IT HAPPENED TO ME: I Worked In Fashion PR And It Was Soul-Crushing

Thirty minutes into my first day, a publicist came to the cordoned-off intern area to hurl verbal abuse at us.
Publish date:
October 30, 2014
fashion, jobs, PR, interning

I was the kind of nine-year-old weirdo who owned a ponyhair coat. I dog-eared fashion editorials from magazines and saved up allowance money to buy my first cashmere sweater when I was 11. I was no Tavi Gevinson, but fashion was certainly an interest of mine from a young age. I never had artistic talent, so I didn't know it was possible to make a career in fashion until I was in college, when I learned about fashion communications.

During my sophomore year, I applied to several summer internships at PR firms around New York and was ecstatic when I got an offer from one of the industry's most reputable firms. This company had a wide range of clients, ranging from mall brands to top luxury fashion houses. I was incredibly excited and bragged to my friends about how glamorous and fun my internship would be.

That excitement lasted until I actually started the job. Thirty minutes into my first day, a publicist came to the cordoned-off intern area to hurl verbal abuse at us. She was very angry because a sample had gotten lost under a pile of other samples.

"OK," she seethed. "I have been looking for this fucking sample all fucking morning and it was just fucking sitting here this entire fucking time. Don't ever let this happen again." She glared at all of us before stomping off. That was the beginning of the most f-bomb-filled summer of my life. It was like “The Wolf of Wall Street,” except with mostly women and gay guys and no money.

The value of internships is usually that even if you are relegated to grunt work, you at least get to work alongside experienced people and learn through osmosis. But I couldn't even really learn from the publicists because the interns were separated from the rest of the office. Our area was basically a mailroom. The executives at the company didn't want any clients walking through the messy sample trafficking area, so they just built a wall between the interns and the rest of the office. The only cool thing about the job was handling these very fine, beautiful pieces and watching models walk for the production side of the office. I remember one day when a bunch of models came in for a casting call; later, I went to the bathroom and saw unflushed vomit in the toilet.

All we actually did was scan samples in and out of our database and hang them onto racks in the showroom. It turned out we were doing even that wrong. "Interns!" Ana, the vice president of our company, barked one day just before we were supposed to leave. "Showroom. Now!" We knew we were in trouble. We shuffled toward the rack of an haute couture designer's hipper, more affordable line. Jon, the publicist for the designer, had asked us to put all of the clothes from the collection on the rack, even though they didn't fit. Consequently, we had to squeeze 30 hangers of clothing onto a rack that comfortably accommodated 20.

The six of us lined up in front of her. "Hi," she gave us a wolfish grin before immediately crossing her arms and frowning. "So, I have a question for you. Does this -- " she gestured grandly at the rack. "Does this look good?" I glanced away toward the window. The other girls averted their eyes toward the floors or their cuticles or at the ceiling. Her voice got shriller. "Am I going crazy? I'm pretty sure I asked all of you a question but I don't hear any answers. I asked, 'Does this look good?'"

Finally, one girl whispered, "No."

Ana cupped a hand over her ear. "What? Excuse me?"

Another girl answered, "No," with more confidence.

"You're right," said Ana. "It doesn't look good. It looks fucking terrible." She glowered at each of us, her dark brown irises slowly floating from left to right. Suddenly, she stuck her index finger in the air. "Finger!" she jabbed her index finger toward us. "Fucking!" she stabbed the space with her finger again, a few inches right of the first jab. "Spacing!" she spat with one final jab to the right of the second.

For those of you who have not had the fortune of working in retail or fashion, finger spacing is when you place hangers on a rack so they are evenly spaced finger-width apart.

"What is so fucking hard about finger spacing?" she screeched. Finally, I opened my mouth.

"Well, Jon asked us to put all of the clothes on the rack, and that rack is too small so --"

"No," she wagged her finger. "No, no, no. There is always a way. I know what I’m talking about. I don't ever want to see this again." Then she dismissed us.

Many of the publicists were dismissive and even vicious, but most of the other interns were just as bad. I didn't really get along with any of them, and it was no surprise, considering I was the frumpiest one. At the firm, a typical intern outfit might consist of a Ports 1961 dress, a Marni necklace, Brian Atwood pumps and a Celine handbag. My Club Monaco dress, Longchamp bag and Tory Burch sandals entirely missed the mark. I thought those sandals were so cool, too, until my internship. The other interns traded compliments on their designer wares like they were talking about baseball cards.

"I love those flats," one would coo to another. "Miu Miu?" I'd quietly slide my feet under my rolling chair. They'd also talk about their love lives. One of my co-interns, who was attending fashion school, was dating a 40-year-old divorced man who flew her to France and Aspen. I had nothing to contribute to any of these conversations. My boyfriend at the time -- who I really loved -- still got his hair cut at the J.C. Penney in his hometown in upstate New York.

That intern smugly told us, "I slept with a rapper once. I won't say who he is, but he's like, really famous." Her boyfriend dumped her in the middle of the summer and kicked her out of his apartment, leaving her with mascara smears down her face for the rest of her internship.

I told my boyfriend and my parents I wanted to quit. "It's miserable," I said between tears. "The girls are so nasty and all I do is put clothes in shopping bags and stick address labels on them. The publicists ask us if we're 'fucking stupid' every other day." Everyone advised me to just suck it up and my mom reminded me I wasn’t the quitting type.

Sure enough, as the summer went on the internship became more bearable. Most of the mean interns left and a slew of sweet European girls who wore Zara and Mango and ate at the Olive Garden came in and I could actually relate to them. I had a few kind publicists who favored me and let me send some emails for them and organize their contacts instead of messengering samples all day.

The most "Devil Wears Prada" moment I recall is the time I had to go to five different bookstores around the city for a month-old issue of Interview Magazine for a client. The publicist called me every five minutes to ask if I'd found it yet, and I finally gave up and just went to the magazine's office to ask for copies to send. It was a pain, but not a horror story.

At the end of the summer, the whole firm had the day off for a party at the company president's country home, where male model waiters milled around with trays of cocktails. I was in awe, and another director at the company smiled at me and swept her arm across the house and the lawn and the pool and said, "This could all be yours one day if you succeed in fashion." By then, I already knew I didn't want to stay in the industry, but it was still a nice thought.

A few weeks later, I came back to help out at Fashion Week. At the show, a publicist from my firm grabbed me and said, "Andrea, Kelly Osbourne and her boyfriend need water -- right now!" I ran to the vending machine and came back with two bottles of Dasani as the lights dimmed. Security guards yelled at me to get out of the aisle as I scanned the front row and saw Kelly Osbourne, waving to me. I crouched down and ran to her and handed her the bottles as she put a hand on my shoulder: "Thank you so much!" she mouthed as the first model got on the catwalk.

As I squatted on the floor next to the front row because I had nowhere else to go, I saw the line of models streaming down the catwalk, and I thought to myself that maybe this wasn't the worst way for an 19-year-old to spend the summer, after all.

It still didn't make me want to ever return to fashion, though.