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Interning in New York City

28 May 2021

Ella James recalls her two month interning for Max Mara in New York City.

During my time studying at London College of Fashion, I soon learnt that interning during term-time was a great way to earn a semester’s worth of credit without the chore of assignments. Sure, it was a terrific way to gain industry experience, but I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t more lured in by a daily allowance that would enable me to eat, drink and shop my way around some of the world’s most fantastic, fashion forward cities for free.

A few months prior, I’d ticked off Milan and Paris as part of an internship with Diane Von Furstenberg and I pined for more adventure. So I threw my CV to the masses, and much to my delight it was positively received by the ever-iconic, Italian fashion brand Max Mara in none other than New York.

The brand, that so oozes class and timeless style was established by Achille Maramotti in Reggio Emilia, Italy where its flagship headquarters remain today. Such is the brand’s success, it now has 2254 stores that span 90 countries and offices in fashion hot spots the world over, including New York.

“You’re going where?” my parents exclaimed. “For how long? ALONE?” After a few beers at a family dinner I somehow persuaded my, by then, tipsy parents that this was a once in a lifetime opportunity, so before they had the chance to sober up, I promptly leased my room in London, and before I knew it I was heading for two months in the Big Apple.

Sheer excitement kept me awake for the duration of the flight. Actually, sheer excitement and a class of loud, unbearably fidgety school children kept me awake for the duration of the flight. As we went through the slow security process at JFK airport, I became tangled up in the class of American children who couldn’t have been older than 15 years of age. “Now, are your parents meeting you at arrivals or are they collecting you from the school?” an exhausted teacher asked me as she ushered them through security. Equal parts offended and delighted to be mistaken for a child in their mid-teens, I assured the teacher that I definitely wasn’t a pupil in her class. That certainly explains my parent’s initial concern about my solo voyage, I thought.

Inimitable places

I’ve been lucky enough to travel a lot, but the New York City skyline as you drive in from the airport is easily one of my favourite moments. It was grey but still vibrant, urban but still wild. My heart raced. Two months of pure excitement in the Big Apple awaited.

As with my previous internships, I had low expectations for the quality of the accommodation that I would be staying in. I thought back on my time in Milan when the cynical hotel receptionist exclaimed that I wouldn’t last more than two nights. Surely my New York abode couldn’t possibly be as poor. Cue hysterical laughter.

I observed layers of paint flaking off the wall and an old ceiling fan whizzing reluctantly. I was little deterred though, the dilapidated dormitory was located on a wonderful street called The Bowery. Coffee shops, restaurants, fashion boutiques and cocktail bars peppered either side of the long road.

That first night, I slept surprisingly well, leaving me fresh and eager for my first day. Subway card topped up, I set out for work far earlier than necessary to allow me plenty of time to get lost on the way. I emerged from the subway in Times Square. If you haven’t been, book a flight immediately, because there’s nowhere else quite like it in the world. The Max Mara office was just a short stroll away, just around the corner from a street called Fashion Avenue, of all places.

I took the elevator up to the 39th floor to the Max Mara reception. You’re picturing the reception in your head aren’t you? Well, it’s exactly as your imagining it. Pristine walls with frame after frame of effortlessly stylish, Italian fashion images showcasing a few highlights of Max Mara’s most iconic looks, fresh orchids on every smudge-free, glass surface and a receptionist who looks so immaculate and well dressed, she could strut down the Max Mara runway herself. The office was the binary opposite of my Bowery abode. You’d be hard pushed to find a glossier building.

A second pristine member of staff appeared and showed me around, explaining everything that I needed to know, barely pausing between sentences. “It’s all in your guide book,” she repeated. Then, ushered into what would become known as the ‘intern’s cupboard’ I met my peers, a worldly bunch who looked slightly more dishevelled and coffee deprived in comparison to the two members of staff that I had met previously. Day in day out, we worked hard as a team of interns, determined to impress the staff. We ran the showroom, assisted in meetings, dealt with the press and as with any fashion internship, steamed rail after rail of clothes.

Characters and cliches

The favourite part of my day was always picking garments to send to different publications like American Vogue. This task involved getting to chat with Mario, the elderly, Italian courier who would whizz across the city on his Vespa with the garment in tow. Mario would never take the elevator to the 39th floor, he always opted to walk. His face glowed as he would retell stories from his fashionable past that I was always happy to leave the intern’s cupboard for.

New York was the first time I found some of the most well-known fashion industry stereotypes to be true, and it was all thanks to a burrito. I knew that lunch time had rolled around because my stomach had started to demonstrate its impression of a whale song. A steady stream of interns and employees filtered into the elevator to get their lunch from one of the many eateries on the street below. Having worked up quite the appetite during the morning, I made sure to stock up on calories before the afternoon commenced. Back in the staff room I unwrapped my burrito, salivating at the thought of it. After a few bites I had felt the glare of a few of my peers. Surrounded by salads and shakes, I soon realised that my less than healthy lunch was a bold choice rarely opted for in the office. “Is it cheat day?” another intern asked before the recurring conversation about their 6am spin classes resumed. Noted.

Having been hugely tempted to take a few well-earned ‘sick days’ to explore the city, my rookie lunch choice inspired me. I could fit in ample sightseeing during my hour lunch break (Macy's, Victoria’s Secret, Bergdorf Goodman and Dylan's Candy Bar) and be able to hide all evidence of my daily burrito before I got back to the office to resume the day’s work.

From around three o’clock each day, conversation would break out in the usually quiet work place. Work would grind to a stop until plans for the evening had been finalised. Schedules often revolved around rooftop bars (of which New York is fantastically inundated with) and Broadway shows (‘Of mice and men’ with James Franco). Such a frivolous lifestyle doesn’t come cheap, especially on an intern’s allowance, but staying in simply wasn’t an option. Then, each day at four o’clock on the dot, both the interns and permanent staff would routinely apply teeth whitening strips for the last hour of the day. Yes, I’m being serious. In an industry where no working day is complete without up to four cups of black coffee a day, oral care is deemed crucial.

A surprise visit

Two thirds through my time in New York, my mum and sister surprised me for a long weekend. My sister, a seasoned traveller, had created a strict itinerary with little margin for compromise. We ate heartily all over town, from a Sylvia Plath favourite(Grand Central Oyster Bar) to the famous Chelsea Markets. We explored Central Park by foot until we could walk no more, and surrendered to a horse drawn carriage. We rounded off another perfect New York day with my new found favourite drink, an Aperol Spritz, at the cocktail bar next to my accommodation. It was often easier to sleep in my accommodation after sinking a few of the translucent orange cocktails. It had become my go-to place to end many a working day, so they brought over three large Aperol Spritzes without even needing to ask.

“Can we take a look at your accommodation?” my mother queried. I flat out refused, painfully aware that if my loving mother caught a glimpse of this poor excuse of a studio, she’d have me on a flight home with them. My mother got the gist and didn’t persist. Instead, the three of us headed back to their hotel, where my mother and sister reluctantly shared a bed, allowing me to spread out in my own. Fresh bedding never felt so good. After a jam-packed weekend, my mother and sister flew back to the United Kingdom (suitcases bulging at the zips with my new wardrobe that had been purchased courtesy of my student loan), and I went back to the intern’s cupboard.

As far as work hard, play hard goes, New Yorkers give the rest of the globe a run for their money. It’s called the city that never sleeps, and it’s fuelled by black coffee, teeth whitening strips and wonderful souls like Mario the courier. In true New York fashion, the two months flew by. My heart was heavy as I hailed that final yellow taxi to the airport. Although, with my recently acquired New York wardrobe and New York attitude, I was confident that there was no chance I would be mistaken for a school child when the plane landed at Heathrow.

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