Is the Fashion Industry Failing Its Models?

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The #MeToo conversation swept the fashion industry last month after an explosive report, published in The New York Times, detailed sexual harassment and abuse allegations against legendary fashion photographers Bruce Weber and Mario Testino. Earlier this winter, several brands and publishing houses also cut ties with Terry Richardson, another high-profile photographer facing abuse accusations. Fashion’s sexual misconduct problems, once hushed, were finally acknowledged: On The View, model Ashley Graham told the cameras about the time a photo assistant brought her into a closet and “exposed” himself to her at a campaign shoot when she was 17. On Twitter, Kate Upton accused Guess Co-Founder and Chief Creative Officer Paul Marciano of “sexually and emotionally harass[ing] women.” Change was demanded.

Answering that call, last week, the Council of Fashion Designers of America (CFDA)—an influential, non-profit trade organization—announced a partnership with advocacy group The Model Alliance to coordinate private changing areas for models at New York Fashion Week shows. Essentially, the project highlights what is readily apparent: models have been subjected to unsafe work environments for decades. "Creating the private changing rooms is a reflection of a moment we're in right now," Sara Ziff, founding director of The Model Alliance, tells InStyle, noting that models’ complaints about invasive photography and lack of privacy have fallen on deaf ears for too long. “[This initiative] shows that the industry is taking concerns about sexual harassment seriously, and I hope it's just a first step toward further changes that are needed and overdue." Pier 59 Studios and IMG, two organizations that put on some of the largest shows at New York Fashion Week, have agreed to help facilitate the private areas.

It’s a step in the right direction, albeit a small one. Models have long testified to being treated like disposable objects who need to put up or shut up. In October, model Cameron Russell made this obvious when she shared more than 50 anonymous testimonies of sexual abuse on Instagram. Most of the stories were submitted by models, both male and female, who were coerced into sexual acts masked by photographers and casting directors as part of the job. “On one of my first castings in New York, a designer handed me a large T-shirt with tons of holes and told me I could change in the corner and then proceeded to tell me how I need to be comfortable changing in front of people in this industry,” one testimony reads. At fashion shows, models, often teenagers, were expected to strip down and change no matter when or where.

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In September, Kering and LVMH joined forces to introduce a new charter aimed at protecting models working with their brands, which include Christian Dior, Marc Jacobs, Givenchy, Gucci, Saint Laurent, and Alexander McQueen. The charter includes a call for private changing areas. It also advocates a ban on underage and underweight models. Models must be at least 16 years old to get hired for a show or shoot, and female models must be a French size 34 (U.S. size 2) or above. In addition, models between 16 and 18 years old cannot work between 10 p.m. and 6 a.m.

It’s important to note that these recommendations are just that: recommendations. While the CFDA will provide these guidelines to all designers on the official NYFW calendar, there is no organization responsible for penalizing those who choose not to abide by the policies. If a designer doesn’t set up private changing areas, there is no legal or financial repercussion. The hope is that a model, or someone bold enough to speak up, will call them out.

"Before the beginning of each fashion week season, we send memos to designers, casting agents, and other industry stakeholders reminding them of these guidelines," Marc Karimzadeh, CFDA editorial and communications director, tells InStyle. "We hope this encourages designers who show in other venues to do the same and inspires fashion weeks around the world to implement similar areas."

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"In addition to asking IMG and Pier 59 to provide these [guidelines], we also encouraged, in a pre-fashion week memo to designers showing independently, to set them up,” says CFDA President and CEO Steven Kolb. “There is no mandate or policing this. It is up to each designer to do so. If models find themselves in uncomfortable changing situations, they should talk to the casting agents and designers. This is where change can be implemented. Change happens when we can communicate." Prior to these recommendations, IMG prohibited photographers from shooting models in states of undress backstage, a protection included in media credentialing.

According to casting director James Scully, a harassment "whistle-blower," whose pedigree includes working with Stella McCartney, Carolina Herrera, and Tom Ford, and who helped inspire Kering and LVMH's charter, things backstage are already beginning to change for the better. "[Private changing areas are] definitely happening for sure at all my shows, a lot of the girls are telling me at many shows," Scully says. "At Brandon Maxwell, there was a giant blackout curtain that was 30-feet tall. Only the girls were allowed in that room, and the same with Tom Ford. In general, it's definitely being followed.”

Scully says that while it will be difficult to keep track of which shows are following these measures, fashion people talk. "The CFDA attends every show and they usually come backstage. This is the first season that really all of the models are saying, 'This season is so much easier, everyone was so much nicer. I haven’t been going to late fittings.’ The whole conversation is really starting to work industry-wide."

But not all designers and casting directors are playing by the rules. "There was a particular designer this week that, during the whole casting and fitting process, was harassing all the girls that were in that show with his male friends. And so far, no one has said anything about it. But I'm pretty sure after the shows, they're gonna get together and say what happened," Scully says.

Of course, creating an environment in which reports of misconduct are taken seriously nudges the industry in the right direction, but not all models feel that they’re in a position to speak up—and as independent contractors, they don’t exactly have an HR department to report to if something goes awry.

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The Model Alliance plans to track compliance to the new guidelines through a survey that will be distributed to models after fashion week. "It'll give them an opportunity to give us feedback on a whole range of things including whether they experience sexual harassment, whether they were provided with private changing areas, and whether they were helpful or there's room for improvement," says Ziff.

Beyond these new guidelines, some industry insiders feel that there's a demand and need for support networks within fashion—and not just during fashion month. The newly formed non-profit Humans of Fashion, launched by model Kristina Romanova and singer-songwriter Antoniette Costa, connects fashion industry professionals (models, assistants, stylists, and others) with pro-bono lawyers, doctors, and mental health counselors.

Romanova, who moved to New York from Russia as a teenager to begin her modeling career, has experienced harassment first-hand and says "almost 100 percent" of her friends in the industry have too. "People think that if you decide to be a model, it's a green light for everyone," she says, referring to an instance in which a photographer snapped photos of her changing without her consent. The organization counts fashion modeling lawyer Doreen Small as a member of its advisory board, and Susan Scafidi, founder and director of the Fashion Law Institute, as a supporter.

A model since age 14, Ziff notes that sexual harassment is one of several problem models face. She’d also like the fashion industry to reevaluate its perception of body diversity. "Size diversity has been the last barrier to fall, and it's very much linked to these other concerns about #MeToo and Time's Up, although I don't think that the industry fully recognizes that yet."

Overall, the tide appears to be turning. Scully believes this is just the beginning of fashion’s own reckoning. "I don't think the conversation will go away," he says, adding that a new generation of models and industry professionals are unafraid of using social media to share stories of misconduct, like Cameron Russell did with those 50 anonymous stories.

“We should never have had to do this. This should have always just been human decency,” he says. “That's not how it worked out, so I think this is all just setting a new tone for how we go forward in the future."

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