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Mind The Gap: Classroom Learning Versus Internship

By Jackie Mallon


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Internships are compulsory now on graduates’ resumes if they hope to nudge ahead of the competition in a tough job market. The theory is that the experience should provide students with a means to apply what they learn in school to a real world setting. But is there a gap between classroom learning and on-the-job experience? What exactly are students garnering from the experience that can help them strategize as they create their final collections and portfolio?

I ask a group of 18 juniors from a Bachelors in Fashion who will be entering their final year in September how their NYC internships in companies as diverse as Delpozo, Jonathan Simkhai, Christian Siriano, Elizabeth Kennedy and Oscar de la Renta, are preparing them for their final year, life post-graduation, and ultimately their career.

Size matters

Only 4 believe their internship could lead to a job within the company. The other 14 cite the size of the company as the major hurdle to being offered employment there. Many of them opted for internships at smaller companies over corporate brands to experience a more hands-on, varied opportunity. But some are shocked at just how small a small company can be. One student describes a team of three: the founder, a designer, and “someone who handles the business side, and then just more interns.” One student feels she needs to get her pattern making skills up to standard if she were to apply for a job in a small company, and another concludes that they wouldn’t be able to afford her as a hire.

Networking and Language

While several students remark positively on the contacts they are making from their internship, one or two come away with the idea that the only stressful period seems to be around fashion week and that school overemphasizes how stressful the industry can be. The experience has convinced one student to eventually aim to do her own line because she “doesn’t want to do anyone else’s designs,” another that she no longer wants to be involved with eveningwear.

The lack of pattern making and sewing that takes place in one company is quite disorienting for one who finds conversations with factories and vendors confusing. Not having any physical drapes, patterns or garments to refer to is unusual compared to her school experience and it feels like “everyone is speaking another language and I don’t know what they’re talking about.”

Illustrating your point

The emphasis given to illustration in school is called into question as one student reveals that at her internship, “there is one 3/4 pose that is used for every single sketch every single season.” In a similar vein some note that a different style of flat/technical sketching is expected than what is taught at school. The experience has even led to one student questioning her marketability as the focus on business and sales within her internship comes as quite a shock. She believes business should be given more focus at school.

Discouraging to some is the discovery that not much actual design seems to occur on a daily basis or that much of what they view as great design is edited out during the process and shapes from past seasons re-proposed in new fabrications. This forms a stark contrast to the school environment where a huge focus of their learning is on pushing ideas and creating new silhouettes and shapes.

Collaborate and Communicate

One of the biggest universal takeaways among the group is the importance of teamwork, something they feel is not really a factor of school life. There is talk of the “freedom” of school versus the “collaboration” required in the work situation with one student describing what she sees as “many small parts making up a big picture.” While at school the onus for completion of all aspects of a collection falls on the student, in a job situation, ownership of a design can fall on many and if one individual fails to complete her part, the consequences are widely felt. The multi-tasking skills required to research and design for future collections while making tech packs and fitting samples for current collections is found to be exhilarating. The importance of communication between buyers, pattern graders, factories, and other team members is noted and communication a skill that several intend to concentrate on developing.

The bottom line I’ll leave to one concise but observant intern: “The biggest difference is that it is all real.”

By contributing guest editor Jackie Mallon, who is on the teaching faculty of several NYC fashion programmes and is the author of Silk for the Feed Dogs, a novel set in the international fashion industry.

Photos: Jackie Mallon for FashionUnited