Interviewing

Endless Hours and Stolen Work. Is it time to put an end to Fashion Interview Projects?

By  | 

This post is courtesy of Emma Golley and also appears on her site, FashionandtheFree.com. Emma’s bio is provided below.

For additional coverage of this subject, please see the Stolen Work survey results from earlier this year on StyleDispatch.com.

You’re on your 3rd round of interviews after 3 months of job searching. You’ve got a really good feeling about this one. The interviewer smiles at you through the Zoom chat window and says, “We LOVE your portfolio, you have amazing experience, and we think you’d be a perfect fit for our brand…but before we make a decision, we’d like you to complete a project first.”

Fashion has a reputation of being an incredibly difficult industry to break into. With ever-increasing competition in the job market, getting an interview in the first place is hard enough – what comes after can be soul-crushing. Whether in the luxury sector, high street or independent brands, most industry professionals will endure some extremely rigorous interview processes throughout their career.

For many positions the process involves seemingly endless rounds of meetings with recruiters and managers. But all too often before we’re given that coveted offer, we’re asked to first prove ourselves by investing hours of (usually unpaid) work to complete one or more “projects”. Sometimes a project could be something simple like a single design, other times it could involve being asked to design entire collections from scratch.

It’s not hard to understand why employers want a demonstration of a job candidate’s capabilities, and to find out whether they can adapt to the brand aesthetic – especially for applicants in the early stages of their career. But as we gain years of industry experience under our belt, and build a robust portfolio of carefully selected work to show off, many wonder whether these projects are really helpful, or just a redundant waste of time.

Sure that little extra work might seem worth it in hindsight if you get the job. But nothing is more disheartening than seeing hours of unpaid work go to waste on those positions we don’t get. That time could have been spent searching for other jobs, or earning money doing other tasks. Are employers asking too much of already time-stressed fashion job seekers?

Aside from the issue of wasted effort, some serious ethical considerations come into question. What actually happens to those projects you turn in when you don’t get the job? Over the years I’ve heard many anecdotes from friends & colleagues who have seen their ideas mysteriously turn up in stores the following season – with no recourse to do anything about it.

Is it time we take a look at this age-old industry custom?

To get to the bottom of it, we surveyed fashion industry professionals to find out their personal experiences with interview projects.

Some of the results were shocking.

Over 50 Fashion Industry Professionals filled out our survey, here are the results:

Interview projects are common at all levels of the industry, regardless of experience.

Few would argue that asking for a project from a fashion professional in the early stages of their career with a thin portfolio is unreasonable. However, it also seems reasonable that as industry experience levels increase, the need for lengthy projects should decrease. After all, an extensive resume, a robust portfolio, and a repertoire of press coverage should be more than enough to prove a candidate worthy, right? But the data shows that’s not necessarily the case.

Our respondents spanned a variety of experience levels, from fresh grads to seasoned vets. We found that the vast majority of total respondents are asked to do projects “Most of the time” or “Every Time” during interview processes. When we analyzed individual experience groups, there seemed to be little correlation with years spent in the industry and whether they’re asked to do projects. Even the veterans with a decade or more under their belts are regularly doing them.

That begs the question – Why isn’t resume experience, portfolio, and the interview process on its own enough to make a decision for fashion hiring managers – as it is for so many other industries? At what point does a designer’s hard work speak for itself?

Projects often take up to a week or more to complete, and are almost never paid.

“Project” is a vague term that can encompass a wide range of deliverables. It may be a single design – or it it may be doing an entire collection from the ground up. We were curious to find out exactly how much time people typically spend on interview projects. The general answer seems to be – a lot.

We found that more than 70% of respondents typically spend at least 3 or more days on a single project, with nearly 1/3 spending an entire week . 12.5% said they can even spend more than 2 weeks!

In many cases these are full 8+ hour working days – sometimes weekends too. If translated into working hours at an average salary – that could add up to thousands of dollars worth of effort. But despite the huge amount of work involved, just one survey participant said they’ve ever actually been paid for their time to complete an interview project.

During a job hunt, time is extremely valuable for a job seeker. It’s also a numbers game to land a position – with most prospective candidates juggling multiple applications and interviews at once. So when fashion employers are asking for extreme investment of time and effort, this can put a huge burden onto already stressed candidates..

Are such lengthy projects really necessary to gauge someone’s skills? Or could smaller tasks provide the same insights without taking advantage of a job candidate’s time?

Nearly half of industry professionals have been asked to do multiple projects for the same company. Many have seen their work stolen without permission!

One project is a headache, but 2 or more can be a nightmare. Nearly 50% of our survey participants say they’ve been asked to do more than 1 project for the same position, doubling the time investment. Interestingly, when looking at individual experience level groups, we found that 100% of respondents with 1-3 years in the industry have been asked to do multiple projects for a company. This could indicate this trend is actually increasing as job competition heats up.

Personally, in my 10+ years of career experience, and countless interviews, I can recall just one job that didn’t ask for a project. On more than one occasion I was asked to do 2. And one highly competitive role required a mind-numbing 3 projects.

Keeping in mind applicants are often applying for multiple jobs at a time, its no wonder burnout among job seekers is so high. If an entire interview process and one project isn’t enough, maybe this points to an issue with indecisive hiring managers rather than questionable candidates.

The final question was the most surprising. As if asking candidates to invest weeks of their time without pay isn’t enough – many claim their project work has actually been stolen by the companies without their permission. Including for those who didn’t end up hiring them. Over 1/3 of respondents said they believe they’ve had work taken at some point (and that’s just those who know about it).

The Systemic Problem of Stolen Project Work

We asked our survey participants who answered “Yes” to the last question to give us some additional details about their experiences with project working being used by companies without permission. Some of their answers are both shocking and disappointing . Admittedly, these anecdotes are difficult to verify. However, if true, they may point to a possible widespread problem of exploitation within the industry. No doubt, this could present both an ethical and legal violation of fair use & labor laws.

Anonymous participant 1: “It was my first interview after my degree. They asked me to leave my portfolio in the interview room whilst they showed me around this beautiful head office. When I returned, my portfolio had been taken apart, which I immediately knew they had what they wanted. I was so worried about making a bad impression I said nothing. A season or two later I saw the garments I had designed and developed down LFW catwalk. Flattering but I learnt my lesson.

Anonymous participant 2: “I designed a range of swimwear using a branded tape feature for an interview project. I did actually get the job, and when I started they had samples of my designs. They must have been sent after my interview without my permission, and before I was actually offered the role.”

Anonymous participant 3: “I did a huge project for a well known company in LA. It took me 2 weeks. 20 technical designs with all the trims and fabric details. My recruiter told me to NEVER do that again and that most likely they would use that work.”

Anonymous participant 4: “This has only happened to me once when I first graduated. I had several interviews for a big name high street retailer. During the interview process I had to send over a digital copy of my portfolio. As I had only just graduated this consisted mainly of my final year degree work. I didn’t get the job, then roughly 6 months later I noticed a ‘very close version’ of one of my collection pieces in store. Since then I have always kept an eye on retailers I have interviewed for.”

Anonymous participant 5: “I believe companies almost definitely will use ideas generated by talent they never hired. It’s understandable to interview multiple people for roles and compare using projects but I think in some circumstances it is used to generate sales without having to pay or hire within the fashion industry. Friends in other work sectors are paid for projects that go towards interviews regardless if they’re hired or not.”

While constantly adapting to new trends on the outside, internally the fashion industry can be agonizingly slow to change. Often in this business the only answer you’ll get to “Why do you do it this way?” is “Because this is how we’ve always done it.” The rarely-discussed topic of interview projects is just one example of a relic from fashion-past that seems like its in desperate need of some modern re-examination.

Does a long project really tell employers more than they can find out from a good resume, interview, and portfolio? Or is it just an arbitrary hoop to jump through to thin out the pack? Or maybe for some its an excuse to crowd-source free inspiration for the next collection?

If either of the latter two, it could be time for retailers take another look at their hiring processes, and consider whether they’re being fair, ethical, and respectful of the skilled professionals hoping to work for them.

For the time being its likely projects in some form are here to stay, but we encourage all companies to take into account how their interview process ultimately reflects on their brand within the industry. If projects can’t be avoided, making them shorter, avoiding giving more than one, and respecting fair-use of work (like paying for it if you use it), is a move in the right direction.

Emma Golley

Emma Golley is a Womenswear Designer from the UK who currently lives in Orange County, California. Emma has worked in the Fashion Industry for over 10 years. Designing for internationally recognized brands including Debenhams, Primark and Urban Outfitters. Whilst attending University for the Creative Arts, Emma interned for Diane Von Furstenberg (NYC), Matthew Williamson and French Connection to name a few. Her career began in London for several years before making her way across to the states in 2017. Three years later she finds herself enjoying the laid back lifestyle in Southern California. It is her experience in the industry to date that has inspired her to create this platform in which she hopes sharing people’s stories and experiences will resonate, educate and inspire others.