Occupy Fashion Week: Will Interns Turn Out?

New York Fashion Week is all about what's "in" and what's not.  And on the eve of the Fall/Winter '13 shows, Occupy Wall Street has announced plans to enter the fashion fray and proclaim unpaid internships "out." 

Is OWS still around, you ask?  And why has the movement turned its attention from Wall Street and finance to 7th Avenue and fashion, or more immediately to the Fashion Week tents at Lincoln Center? 

Devil_Wears_prada.jpgPresumably fashion's glamor quotient and the publicity potential provided by the phalanx of photographers outside the tents are contributing factors, but perhaps so is the fact that unpaid internships are particularly prevalent in fabulous fields like fashion, publishing, and entertainment.  The oft-repeated refrain of The Devil Wears Prada, "A million girls would kill for this job," is true not only of poorly paid, entry-level assistantships, but also of internships.  Less-lustrous corners of the labor market like garbage removal and pest control are not besieged with constant requests to take on a colleague's friend's cousin's kid as an intern, please, as a favor. 

And so, from an industry perspective, why not admit interns to the inevitably less sparkling world behind the scenes and let them make themselves useful?

Well, labor law is the reason why not.  Or at least why employers should proceed with caution.

Back in 2010, the New York Times reported that with paid jobs scarce and the numbers of unpaid internships on the rise, the U.S. Department of Labor was stepping up scrutiny according to its 6 little-known and less-heeded criteria for unpaid internships.  Many employers, including fashion folks, got nervous.  Internships continued, however, with requiring school credit becoming a common means of making sure that interns were compensated in some form. Some companies even decided to offer token wages.   

Upon request, we created a Fashion Law Institute memo summarizing the federal law along with a few sample designer "do's" and "don't's."  And, for the most part, the issue was forgotten.  Until former fashion magazine intern Diana Wang sued Hearst publications in a widely publicized lawsuit that has since become a class action.  (In a mild linguistic chuckle, the firm representing the interns is Outten & Golden.)  And then the issue was largely forgotten again.

Now enter OWS, which apparently has an Intern Labor Rights division.  The movement has tried protesting New York Fashion Week before, with embarrassingly minimal turnout.  Will they be more of a presence this coming week, with a specific issue in mind, and will interns rushing backstage with their arms full of designer duds decide en masse to join the picket lines instead?  That is, will there be any impact?  Hard to tell, since veteran fashion editors are accustomed to walking past passionate protests over everything from fur to the designer daughter of an Uzbek dictator.

But at least we may find out what one might wear to protest something as universal as fashion.