The Fashion Week Bill of Rights

At the height of the 1990s supermodel boom, Linda Evangelista famously said of herself and her catwalk colleagues, “We don’t get out of bed for less than $10,000.” While Evangelista and her cohort, which now includes household names like Gisele Bundchen and Heidi Klum, commanded six-figures for their photo shoots, the reality for most working models then and now is that they earn close to the minimum wage and face long hours in unregulated working conditions. Models, many of whom are teenage girls, are also vulnerable to sexual harassment and pressure to pose nude.

Tired of the exploitative conditions they faced as models, runway veterans Sarah Ziff and Jenna Sauers are launching  Model Alliance, to coincide with Fall 2012 New York Fashion Week, which wrapped up this week. The nonprofit aims to bring protections to the industry and has partnered with the Fordham University Fashion Law Institute to craft the regulations.

“There is a sense that fashion is frivolous, and that encourages a misogynistic attitude to the industry’s young workers and models,” says Ziff, who began modeling at 14 and documented her rise in the fashion world with the 2009 film Picture Me.

“Models are salespeople, and they’re selling this fantasy of glamour and excess, so it’s hard to be the face of a well-known luxury brand and have people understand that you didn’t get paid for that work and are indebted to your agency,” Ziff says of the disconnect between high fashion’s rich veneer and the reality for its workers.

The alliance hopes to draft a models’ bill of rights that provides guidelines for the industry, including greater transparency in agency accounting, requirements for prior consent to jobs that ask for nudity, and education rules for models under the age of 17. Although the alliance is not a union and will have no enforcement power, Ziff says that having designers—among them Nicole Miller, who had Ziff speak to models backstage at her show—acknowledge some of the problems counts as a victory.

The alliance had an early ally in Diane Von Furstenberg, legendary designer and president of the Council of Fashion Designers of America (CFDA). Von Furstenberg immediately supported an alliance measure to protect against unauthorized nude photographs by limiting photographers’ backstage access while models change.  

Earlier this year, Von Furstenberg sent out a letter to members of the CFDA reminding them that they should not cast models under the age of 16 for runway shows after it was revealed that a 15-year-old girl had walked the catwalk at one of her own shows. “We do impact the lives of women and we can set an example of a well balanced life on our runways,” Von Furstenberg said in the letter.

Despite her plea, Marc Jacobs, who is a CFDA board member and had previously agreed to the recommendations, featured a 14-year-old and a 15-year-old model in his Fashion Week show. When The New York Times pointed out the violation, Jacobs responded with annoyance: “I do the show the way I think it should be, and not the way somebody tells me it should be. If their parents are willing to let them do a show, I don’t see any reason that it should be me who tells them that they can’t.”

Jacobs’ miffed reaction underscores the lack of regulation in the fashion industry. Von Furstenberg can send out letters urging designers and agencies to impose rules, but without any enforcement or union, it’s unlikely that sweeping changes will be enacted.

In the same way that his fashions set the sartorial tone for other designers, Jacobs’ choices in casting influence the rest of the industry—for better or worse. Casting teen girls, Ziff says, jeopardizes their well-being and also establishes an unachievable beauty standard. Ziff, who says that at age 29 she’s “ancient,” now works as a print model.

“The culture they’re creating basically sets up an adolescent standard of beauty for women,” she says.

Although models don’t receive union representation in the U.S., the Model Alliance has teamed up with the American Guild of Musical Artists and the Actors Equity Union to provide a confidential sexual-harassment support service.  Recently, Carré Otis, who made a name for herself as a Calvin Klein model in the 1980s, revealed that her agent raped her when she was 17. Writing for Jezebel, Sauers has documented models’ complaints against photographer Terry Richardson, who regularly shoots pictorials for such magazines as Vogue. The alliance hopes that providing support for models who report abuse will bring the rule of law into the modeling industry.

Ultimately, Ziff would like to see a models’ union but recognizes that organizing has to happen first. “We’re doing what’s possible at this stage,” she said. “At least we’re headed in the right direction.”

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