30 March 2010

What's Missing from Fashion 'Reality' Shows? Reality.

Arizona Reporter / Mussarat Bata
The real-life climb toward fashion industry stardom is grueling and impoverishing. The beleaguered assistant in "The Devil Wears Prada" had it easy, one veteran suggests

The first season of MTV’s "The Hills" played like a fashion school fairy tale. In less than five minutes, would-be intern Lauren Conrad managed to secure a meeting with the West Coast editor of Teen Voguebreezed through her interview, and was offered the position despite her lack of resume, experience or appropriate interview attire. Her knowledge of the magazine was limited to her fondness for the photos, and she proved her worth with a half-smile and one of the most eloquent statements made that season: "I like to write."

What's missing from MTV's fashion-related reality TV shows? Reality.
Most entry-level fashion jobs involve impossibly long hours, running racks of clothing through the streets of Manhattan, countless runs to Starbucks and maybe a chance to transcribe notes from a meeting with a designer. It takes years of grueling labor to work your way up to becoming an assistant, and it doesn’t get any easier from there.

Conrad, on the other hand, promptly secured a spot in the fashion closet with her reality TV sidekick, Whitney Port, in tow. On the first night of her internship, she was in charge of a high-profile company event; on the third day she was on a flight to a Marc Jacobs fashion show in New York. Conrad and Port assisted on celebrity photo-shoots, casting and styling models and planning the magazine’s biggest events. They even had the fashion closet at their disposal. The pair was later sent on a trip to Paris, outfitted in Alberta Ferretti Couture, to run a debutante event on behalf of Teen Vogue.

For most people trying to make it in the fashion industry, the process begins long before any real job opportunity is in sight. The drive starts at a young age and usually continues through school, internships and beyond.

"I’ve wanted to work in fashion since I was born," said Olivia Braunsberg, 23, an intern at Diane Von Furstenberg. "It’s always been in my soul and my genes and I’ve worked towards it all my life." After studying management and marketing in Vienna, Braunsberg moved to New York and discovered that, her degree notwithstanding, the only way to become a stylist was through a series of unpaid internships that almost made a mockery of her education. "I want to get as much experience as I can, and the only way I can do that is through an internship," she said. "The connections and learning opportunities are invaluable and that’s what I need in order to make it."

"I think I decided in second grade that I wanted to work in the fashion industry," agreed accessories closet intern Jackie Abramo, "I thought I wanted to be a designer…and then I realized I couldn’t draw." At 22 Abramo, armed with a degree in fashion merchandising from San Francisco State University, moved to New York determined to pursue a career in fashion editorial work. She eventually landed an internship in merchandising for Nordstrom department stores.

"To really make it in fashion, internships are necessary," she said. "You have to prove yourself and get your name out there. These companies have been taking interns upon interns, and they have that pool to choose from when a job becomes available. They have to know you, they have to know your skill level and then hopefully they’ll start paying you for what you’ve already been doing for free."

While passion for the industry and a keen sense of style is important for an intern, most magazine staffers are more focused on organizational skills and work ethic.

"Each intern needs to have a thorough know-how of the magazine," said Teen Vogue internship coordinator Courtney Peterson. "What’s most important to me is devotion. What we do isn’t the most glamorous thing, so you really have to be committed to what you do." Each intern is generally expected to multitask, work well under stressful circumstances and be extremely detail-oriented.

For "The Hills" interns Conrad and Port, commitment questions regularly came into play. Time after time, the dynamic duo would commit major internship faux pas that would get real interns fired, with no hope of references. They would let friends into invitation-only magazine parties, and bring the wrong outfits to photo-shoots. Conrad even ruined thousands of dollars worth of couture. Yet each time they were let off with merely a stern word, mollifying their bosses with the promise to never make the same mistake again.

Real-life novices, lacking the $75,000 per episode MTV pays its characters, are forced to stretch their minimal funds.

"It’s good to keep your name in there but at the same time I’m real poor," said Abramo. Her internship has even started costing her money. "With some of the errands I have to run, it’s necessary to take a taxi," she said, "That’s all out of my own pocket. I’ve never even been offered a reimbursement."

While MTV’s misconstrued reality implies that the right connections are all you need to get your foot in the door, the competition for entry level positions is stiff.

"Even though my father has been friends with Diane [Von Furstenberg] since they were in their 20s, I wasn’t guaranteed anything," said Braunsberg. "I still had to go through an extensive interview process, I still had to impress them, I still had to be more than qualified for the position."

Newbies prove themselves through a combination of manual labor, determination and border-line scary intensity. The real life day-to-day tasks for these fashion neophytes is anything but glitz and glam. Their hours generally range from 8:30 a.m. to 9 p.m., and they’re either running around Manhattan pulling pieces for shoots or confined to the closets they work in. Most days are spent checking in samples, keeping track of items, organizing and coordinating clothing racks and running personal errands for senior staff, which might include trekking to Harlem to find just the right organic lemons, and hand-delivering suitcases to apartments.

Assisting on a photo-shoot means being at the studio hours before any models or photographers arrive, setting up the clothes and accessories, then heading back to the office for a full day of work. Working on a computer is considered a privilege. Interns rarely interact with editors or company presidents, and while they might be sent to pull hats or dresses from a designer, they’re given strict instructions about what to look for, down to color and number of beads.

After four seasons of "The Hills", where Whitney Port effortlessly worked through the fashion ranks at Teen Vogue and high-end fashion PR firm People’s Revolution, she graduated to her own reality TV stardom. The MTV spin-off series "The City" chronicled her move to New York in pursuit of a high-profile fashion career. Her job at Diane Von Furstenberg was practically handed to her through a friendship with fashion legend Kelly Cutrone. She was soon in meetings with potential buyers, magazines and stylists, her days filled with talks with Diane and chance meetings with celebrities; her nights at A-list industry events.

It was nothing like that for one fashion editorial assistant at W magazine. After graduating from New York University with fashion-focused degree in pop culture and media studies, he worked his way through myriad internships - from style websites to TLC’s "What Not To Wear", and dabbled in PR.

"I decided to take an internship in PR at [the fashion label] Diesel, even though I knew I didn’t want to do PR," said this assistant, who asked to remain anonymous. "I saw it as an opportunity to meet every editor and stylist and make great contacts, which would help me eventually get to where I wanted to go. During my internship I interviewed for every magazine and styling job I could, and then I was hired at W."

Though he has been promoted to an assistant with a salary, his days are still filled with grunt work and menial tasks.

"My job is not glamorous at all. It’s very physical, exhausting and stressful and you have to swallow your pride constantly," he said, "People always ask me if my job is anything like [the novel and movie] "The Devil Wears Prada" My response is that ‘my job is 10 times harder!’ I wish I had [the fictional assistant’s] job; she had to get coffee a few times and pick up some scarves!"

The rise of such sensationalist fashion reality TV shows has also led to a huge increase in applicants for fashion internships, people in the industry say.
"They make people want to ‘be in fashion’ without having a clue what it takes to actually do it," the assistant said.

Little girls across the county now associate their favorite TV characters with alluring careers in fashion, and since these shows are labeled ‘reality, they’ve given the public a warped perspective on the industry.

"There used to be tons of talented people trying to make it, and now it’s us and the girls who like to shop," said Abramo. "We’re two different breeds of animal, but those shows make it seem like we’re the same. Those people just want to be a part of the lifestyle and that’s what’s ruining the industry."

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