Tommy Hilfiger and Fendi Hit with Unpaid Internship Lawsuits

Tommy Hilfiger USA Inc. and Fendi North America Inc. are the latest companies to face proposed class action lawsuits in New York state court accusing them of misclassifying entry level employees as interns thereby making them ineligible for minimum wage. The two companies were named in lawsuits filed late last week in the Supreme Court of the State of New York, County of New York on claims that they have failed to pay minimum wage compensation in violation of a number of provisions of New York Labor Law and New York Codes, Rules and Regulations with both named plaintiffs alleging that companies have systemically misclassified entry level employees as interns to avoid paying them minimum wage, and have as a result, damaged a large pool of similarly situated individuals. The plaintiffs, Melanie Zuccarini, Kiora Wheeler and Shawntel Smith, are seeking unpaid wages plus interest, damages, and attorneys fees for themselves and other potential plaintiffs from Tommy Hilfiger and Fendi (pictured below), which are owned by LVMH Moët Hennessy • Louis Vuitton and Phillips-Van Heusen, respectively.

If you've been keeping track of the recent influx of unpaid internship lawsuits, it will come as no surprise that the former interns in these immediate cases are being represented by Virginia & Ambinder LLP and Leeds Brown Law PC, the two law firms responsible for nearly all of the recent filings. Both firms are representing interns in the pending cases against Gucci, Calvin Klein, Marc Jacobs, Oscar de la Renta, and Donna Karan (among others, such as one against publishing giant Simon & Schuster, which was also filed late last week). The frequency with which cases have been filed by these firms and some interesting procedural history, suggests that these firms may be trolling for potential plaintiffs to help them rake in large settlements from the design houses at issue. And while the attorneys at both firms stand to benefit significantly from depicting unpaid internships in a negative light, others have taken a different stance.

Reed Krakoff, for instance, is a big proponent of internships. In 2011, at a talk he was giving to Parsons design students, he stressed the importance of working for free — something he did for a year out of school at Anne Klein. Unpaid interns can "wait tables" on the side, he said, or maybe work in a store (he worked on the floor at the Valentino boutique on Madison). More recently Krakoff, who left Coach in 2013 to focus on his eponymous label, spoke with The Coveteur about the importance of internships, saying:

My first job was as an unpaid intern at Anne Klein and I was working under Narcisso Rodriguez. I was studying at Parsons and I was working part time and interning and just doing whatever they wanted me to do. I was picking up dry cleaning, sketching sometimes, I was helping with the shows and with anything that people needed—I was a gopher of sorts. It was great to be around so many talented people; it kind of gave me a sense of what it was like to work for another designer and see what the industry was like. [Rodriguez] was an amazingly talented person. I am a big believer in internships. I think that it’s a great opportunity to get some experience, to learn what it really is to work in fashion. I always recommend it to any young designer I come into contact with. It’s one thing to study it or talk about it, or have a friend who works in fashion, but it’s a great thing to just be there and experience and see what kind of jobs are out there. You don’t know until you experience it.

Interestingly, internships were a big part of the discussion at the the October 2014 Reach Higher event, First Lady Michelle Obama’s initiative to promote education and enable young fashion enthusiasts to pursue careers in the industry. On a panel of fellow industry insiders, J. Crew's president and creative director, Jenna Lyons described wearing sweatpants for her first day as a Donna Karan intern, which was blissfully spent cleaning the archives closet. After the panel concluded, Mrs. Obama, herself, suggested that the students in attendance network for internships with the fashion crowd, which included Narciso Rodriguez, Prabal Gurung, Jason Wu, Thom Brown, Phillip Lim, DVF, and Zac Posen, among others.

Other designers big name designers have also spoken out in support of internships. Louis Vuitton creative director Nicolas Ghesquière, for instance, has spoken about his intern past. He first spent the summer working at Agnès B. in Paris when he was 15, for which he was paid in clothes. Of the internship he says, with a laugh: “I watched, I photocopied, I made the coffee.” After that, he was offered an internship with a new young designer, Corinne Cobson. He says: “For two years I worked for Corinne in Paris every weekend and every holiday, then went back to school in Loudun. When I left school she gave me a proper job.” Then he began an internship at Jean Paul Gaultier when he was 19-years old, of which he has said: “It started out as a supersmall job, making coffee and dog walking, eventually doing color cards and photocopies, but it was fascinating.”

Similarly, Haider Ackermann has a few words to share about his internship experience. The Colombian-born, Paris-based designer said that in between the time he finished studying at the Royal Academy of Fine Arts in Antwerp and the time he launched his label, he interned for John Galliano for five months. Of the internship, Ackermann says: “You know, at the time, I had no money, nowhere to stay, so I was sleeping on the street and going every day to work.” He also says: “It was the best study ever.”

In short, there are strong opinions on both sides of the argument. I'm curious to hear where you stand. Sound off in the comments section below …