work for free, and the reality is, the designer gets nothing in return. They have no copyright over their work, they receive no feedback on what was submitted, no idea whether the designs are being included in next season’s collection or thrown in the bin, and according to designers who have been through the hoops, there probably won’t be a job offer either. It’s a scam.

When asked, the overwhelming response from fashion industry experts is that you should never undertake an unpaid assignment, but that very definitive sentence finished with the word ‘unless…’

There are certain situations where it is okay to work for free – but these are exceptional cases. To help clear up the confusion, we’ve put together the whys and why nots of accepting unpaid assignments. 

Why you should say thanks but no thanks

  1. The company requesting free work won’t value it

Exactly how many variations of the same project will be on their desk by the due date?

You burning the midnight oil isn’t going to be appreciated or respected in the way you’re hoping. And if you completed the work thinking it would secure you the job you really wanted, chances are you’ve dished up some of your best ideas for free, and there’ll be a disappointing email coming to an inbox near you soon.

  1. Money shows respect

There are a lot of designers out there chasing their dreams – and that’s admirable, but reality check: designers have bills and rent to pay too. Money, no matter how little, is important and not just because you have to make a living. It is a sign of respect. Respect of your time, your ideas, your dedication, and the use of your materials and equipment. Even if the company offers a small amount for a trial project, it shows they value you.

  1. By accepting unpaid projects, you’re part of the problem

By completing unpaid assignments not only are you de-valuing yourself, you’re letting your peers down. The more new fashion designers standing up for themselves and turning down ‘homework’ to protect their creativity, the sooner this negative trend comes to an end. By taking on what is essentially free work, you’re encouraging the practice.

Jessica Hische created this hilarious flow chart to help young designers to better value their time and creativity, and decide when it’s appropriate to work gratis. Spoiler alert: an agency working for a charity and needs posters designed has a budget they can include you in – say NO, your mum was in labour for 22 hours when giving birth to you and needs a flyer for her garage sale – say YES.

When should you work for free?

So when is it okay to say yes to an unpaid assignment? That’s entirely up to you. What are you going to get out of it? Here are a few questions that will help you on your way to making a decision:

  • Will you have creative control? This could result in a great piece for your portfolio
  • Will you make connections that are valuable and might be useful in future?
  • Is the free assignment really likely to lead to paid work?
  • How strong is your portfolio? Do you need projects to build it up?

If these questions, and your other considerations, lead you to accepting an unpaid assignment, make sure you follow these simple rules:

  • Put a limit on how much time you can spend working for free
  • Assess the materials required – do you need to ask the company for use of their equipment?
  • Will you be recognised as the designer?
  • Will you receive feedback from the company on your work?
  • Are you going to be informed of where your work goes and how it will be used?
  • Are introductions or connections going to be made that will further your career?
  • Is this a passion project, and something you really, really, realllly want to work on?

If the project is for charity, many designers say they’re happy to complete 1-2 pieces of unpaid work per year. They do warn new designers not to accept requests from agencies approaching you to complete free work for a charity – it’s likely they have a budget and they can afford to include you in it.

If you’ve decided it’s a solid no, but you’re unsure of how to respond to individuals or companies asking for free work, check out this article from Forbes by Ashley Crouch, the founder of Appleseed Communications. She gives some concise and courteous ways to stick to your guns and say thanks but no thanks. If you’re in doubt check out this Survival Guide for Fashion Designers it’s a behind-the-scenes insights and essential business information on creating and sustaining a successful career as an independent designer.

If you’re looking for a quality internship, someone to share contacts and help you get your foot in the door contact us today hello@thenewgarde.co