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Exposing the Biggest Scam in the Fashion Industry; What Comes Next? Part 1

When I wrote the exposé on the practice of companies asking designers at interview to do a free project for them, I never expected it would receive the attention it did. The article has since gone viral, widely read not only in the U.S. but also in the U.K. and has been translated into French and German. The amount of shares and Likes, but more importantly the nature of comments that I received, led me to believe a follow-up piece was warranted. I was also convinced of a need to dig deeper into the subject out of a loyalty to all the designers, some of whom you’ll hear from below, who feel they’ve been exploited in this way.

I imagine this as a round table conversation divided into two sessions in which designers continue to share their experiences (simply because there have been few platforms for them to discuss this issue before) after which I’ll invite other voices into the conversation–– recruiters, hirers. With a 360-degree examination of the matter, surely we can hash out a workable solution now that we have been galvanized. Because if there was one immediately clear conclusion to draw, it is this:

Designers are fed up with projects:

Voices of dissent

“AMEN!! Jumped through hoops and been taken advantage of too many times. At what stage will your resume and portfolio be enough?” (Martin)

“The most absurd time was when I first arrived in NY after working at the European design office of a major American label and met with a guy from the NY team about a position. With a portfolio full of the actual brand’s merchandise I was still asked to do a project and he told me to go and look at the stores to see the product. When I did it was all our European styles, the ones that I worked on!” (Rafael)

“This is not a new phenomenon. Many years ago, I was asked to do a project at interview, and didn't get a job but found my whole concept and designs in their store the following season. Very upsetting!” (Emma)

And the frustration is not restricted to apparel designers

“I’ve talked with my other tech design friends and many of us have been asked at interview to spec in detail a garment and found out later that other candidates had been asked to do this “test” but spec a different garment. From the interview process alone they’ve probably got their entire collection specced!” (SunJoon)

“I've compiled so many marketing strategies for interviews. It's ridiculous and essentially a free consulting gig. To the point where I canceled an interview at a prominent university after they asked me to present a cohesive strategy to launch a new program to the entire faculty. I was done with free work!” (Jeff)

“I'm an illustrator and a few times have been asked to do these types of free trials and it's never a good situation. Either they love your portfolio enough to hire you or they were never that serious about it. And if they need a test project for presentation they'll have to pay for it.” (Kate)

“The U.K. is exactly the same,” chimes in Tim, an English print designer. “I know a few designers here who have applied for senior positions and have had to go through three or more interviews, produce on-trend design projects, and present to a panel of in-house designers only to be told subsequently the post had been filled internally.”

So now we know, it is widespread, affects many sectors and happens across the pond also. After the relief of group sharing, there’s a sense of solidarity for sure, even perhaps a sense of power that comes from the sheer number of voices. But what next? Can something be done?

Exposing the Biggest Scam in the Fashion Industry; What Comes Next? Part 1

After some brainstorming, recommendations come forth

“When asked to do a project or show my portfolio (‘"Do you have anything online..?”) I always say I would love to show them in person,” offers Sara. “My online portfolio only contains work that has been published in magazines or online before. The 'good' stuff (tech sketches etc) I only show in person. Same for projects. I never send them anything. If they want to turn me down they can do it to my face. As I've learned in my 20 year career as a freelancer, a non-paying client is not a client.”

Menswear designer, Jenna, clarifies in no uncertain terms, “Anyone who hands over native digital files for these projects is an idiot. I have been asked a bunch of times to do a project as part of an interview, and as soon as such request is made, I said, sure, absolutely, but I will only deliver paper printouts with my name watermarked all over the pages. Anyone should have no problem with reviewing paper or iPad/laptop visuals in your presence. Anyone who insists on illustrator and Photoshop files is trying to get free work and you should move on.”

While valid and practical suggestions I can’t help thinking that these are not going to be enough. Watermarks and insisting on being present might stop the company from running off with your work but it won’t stop the proliferation of project requests––if we are to focus, that is, on the earlier question when is a resume and portfolio enough?

How much is too much?

I ask Martin how many projects he thinks he’s done during his career. He tells me between fifteen and twenty. There is a collective gasp. And how many of them led to employment? None, he replies. I ask how he landed his current job and he says that they understood all they needed from his portfolio, resume, and discussion on his experience, and offered him the job.

“Yeah. Anyone good can see a taste level from the portfolio….” says Rafael.

This comment is indeed worth considering. When designers don’t gain a position after doing a project, most automatically assume they didn’t do a good enough job. But while interviewers seek candidates with vision, should the candidate be looking to identify vision in the interviewer? Intelligence, skill and foresight when vetting candidates should be expected, and a level of intuition is a bonus. But just in case these qualities aren’t on display, consider asking, “What do you feel you are not seeing in my work? Perhaps I can direct you to it in my portfolio.” Get them to spell it out, use their words, then repeat those words back to them as you refer to your work or cite an experience from your resume. It’s called “Active” or “Reflective Listening” and psychologists believe it aids rapport and builds trust by placing you closer to the reality in which the other person lives. While there is always a risk involved in hiring, multiple meetings, a resume, and extensive portfolio should cut that risk enormously. As an extra measure, adopting this technique, which the Harvard Business Review has associated with strong leadership, may send a social signal of mutual understanding, and that you are on the same page.

Exposing the Biggest Scam in the Fashion Industry; What Comes Next? Part 1

Suck it up, Snowflake?

Jurgen, an industrial designer and educator who lives and works in Germany, offers a rather pragmatic view on the ubiquitousness of projects, “The same happens in architecture, industrial design, graphic design and online design - nothing has changed over the last three decades. After all, wealthy company owners or managers consider themselves clever and thrifty when they can secure quality labour for free. The pool of talent is large enough to sustain such industry practice.”

I can feel the designers bristle. Does it all boil down to a simple case of supply and demand? If candidates keep doing them, hirers will keep asking for them?

The politics of projects

Not helping the atmosphere at the table much is the following comment from Joaquin, Creative Director of a major North American outerwear company. He leads by saying he’s done his fair share of frustrating design projects that led nowhere, but in his current role he has just set projects to a series of candidates applying for a senior designer job under him. “What I’ve learned is projects can be political too. I was weirded out when my boss suggested every applicant should do a project because he didn’t want the expense of flying candidates in from all over the world. I convinced him this was completely unreasonable and got him narrowed down to three. I was very clear what I wanted from them. And I’m glad because he wanted to inflict a designer on me who I knew I didn’t want. She did a project that was completely nuts, shot herself in the foot, and I wasn’t stuck with her. The project worked.”

“So you were able to identify a candidate from the other two projects received?” I ask.

“My boss wants to keep looking,” replies Joaquin, with a barely disguised eye roll.

Political indeed. For those designers who’ve been left wondering why companies aren’t getting back to them, we now know one reason might be that their project has become caught in the power struggle between a creative director with clear ideas and a short list and his superior who would prefer legions of designers across the globe spend their time and resources doing projects and shipping them to him so that his company can save on airfare.

There is clearly much more to discuss but I think the roundtable will benefit from hearing from “the other side.” Next up, in this two part follow-up, I will invite a trio of recruiters to continue speaking to the motivations of those requesting projects.

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.

All photos and imagery by Jackie Mallon for FashionUnited.com