Enamoured by the fashion industry’s allure, every year, thousands of young writers try their luck in a business famous for its exclusivity. The myth of fashion magazines steers Generation Z’s professional ambitions. But, as they enter the workforce, reality reckons. Low pay, unpaid internships and a lack of stable jobs in the industry force young professionals to migrate to parallel careers. While the number of journalists offsets the demand, the need for writers persists in fashion. From copywriting to PR, other facets of the industry soak up the journalist’s excess.
The allure of editorial work is its perceived creative freedom. The reality is, besides the pantheon of fashion writers, this isn’t an option for most editorial roles.
Job security is achievable, but it comes at a cost. The allure of editorial work is its perceived creative freedom. Young professionals are seduced by the idea of having a respected voice like that of Robin Givhan or Cathy Horyn. The reality is, besides the pantheon of fashion writers, this isn’t an option for most editorial roles, and it’s entirely mythical in the commercial jobs most will eventually take on. But how can a young writer reconcile with the apparent dissonance between professional and creative fulfilment?
As a young writer, the rates per article make it impossible to survive on freelance work alone.
“It’s like the trenches. You have to find a way to sustain yourself.” Trey is a recent graduate of the fashion communication program at Central Saint Martins. “There’s a lot of magazines, but they don’t have the budget.” Valuing her creative gratification over professional stability, Gaskin makes a similar decision to many young professionals. “I choose to freelance because those jobs excite me,” says the journalist.
Freelancing has become the norm among young journalists trying to establish themselves in the fashion world. Many publications rely heavily, if not solely, on freelance writers for online content. But the excitement to be published wanes when the pay is discussed. As a young writer, the rates per article make it impossible to survive on freelance work alone.
Sarah Waldron, a product editor at Net-A-Porter and Mr. Porter, was once a full-time freelancer. “I had reached the end of my rope. I’d done the calculations. I couldn’t afford to live in London anymore with the 12,000 pounds per year I was making.” Waldron confesses that years of financial struggle had backed her into a corner. “I got a call to work as a copywriter and I said ‘Brilliant, sign me up.’” It wasn’t frustration that made her leap, but necessity. “I needed to buy food and pay rent and I didn’t want to go back to working at TK Maxx. I wanted to use my skills.”
“I think a big thing is that the opportunities have shrunk. The staff of magazines are tiny. And from what I could see, they were not entry-level jobs.” – Tony Wilkes
The frustration Waldron felt isn’t exclusive to freelancers. Tony Wilkes, a 2022 graduate of the fashion communication master’s program at Central Saint Martins felt similar grievances. While interning at Women’s Wear Daily in London, the young writer was surprised to find out that, despite positive feedback, he wasn’t offered a job post-internship. “I think a big thing is that the opportunities have shrunk. The staff of magazines are tiny. And from what I could see, they were not entry-level jobs.”
Wilkes realized he would have to progress laterally while still at Central Saint Martins. After meeting a journalist working for a reputable publication, he became aware of the pay for what he considered an enviable position. “The salary was 14,000 a year,” he recounts, “to me, that was the sign to just move on.” Wilkes eventually took on a role as a copywriter for Mr. Porter.
“The industry is known for not paying much and progression can be slow, as it takes a while to move up within your team.” – Jessica Davis
Internships have long been one of the industry’s most polemic topics. But, according to Philippa Morgan, a former global director of content planning and editorial director at Condé Nast, the issue has gotten better from when she began her career. “It fostered a climate of rich kids. And people who don’t have the resources to do low-paid or unpaid work, no matter how talented they were, were cut from it completely,” Morgan recalls.
Despite publications’ efforts to fix the issue of unpaid work, problems like low pay and lack of career progression perpetuate similar problems. “The industry is known for not paying much and progression can be slow, as it takes a while to move up within your team,” relays Jessica Davis, digital writer at Harper’s Bazaar. Davis justifies the lack of professional evolution to the industry’s degraded state. “There are fewer jobs nowadays, so I think people end up staying at the top for a long time as they work hard to get there and there’s little else to move around.”
In a major city like London, a young person simply can’t survive on fashion journalism alone.
Like Waldron and Wilkes, many journalists are nudged out of their initial hopes. Good writing doesn’t hold water in an industry still defined by privilege. In a major city like London, a young person simply can’t survive on fashion journalism alone. Two options are left: finding a job outside the industry that will pay the bills while pursuing a career in fashion journalism or progressing laterally.
Branded content is a particularly popular alternative for young professionals. Its financial gain offers a refreshing contrast to fashion journalism. The pipeline between commercial and editorial writing isn’t new. Julia Robson, a veteran fashion journalist at The Daily Telegraph, reveals she did commercial work to pad her income earlier in her career. For her, the relationship between the two paths is obvious. “We know how to use these words so much better than other people, we know how to sell.”
“If you don’t know how to produce a story angle that’s going to get attention, then you’re not going to succeed as a journalist.” – Philippa Morgan
Philippa Morgan believes that ability is the benchmark of a good writer in today’s climate. “The premise of being a digital journalist is to be a salesperson, it’s the most saturated ecosystem there is.” In that sense, exercising that muscle makes a journalist a better writer. Morgan elaborates, “If you don’t know how to produce a story angle that’s going to get attention, then you’re not going to succeed as a journalist.”
This belief is shared by Wilkes. “I think working in copy is useful as training, all of your time is spent writing.” For the young writer, his position at Mr. Porter was preparation to take on a position that is more in tune with his original ambitions. As he takes on a new role as a fashion and lifestyle writer at Harrods, Wilkes reflects, “I get the impression that the divide between journalism and copywriting is very malleable.”
The glossy myth of weekly columns and front-row tickets is kept by journalists for journalists. As young writers face the inevitable reality their ambitions are forced to change. But, in fashion journalism, the path to success isn’t confined to a singular route. Detours, essential to keep afloat amid the cost-of-living crisis, offer a chance for professional maturation. Even as entry-level jobs in journalism become increasingly rare, its alternative paths provide training in interchangeable skills. These roles can be stepping stones for good writers to hone in on their craft. Treyspeaks directly to young journalists, “Not all your dreams will come through overnight.”