By Gena Dorris
Fashion has a notorious reputation for being a nearly impossible industry to penetrate. Even more so if you’re older than twenty-five and don’t have a load of connections in the industry. An unpaid internship in the fashion industry is a rite of passage for young men and women looking to get a foot in the door. The market is extremely competitive and an internship at one of the major fashion brands, magazines or PR companies is worth its weight in gold. Many fashion industry hopefuls often complete several internships before landing their first paid full-time gig.
So what are the odds that a thirty-seven-year-old American coming to London to study would land one of the most coveted internships in the business? Seemingly impossible, but somehow I managed to do it. Ok so first, why would someone at my age come to London to study and pursue an internship? Call it a mini-mid-life crisis if you want, or just a wake-up call that life was passing me by and I wasn’t living up to my full potential. On the outside, I had what most women my age would consider a great life; an adoring husband, a beautiful home, loving family and friends. I had worked in PR previously for an NBA basketball team as well as local charities in my area. Life was good. Except…it really wasn’t. I longed to do something more and I knew that I could. I always felt like my life was much bigger than the small southern city I lived in. I was much more creative than corporate; and although the previous jobs I’d held paid well and positively impacted my community, they weren’t ever really ME.
Fashion had always been a passion of mine. I know thousands of people say that, but there aren’t really other words to describe it. I was the girl friends called for help planning an outfit or to find out the designer of a pair of shoes they saw in a magazine and couldn’t find. I can’t tell you how many hours I wasted at work looking at something fashion-related online. When I turned thirty-five it hit me that I hadn’t really done anything that I’d dreamed of doing. I’d never lived abroad. I’d never had the chance to pursue a career in fashion. I wasn’t utilizing my God given talents. And I wasn’t happy. Was it too late for me? Was this all I would be?
I always felt like my life was much bigger than the small southern city I lived in
I remembered when I first graduated from undergraduate school and was working in a law office as my first job out of college. There was a female lawyer in the office who was around seventy years old. I assumed that she had been practicing law forever, only to find out that she was a nurse for over thirty years and then decided to go to law school. I was inspired by that and never forgot about her. So I slowly began to look into making a career change. I began to research fashion schools in Paris. I found one that had a program that interested me but it was past the application deadline. I contacted the school and was told that they would still consider my application if I got everything in the following week. I frantically gathered all the information and worked diligently on my application and essays. A few weeks later I found out that I didn’t get it. I was crushed but I knew that it was a long shot. I’m sure most of the accepted applicants had applied long before I rushed to send my ill-prepared late application.
Months passed by and life went on as usual. I dreaded going to work every day and continued to feel uninspired and unmotivated. The more I thought about the situation, I thought that maybe fashion school wasn’t the best option? Instead of pursuing such a specialized degree (Fashion PR), I could pursue a more general one while still gaining experience in the fashion industry. That’s when my research brought me to discover the Master’s program in Advertising and Public Relations at the Richmond American University in London. Everything about this program made sense for me. Firstly, it was an American University so I could get funding from the United States government to subsidize my living expenses while studying and possibly working unpaid internships for experience. Secondly, it was in London, a city I’d always wanted to live in and explore; and it would be much easier to assimilate into as I didn’t have to learn another language! And lastly, the program had an internship component and upon my completion I’d have a Master’s degree accredited in both the United States and the United Kingdom. Ummm yes!! So I thought, what do I have to lose? If I’m unable to “make it” in fashion in a year’s time, I’ll leave with an amazing experience living abroad and a degree. Win-win situation.
I applied to the program (this time more prepared and well ahead of the deadline!) and was accepted. And I began my adventure living and studying in London in September of last year. I was so lucky that my husband and family supported this decision. I think everyone that loved me knew it was what I really needed. Before arriving in London, I began to research Fashion PR companies that I would apply to for internships or work experience. Londoners are lucky in that there are so many opportunities here and there were an abundance of companies that peaked my interests. On the very top of my list was Karla Otto PR. A hugely successful international agency that represents some of the biggest names in fashion. A chance to work there would literally be #goals. I looked for opportunities on their website, but there were no job openings or internships listed; only an email address to send a CV for future opportunities. I sent my CV and never expected to hear from them. Who knows how many thousands of applications they received from people much younger with better backgrounds?
When I first arrived in London, September 2016
After my second term in my Master’s program, I received an email asking if I was still interested in an internship at Karla Otto. Of course I jumped on the opportunity and was scheduled to interview. Now here’s where things got crazy. I totally almost missed my interview because I got the times mixed up! Can you believe it? The original interview was scheduled for one time but was subsequently moved up an hour earlier. By the time the interview came around, I had forgotten that the time had changed so I was late! I thought that I’d blown my chance but I emailed explaining my situation and was graciously offered the chance to come in at a later time. (I also don’t think this ever happens so it must’ve really been in the cards for me to have this internship.) I felt horrible and was aghast at how unprofessional I must have looked and after the interview I didn’t think that I did well at all.
A few weeks later I received an email offering me the internship. I was elated! I couldn’t believe it. It seemed that everything that I had scarified by taking the risk to leave my life and come to London had paid off. I was ready for the experience. I was scheduled to start my internship three months later, in May.
My first day of the internship, I was a bundle of nerves. How would everyone treat me? Would I be able to actually DO it? Was I making a fool of myself? Most importantly, WHAT DO I WEAR?! I soon found that the dress code is strictly casual and that comfortable shoes are the most important part of your wardrobe. I decided not to make a big deal about my age. I really wanted my personality and work ethic to speak for me and not the story behind how I got there. I wasn’t going to lie about it, but I wasn’t going to volunteer the information unless anyone asked. Surprisingly, not many people did. Many people say that I look a lot younger than my age, so most people assumed I was in my twenties. Another reason that I didn’t volunteer the information, is that I wanted to be treated just like any other intern. I wanted to earn my stripes, so to speak. I knew that mostly everyone that I would be interning for would be significantly younger than me and I didn’t want them to feel uncomfortable giving sometimes menial tasks to someone much older. I would also like to think that my humorous personality and easy going spirit contributed to me being able to work so well with, and for people fifteen years or more, younger than me.
The moment that I stepped into the showrooms for the first time, I was in awe. After a while you get used to it, but there’s nothing like walking in there for the first time. All of the beautiful clothes and accessories plucked from magazine pages and displayed under the soft glow of ornate chandeliers and the light streaming in from the floor to ceiling windows. It’s really quite dreamy actually. (*insert dreamy sigh and gaze here) And the people that I worked with were all so very lovely. Yes, they were extremely fashionable and beautiful and I sometimes felt inferior eating a chocolate croissant in the morning when everyone was being healthy eating avocado on thin toast, but they were truly some of the nicest people I’ve ever worked with in my life. Every day I was excited to be there. I never dreaded coming to work and each day was an unexpected challenge. I often found myself getting to work early because I couldn’t wait to be there. (This never, ever happened on any other paid job that I had previously and I was doing this for free) I finally felt like my old self again. It was truly the best experience I could have hoped for. My only regret is that I didn’t give myself the chance ten years earlier.
Me pictured in one of the beautiful showrooms
One of the biggest misconceptions about working in fashion is that it’s all glamorous and fun and games. Sure, you get behind the scenes access to some of the biggest fashion shows in the business. You’re surrounded by incredibly exclusive and expensive designer merchandise all day and you work on exciting celebrity projects. But let me tell you something! Interning in fashion PR was one of the hardest jobs I’ve ever had. The hours are long, its physically exhausting and you literally have no social life. You live it and breathe it and wake up in the middle of the night dreaming about it. But honestly, that’s the beauty of it all. That’s why you love it so much. The people that I worked with are some of the hardest working dedicated people I’ve ever met.
On the last day of the three-month internship, I revealed my age and background to my fellow interns at our celebratory dinner. They couldn’t believe it and told me how much my story inspired them. They encouraged me to write this piece. People tell me how brave I am to have done this, but I never saw it that way. I was only trying to find a place where I was doing something that I loved and living my best life. On this journey I’ve meet so many incredible people who have touched me in ways that they probably will never know and understand. I walk away from this experience with new friends from every corner of the globe and a new confidence and determination that will surely benefit me wherever the future takes me.
I can’t thank the staff at Karla Otto London enough for giving me an opportunity to fulfill my dream and for giving me a second chance at the career I have always wanted.
Blending in with the twenty-somethings; playing dress up in the showroom on the last day of our internship.
So what exactly are my plans for the future? I would love to stay in London. I love the energy and diversity of the city; and there are so many opportunities here. My only issue is that my visa to live and work in the UK expires at the first of the year. (* Shameless plug for any Fashion or PR companies that want a hard-working, mature, risk-taking bad ass and are willing to take a chance and sponsor my visa) Hey, stranger things have happened and if I have learned anything from this experience, it’s that you never know until you try. Other than that, I’m currently exploring fashion opportunities back in the States. I’m also wondering if there is a such thing as American-British? Because that is exactly what I feel like I am now, I’m forever changed and I can go into my next phase confident that I have what it takes to be everything I always dreamed I could be.
Moral of the story: Take the risk or lose the chance.
Gena has over 13 years of communications experience in the non-profit, sports and entertainment sectors. Her love of fashion, art and culture is the driving force behind her career shift to the fashion and luxury brands industry. In her free time, you can find her scouring vintage shops for hidden treasures, spending time with friends and family and providing personal shopping and styling services through her lifestyle brand, Unabashedly Overdressed.