A senior designer, sitting in a sunlit midtown office, knows her interview is going well. She can feel it. Her portfolio is appealing to the interviewers who have pored over it. She has talked them through the highlights of her resume. She seems to be saying all the right things, and the two executives on the other side of the table are smiling and nodding, using phrases like “If you come on board…” and “We’d like to get you in front of our CEO…” They’ve even talked benefits and Summer Fridays.
“But first,…” one of them says, and both look up. The designer’s heart sinks. The dreaded words are coming:
“…we’d like you to do a project…”
The Hidden Talent
With Raf Simons just the latest in a long line of fashion’s high-profile hirings, an outsider might assume designers are in constant demand, moving from one high-paid position to the next every few years. But this is not the case for the majority who are not megastars but qualified, dedicated professionals who sketch product, create technical designs, meet deadlines, and work with factories to ensure rails of samples are at the disposal of the new lauded creative director so that he can put on a show.
We’ll call them “jobbing’ designers; senior creatives with ten-plus years of experience who’ve built their career working behind the scenes for the big names. They’re not interested in starting their own line, or at least, not yet. But maintaining a foothold on the middle rungs of the career ladder has become harder. They lament that, although the economy bounced back from recession, senior design positions are fewer, that companies tend to “power up” from the bottom with the new battalion of interns (another possible abuse of talent that has been widely covered) and entry-level or lower-salaried designers. In the past few years they have witnessed reshuffles that have left them doing two or three people’s jobs.
Rising from the projects
Projects were originally introduced as an opportunity for an interview candidate to demonstrate that they understood the dna of the company––“that you get us,” in interviewer parlance. In theory it’s a reasonable enough request considering brand identity can be so finely balanced that little separates one label from the next, thus exemplified in these guidelines one designer received from an interviewer: “Think Tommy but more modern; think Ralph but more relevant; J Crew with less color; think heritage but contemporary.”
But over the last number of years they have begun to represent something else to many in the industry. “Did they ask you to do a project?” designer friends ask each other, then groan and shake their heads. Not because they don’t value the opportunity to rise above the competition. But because they have come to believe this practice is a way for companies to receive work for free. Because too many of them are left hanging after turning in an extensive body of work without so much as an emailed “Don’t call us, we’ll call you.“ Because many have seen their ideas mysteriously turn up in stores the following season, or on the runway, and there’s little they can do about it.
Designer, Natalie, who has a solid background in the high-end and contemporary markets, recently attended a series of interviews with a long-established brand of classic preppy apparel. At the fourth interview she received a project brief that included 6 dress designs, 5 blouses, 5 tailored jackets, 5 skirts (soft and tailored), plus technical sketches for all (Photoshop or Illustrator), prints where applicable, and color and fabric swatches. It was a significant body of work resembling an entire delivery broken down and merchandised ready for the store. Although the written brief stated 2 weeks, the interviewer requested the project within 1 week. It also bears mentioning that the company requested Natalie drop her salary requirements by 40,000 dollars. Unwilling to provide all this work for free, after much thought, Natalie emailed what she considered a reasonable compromise: she would work freelance on a trial basis for a month, or even two weeks if preferable. At this point all communication with the company died.
Designer, Steven, experienced a long job search before landing his current employment and therefore had received multiple project requests. He says, “It’s the fashion industry practice that no one talks about, the dirty little secret. No other industry I know of devalues and takes advantage of its professionals like this. And if you’re desperate for work, you risk getting the door slammed in your face if you refuse. I’ve heard stories of people who’ve got jobs after doing a project but I personally have never met them. Maybe it’s an urban legend!”
Steven recalls the extent of one company’s project brief which involved designing both a Spring collection and a Fall one, totaling 4 different deliveries, with mood boards, 4 different color palettes, and technical specs for all. “It was a company I really wanted to work for,” he explains with a shrug. “I worked super hard on it.” When I ask what happened afterwards, he says the head of HR sent him a two-line email explaining they were going to keep looking. “In fact, I heard through the grapevine, they’re still looking, and that was months ago.”
Unlike Other Industries
It is not common practice for architects to hand over the blueprints to their new state-of-the-art high-rise development. A chef wouldn’t be expected to come in and cook lunch for the office––or even email his recipe. Online resource, NoSpec.com, supports designers mostly in the field of graphic design who may encounter requests for “spec” work, i.e. expertise given away for free. Their homepage states, “Working on spec has a detrimental impact on the quality of design, negatively affecting both the designer and the client.” But online mention of the insidious practice is surprisingly difficult to find. I come across a piece by The Harvard Business Review entitled “Projects Are The New Job Interviews” and another from The New York Times which describes project-based job applications as “test-drives” that have proven to be successful in some companies. But reading beyond the headlines, both articles make clear that the projects are in the tech-world, are contract-based for a limited period and provide renumeration. This is not the practice that the fashion industry engages in.
This unethical bid for free labor that has gained traction over the years appears to be unique to fashion, and is widespread across companies large and small, from top names to newcomers; even companies which boast of ethical sourcing in vulnerable corners of the Middle East are participating in this questionable activity, thereby exploiting skilled workers at home. And as companies tend to pit a handful of candidates against each other, dangling the carrot of that one job in order to receive five or six projects by their deadline, it’s certainly fruitful for them.
As a former designer myself, I have experienced the frustration of doing projects. But I have also gained a position from one. However this was almost a decade ago and the company really did just want to see if I understood their brand, providing a theme but allowing me to sketch whatever I wanted for whichever season, without specifying quantity of skirts and dresses (this suspiciously transforms a brief into a line plan). Maybe what started back then as a legitimate tactic for companies to secure the best talent has been abused?
Another common complaint among designers I’ve spoken to seems to be that many companies don’t provide any creative direction for the work, saying only that they “want to see what you’ll come up with.” I recall one NYC company whose representative, thrilled by my European background, described their aesthetic as “somewhere between Dries Van Noten, Isabel Marant and Vanessa Bruno, but obviously at our more moderate price point, for an American customer.” Weaving my way through that “guidance,” I submitted the work by the agreed deadline. When I emailed a follow-up enquiry some days later, I was told the job had been taken off the table. That was the end of that.
“They’re setting you up for failure,” said Steven, “Because they usually don’t know what they want and expect you to be clairvoyant.”
Portfolio and Copyright
While the work can become part of a designer’s portfolio, the digital files are in the possession of the company which got it for free, floating from cubicle to cubicle, desktop to desktop, coming to life in a way the designer knows nothing about. Fashion designers notoriously have little copyright protection because an apparel item is considered a utilitarian article, and therefore not copyrightable. This is also the case with tattoos, furniture, cars, recipes and jokes. In Johanna Blakley’s popular TED Talk “Lessons From Fashion’s Free Culture,” she breaks down fashion’s “culture of copying”: “Unlike sculptors, painters, and musicians, fashion designers can sample from other designers’ designs, can take any element from any garment and incorporate it into their own design.”
Companies like Yves Saint Laurent and Burberry have entered into drawn-out 100-million-dollar lawsuits against other brands which they claim have infringed on their copyright, but they have the means to do so. I don’t know of any jobbing designer willing to engage a legal team to take on the industry and quite possibly threaten future opportunities.
And even if the designers’ sketches might qualify as artwork, and therefore possibly be subject to the same copyright protection as, say, a painting, the question of ownership still remains one that a jobbing designer who’s looking for his next gig in this expensive city does not have the luxury of examining at length. It’s the exploitation of that designer by established corporations whose predatory practices are going unreported that deserves examining.
By dragging this shady practice into the sunlight, we begin by letting those guilty of it know we’re onto them. An agreed fee for services rendered is the norm in any other industry and fashion should not be exempt. Prompt follow-up regarding the position and meaningful feedback on the project are the least the designer should expect. This multi-billion dollar industry runs on so many hidden figures making magic happen daily who have no expectation of plaudits or press reviews. But they should be guaranteed professional respect.
As Steven concludes, “Yeah, you feel robbed, not only of the work that you’ve done to the best of your ability despite the vagueness of the input, but you use all your own materials, inks, the printing, it all adds up. Well, it adds up to nothing.”
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 images by Jackie Mallon for FashionUnited