What it’s like to be a Fashion Student during a Cost of Living Crisis
Written by Carmen Bellot
As an industry, fashion has never treated those who work within it particularly well. Its image to outsiders is one of non-stop glamour, where runways dictate the working calendar and run-ins with celebrities are an everyday experience. But for many, their reality consists of low-paid jobs, extreme working hours and the notion that you’re ‘lucky’ to be in that role in the first place. Supposedly, change is afoot. But as a cost of living crisis ensues, with roaring rent prices and energy bills consuming our income and thoughts, who is looking out for the workers of tomorrow? Fashion students.
Within the creative sector, it’s common knowledge – a right of passage, some may say – that students aren’t meant to be living affluently during university, but times are more dire than ever. Last year’s Student Money Survey found that 82% of students worry about making ends meet, 52% have thought about dropping out due to money troubles while one in ten have had to use a food bank in the last academic year. While every sector should be concerned about how their next generation are fairing now – especially as the measly 2.8% increase to maintenance loans does little to compare to inflation running at 10.7% – the fashion industry seems steps behind. In fact, it seems its working practices have barely changed since the ‘90s.
Ellie* is in her placement/third year at Central Saint Martins studying fashion design. She lives with her boyfriend and his family while undertaking her unpaid internship, where she feels “so lucky” because she’s not paying rent. Food expenses are covered as part of her role, but despite it being written into her one-year contract that she would receive a wage after her “three-month trial period”, four months into the role, and there has been no conversation about if that’ll be the case, which Ellie feels will make it “impossible to work for her for the whole year.” Sadly, the bad treatment doesn’t stop at the lack of wages. As well as being screamed at for not having the same capabilities as a veteran professional, Ellie was asked to undertake tasks well outside of her job role. “She has a baby and she’s a single mom. But she brings her baby to the office and I wouldn’t be allowed to do some work because the baby is sleeping. Then she would expect me to finish on time as well. Or she’ll ask me to wash and iron things for her baby, which isn’t supposed to be my job. But I do it because it’s my boss; I can’t say no.”
For final year fashion journalism student, Aswan, she noticed a distinct difference between her paid and her unpaid internships. The former was where she thrived, explaining to me over Zoom that she learned a lot and had a “really valuable experience”. But there was one unpaid internship that didn’t live up to the high expectations she had. “I was working 12 hours a day in editorial, because it was in the lead up to their print issue. But I wasn’t getting anything back,” she said. “It’s an experience, but by that point, I’d had a lot of experiences that were paid. So it kind of felt like a backtrack.”
There are more than just the monetary aspects that come into play with unpaid internships, it can have a serious impact on how students see themselves. “It’s a loop in a way,” explains Ellie. “You give [the internship] so much and you receive nothing back, so of course you end up being hard on yourself. I know it’s not true, but you think being paid means you’re really good, because someone is paying for your work. And when you’re not, you devalue yourself.” For Aswan, it’s about understanding what your contribution should be. “When there’s a value for the time you have to offer to wherever you’re working, there’s less confusion because you actually know your boundaries and limits. When there isn’t, you have to set them yourself. And then it gets complicated.” She’s also tired of the idea that everyone has to pay their dues to have a successful career. “I think it’s selling that facade of, if you put 110% into a job that’s maybe paying you 50% of your worth or not paying you at all, you’ll reap the benefits eventually. But unfortunately, we’re just in a period where eventually isn’t enough and hasn’t been for a long time. I don’t think being paid to do work that should be funding your living should ever come at a time. You should just always be paid for what you’re doing.”
Ben’s* internship is an example of how students should be treated at work. “I’ve extended my placement from three to six months, which is a sign of the fact that I love it,” he shares. “I would say that most students lose money doing internships, I break even. I think that’s a big deal.” He continues to explain that the brand, as well as paying them for their time, will often gift their interns with any fabrics that they would have sold to deadstock suppliers, which he sees as one of the ways of them “showing their appreciation”. Yet he also found that it’s not his internship that’s been ignorant to his needs, but the part-time supermarket job he had. “I said to them, ‘I can only work Saturdays going forward on a one day a week contract’, and they said, ‘We don’t do a one day a week contract’. So I had to leave. That was basically all my income. It wasn’t a massive amount of money, but it was definitely enough. It was keeping me afloat and relatively unstressed about the financial things; I became more stressed from that.”
One of the big life costs that Ben and Aswan don’t have to worry about is rent. Having grown up in the outskirts and within London respectively, they’ve been able to live in their family homes while studying. “Had I not been living at home, I don’t think I would have chosen to go to uni at all,” says Ben. “Living [at my boyfriend’s family home] made me realise how much I was spending last year on just rent,” explains Ellie, who moved over from Paris to study in London in 2020. For Aswan, the financial aspect was just one factor. “I kind of knew that coming to a place like Central Saint Martins would be a really intense environment, so I wanted familial support. The bonus with staying at home meant that I was saving money, but also just able to help my mom out with things around the house.”
The environment that Aswan refers to is common with every fashion degree. The ‘lucky to be here’ work attitude starts in the classroom, where tutors will push a narrative that there isn’t enough space for everyone to have their dream job. “What affected the social aspect of my uni was the fact that I had quite a nuisance of a teacher in my first and second year, who basically said, ‘You can’t really do anything extracurricular because your whole life must be the course’,” explains Aswan. You’d think that the tutors would want to counterbalance this by helping their students as much as possible. While there’s some initiatives here and there, Ben recounts how it was his fellow classmates that set an example for the university. “Speaking purely about the fashion department, one of the staff came to me because I was the course rep at the time and said, ‘We’re thinking of opening a shop within the university for fashion students, where we would bulk buy all these things, and then sell them back to you at cost.’ The photography and art department had those things already.
They would bulk buy Calico, and then sell it back to us at cheaper cost than if we were all to go to Shepherds Bush, and especially with the transport time, it would be so much more immediate. I never heard about it again. That would have meant so much for the students, because it’s not just the fact that everything’s going up. But the time and money and effort it takes to actually go and get those things, you’re looking at spending half a day, if not a whole day, going to do that. That was disappointing.” But another student then “set up his own little store within the university, things he would bulk buy, like denim, and then sell it back to us,” says Ben. “It seemed sad that the students had to take the initiative to do that to begin with.”
Despite having put years into a qualification that should help them get their dream jobs, Aswan, Ellie and Ben all have conflicting thoughts about the future. All three of them have thought about other pathways to take for various reasons; Ellie especially, who will have to pay back an international student loan while interest rates continue to soar. Aswan’s father has suggested she applies for a job at a marketing company connected to the bank he works for. While Ben, who’s thinking more presently, is concentrating on trying to lower his £20 daily travel cost. And while a shared love of the creative field keeps them going, why should it be so hard for them to follow their passion? As the future leaders within the industry, there’s more to blame than just a living crisis.