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Underage Models, Cheap Labor And Creepy Backstage Photos: The Campaign To Fix Fashion Week

Models walk in the finale of the BCBG MAX AZRIA Spring 2015 collection during Fashion Week in New York, Thursday, Sept. 4, 2014. CREDIT: AP PHOTO/RICHARD DREW
Models walk in the finale of the BCBG MAX AZRIA Spring 2015 collection during Fashion Week in New York, Thursday, Sept. 4, 2014. CREDIT: AP PHOTO/RICHARD DREW

New York Fashion Week is upon us, which means the city is flooded with even more beautiful clothing and beautiful people than usual. But the fashion industry, for all its elite trappings, is plagued by many of the same labor issues as less-glamorous fields: undocumented and underage labor, institutionalized racism, sexual harassment that goes unchecked and, due to a lack of legal recourse for independent contractors like models, unpunished.

Sara Ziff is a model and founder of The Model Alliance, an organization that aims to bring transparency and change to the field. We spoke by phone about the progress that’s been made over the past two years — the Child Model Act, which affords underage models the same protections as other child performers, like actors, was signed into law in New York last fall — and the work that’s left to do.

What inspired you to start Model Alliance?

I have worked as a model for over a decade, since I was 14. It was really my and other models’ experiences of working in the industry that led us to want to improve labor standards in the modeling industry and to give models a voice.

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What do you think of yourself when you look back on those early modeling experiences? At the time, did you feel super young, or did you feel very mature and adult? In hindsight, do you just think, “14 years old is a kid”?

Oh man! If I had a 14 year old daughter, I would not want her to pursue a modeling career. I think that 14, it’s not necessarily too young to work as a model if you’re doing age-appropriate photo shoots. But I found that I was sometimes put in very adult situations that I didn’t have the maturity to handle. And often it’s models who are underage who are walking on the runway and appearing in advertising campaigns and fashion editorials, who are dressed up to look older than they actually are. So they, I think, sometimes have to deal with adult pressures they just don’t have the maturity to handle. And a 14 or 15 year old girl has a different body type from a woman who has breasts and hips, and I think that that having prepubescent girls represent the feminine ideal of beauty is not healthy for the models themselves, and it sends a very warped message to women, that they have to sort of try to aspire to this very skinny, undeveloped physical ideal.

Ziff in 2005, having makeup applied before walking the runway for a presentation of the spring collection of Nanette Lepore in New York. CREDIT: AP Photo/Jennifer Szymaszek
Ziff in 2005, having makeup applied before walking the runway for a presentation of the spring collection of Nanette Lepore in New York. CREDIT: AP Photo/Jennifer Szymaszek

What can you tell me about the legislation that was passed last year in New York to protect underage models?

When we first formed the Model Alliance two years ago, we did some research and found that underage models were not considered “child performers” and they were excluded from the protection of the Department of Labor in New York. So we championed the Child Model Act, which was introduced last year, that essentially reclassified models as child performers, who need and deserve the same basic labor protections that, say, a child actor, singer or dancer already have. And Governor Cuomo signed our bill into law in October of 2013. So now models have maximum working hours, provisions for rest and meal breaks, educational requirements, provisions for chaperones if they’re under 16. And also trust accounts.

Have you noticed a change? It might be too soon to tell, because this Fashion Week is only the second Fashion Week since the law was passed.

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Last Fashion Week, we were very pleased to see that there were very few models who were under 18 who appeared in the shows. So I think the industry and designers really took it seriously. Some designers and casting directors opted not to even see models who were under 18 at their castings.

What is the motivating factor behind using kids at all? Does it ever make sense to you, to see underage models walking in these shows?

When we look at these sort of young, fair-skinned girls on the runway, they do seem very privileged — they embody privilege. But in many cases, they are also undocumented, and they’re also not getting paid.

I think it’s better for everyone involved to have adult models wearing the clothing that’s marketed to adults. But I think, maybe in certain circumstances, if there’s a model who is 17 years old and she just does one show, and she has the guidance and support that she needs, that’s not necessarily a terrible thing. But in general, yes, I think it makes sense for models who have a bit more experience and maturity to walk on the runway and work in what is, essentially, a pretty grown-up business. It’s a hard business for anyone to navigate, especially someone who is just a child.

Why are these poor labor practices so deeply entrenched in the fashion industry? Why is it so hard to make these changes? Is it that underage models are easier to manage and control, that they’re cheaper to use? Or is it driven by the aesthetics of wanting waifish, girl-sized bodies on the runway?

That’s a really good question. I don’t think there’s an easy answer! For a long time, I think since the heroin chic phase when Kate Moss became well known, there has been this trend towards using young models who have sort of adolescent body types. I think there are a number of possible explanations for that. Some people have suggested that, in the age of the supermodel era, when Christy Turlington and Naomi Campbell were walking the runways, that the runway shows became more about the models as celebrities than it was about the clothes. And there was a sense that the models were actually distracting people from the clothes, and ultimately the purpose of a runway show is to showcase the collection and peddle garments. So now that there are these models who are young and interchangeable and rather anonymous, and whose bodies are more like coat hangers, then that takes the attention away from the model and puts it back on the clothes, which the designers are trying to sell.

Naomi Campbell, left, and Cindy Crawford greet each other, Thursday, Feb. 8, 2007, in Beverly Hills as the City of Beverly Hills and the Rodeo Drive Committee honored Gianni Versace and his sister Donatella Versace for their contributions to the worlds of fashion and entertainment with the Rodeo Drive Walk of Style Award. CREDIT: AP Photo/Mark J. Terrill
Naomi Campbell, left, and Cindy Crawford greet each other, Thursday, Feb. 8, 2007, in Beverly Hills as the City of Beverly Hills and the Rodeo Drive Committee honored Gianni Versace and his sister Donatella Versace for their contributions to the worlds of fashion and entertainment with the Rodeo Drive Walk of Style Award. CREDIT: AP Photo/Mark J. Terrill

Also, a young model is much less likely to stand up for herself, to make demands on the job. Many designers at NYFW still don’t pay their models any money to walk in the shows. The models are often working for trade, meaning, just clothing. And that wouldn’t fly back in the age of the supermodels, when the models were older and had more womanly physiques. So I think there are the questions about health and body images, but underneath that are real issues of models’ lack of empowerment. And I think the sort of body type of these young girls reflects a sort of a less empowered worker. I know people don’t usually think of models as workers, but you know, they’re doing a job. So I don’t know; I think we have this perverse fascination with young models who are not fully formed, who are sort of underdeveloped, and I think that’s a really unfortunate trend that goes hand in hand with models having less and less power in the industry.

Why is it so hard to not cast underage models? It seems like it would be a relatively easy thing to regulate.

Often, I think they don’t bother to ask how old the model is. It’s sort of a two-minute casting decision where the girl walks in, brings her portfolio, walks for the designer. There may be very little interaction beyond the designer and casting director looking at the model and deciding whether or not she fits with the show. It’s not like there’s an interview process. Many times, it’s not like they’re asking, “How old is this girl? Shouldn’t she be in school?” They’re not thinking about her as a child. The CFDA, a couple years ago, did start asking designers to ID the models, so that they could see the model’s age. Again, I don’t know how much that’s actually happening, but I think it’s a good faith effort.

Do you have numbers on how many models work for trade instead of pay?

I don’t have numbers, no. I know that since we started speaking about this issue a couple of years ago, that some designers have started paying their models cash, not trade. Or they offer them the choice between payment in trade or cash. So we have seen some progress in that respect. But to be honest, I really don’t think — especially when it comes to hiring minors, I really don’t think that designers, especially big, powerful brands should be hiring these girls but not compensating financially.

Fashion from Tadashi Shoji Spring 2015 collection is modeled during Fashion Week on Thursday, Sept. 4, 2014 in New York. CREDIT: AP Photo/Bebeto Matthews
Fashion from Tadashi Shoji Spring 2015 collection is modeled during Fashion Week on Thursday, Sept. 4, 2014 in New York. CREDIT: AP Photo/Bebeto Matthews

I imagine that there’s also this attitude of, “You should just be happy to be here” that prevents models from feeling like they can complain or ask for more than what they’re getting. The idea that they have this amazing opportunity, that they’re lucky to have it, and they could be replaced in a second. Does that mentality exacerbate these issues?

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I think a lot of it has to do with working in a freelance economy, where there’s no minimum wage requirement. Many of the problems that models face have to do with their being considered independent contractors, not employees. As an independent contractor under federal law, you cannot sue for sexual harassment. And I think, often, models are treated as employees and actually have very little control over their working lives, and they’re not so free to just move on. This issue of payment in trade, lack of recourse if you experience sexual harassment on the job, these are all problems that models face, but I think it’s really a broader issue for freelancers in general. But it’s because models are prominent, in a way, it’s good for the Model Alliance to address these issues because we hope that we can spur legislative change, not just to improve the working lives of models but for other people who share the same concerns.

These struggles remind me a bit of the reaction to the celebrity photo hacking, in that, people are jealous of models, and models have this allure about them: they’re beautiful, they wear glamorous, expensive clothing, they’re young. There seems to be this same victim-blaming idea of: sure, they have to put up with some unpleasant things, but that’s the cost of doing business.

It’s nice to have your picture taken, but a picture doesn’t pay the bills. And when it comes to this photo hacking scandal, imagine if you worked at Walmart, and because you were there on the job, you had nude photos taken of you that were leaked everywhere — that shouldn’t be a hazard of anyone’s job. When a model does a runway show, she’s agreeing to be photographed on the runway, not naked backstage.

Is that a big issue: people taking photos of models when they’re changing backstage?

In some cases, models’ pictures from when they were changing ended up on porn sites.

That’s one of the first issues we wanted to address when we formed the organization. And I actually experienced this myself. Many models, when changing backstage during the show, would find they had to deal with invasive backstage photography. And there can be a lot of people who are unnecessary to the show’s production who are milling around backstage. And in an age when anyone has an iPhone and can shoot backstage photos, it’s upsetting when you’re trying to change into clothes backstage, and you’re in your underwear, or less, and you’re surrounded by random people and you find that there’s a compromising photo of you that’s leaked online. In some cases, models’ pictures when they were changing ended up on porn sites. So we suggested that, as soon as “first looks” are called, when models are supposed to change into their first outfit for the runway, that anyone who doesn’t need to be backstage should be asked to leave. And that’s not a hard and fast rule, it’s just a suggestion. And some designers have been better at maintaining a closed set and respecting the privacy of their models. The problem hasn’t necessarily gone away, but hopefully it’s gotten a little better.

Tell me a bit more about the dynamic between designers and models. What is it about that relationship that makes it so difficult for models to be their own advocates in these situations?

Maybe major designers don’t fully appreciate that it’s a big deal for any model to be cast in their show, that it can be a make or break moment. Maybe they don’t appreciate the power that they have and the one-sided nature of how a model has no bargaining power. She’s not in a position to make demands. If a girl is working in debt to her agency, is basically forced to drop out of school to try to make the most of her moment and work until 4 a.m., unpaid, for someone who is a famous designer, I don’t think that anyone is thinking about her well-being. I think with the new law, we’ve sort of curbed that. It’s tricky. It’s one thing to introduce a new law, though, and another thing to enforce it.

I honestly don’t think most people in the fashion industry think about labor issues in general. It’s just not on their radar. It’s not in their lexicon.

Why do you think that is? Obviously fashion is a huge industry with a bunch of moving parts, and no one should know that better than the designers who’ve made a living as a part of that ecosystem.

It runs much deeper than the modeling industry. If you look at the fashion supply chain, look at the building collapse in Rana Plaza in Bangladesh, killed over 1,100 garment workers. I bet if you asked people at the tents at Lincoln Center this week about Rana Plaza, they’d scratch their heads. They may not have even heard of it.

Most of the work that I do is advocating for better working conditions for fashion industry workers who are most visible, but there are a lot of other people — there are people who work in retail, people who are sewing the garments overseas — who also want to have a voice in their work. It’s a much bigger issue. And if the Model Alliance and prominent models in the industry can use their visibility to help raise awareness within the industry of labor abuses, hopefully we can push for change that runs much deeper. But it’s a monumental task.

Bangladeshi women cry holding photographs of their missing relatives as they plead for help and demand compensation for the dead and missing workers of the garment factory building collapse, in Savar, near Dhaka, Bangladesh, Monday, June 24, 2013. Relatives of the victims of the Rana Plaza building collapse attended a protest rally two months after the building collapsed on April 24. Paper with a missing victim’s photo, foreground at right, reads:”Mukta Begum — missing.” CREDIT: AP Photo/A.M. Ahad
Bangladeshi women cry holding photographs of their missing relatives as they plead for help and demand compensation for the dead and missing workers of the garment factory building collapse, in Savar, near Dhaka, Bangladesh, Monday, June 24, 2013. Relatives of the victims of the Rana Plaza building collapse attended a protest rally two months after the building collapsed on April 24. Paper with a missing victim’s photo, foreground at right, reads:”Mukta Begum — missing.” CREDIT: AP Photo/A.M. Ahad

Another issue that seems to come up every Fashion Week is the lack of diversity on runways. Have we made any progress on that front?

There’s this Balance Diversity campaign that’s been led by Bethann Hardison. She’s an African-American former model turned agent and spokesperson in the industry, and she has, for the past couple of seasons, called out designers who don’t cast models of color in their shows, or who cast one token model of color. And then more recently, there was a study done showing that it’s not just an issue of the designers not casting, and not having a more diverse cast, some agencies don’t even represent any models of color. Some agencies are better than others, but on average, only 20–30% of the models at the top ten agencies are anything other than Caucasian, so I guess there’s a sort of supply issue there. The agencies maybe aren’t willing to take on black models because maybe they feel that they’re not going to be booked. That’s a whole other can of worms.

Does that go back to the idea of not wanting models to take attention away from the clothes? That all the models should be “interchangeable” does imply that they all should be the same race.

Some designers, Diane von Furstenberg in particular, have been really good about trying to promote diversity. But yeah, that’s just one of many issues. And that’s something I think the fashion industry is more willing to talk about than, say, the labor issues that we’re working to address, payment in trade. They’re willing to talk about their more superficial issues and not so much the underlying systemic problems.

When it comes to the models who work at NYFW, how many of them are foreign? How does that influence the use of models who are underage, or affect their ability (or inability) to stand up for themselves?

it’s difficult to be sympathetic towards a beautiful, young woman who is wearing a $2,000 dress. I get it.

Most of the models in NYFW are foreign. Many of them are coming from Eastern Europe or Brazil. English may not be their first language. They’re certainly not well versed in the language of contracts. So yes, that also underscores the sort of power imbalance between the models and their clients. And that girl has no frame of reference. She’s probably never even had a baby-sitting job. So how is she going to stand up to a powerful, famous designer who is not going to pay her, or is expecting her to come in for fittings at 3:00 in the morning?

How did NYFW become so populated with foreign models? Did it start with the search for this waifish, white, thin aesthetic, and then have these other side effects of models who didn’t raise hell, like an older, American model might feel empowered to do?

If you look at Kathy Ireland, Cindy Crawford, Cindy Turlington, back in the day, a lot of the models were American, and they didn’t necessarily start when they were as young as the models starting today. When did it start? I think probably around the time that I was doing the shows .I was born and raised in New York and came from a pretty different background from many of the models I was working alongside. So I was maybe in a more privileged position to take issue with this stuff. But I remember when I was working at the shows from 18 on, many of the models, you couldn’t even have a conversation because they only spoke a few words of English. And they’re sort of trying to grab the brass ring while they can. They’re often sending money back home to their families, sometimes they’re the primary breadwinner. So they can be under a lot of pressure to just keep their head down and not say anything.

When you look at undocumented workers in other fields, restaurant workers, people working the kitchen, people who are unseen, those employers are taking advantage of people who are easily exploited because they don’t have their working papers, English isn’t their first language, they’re not even being paid minimum wage. When we look at these sort of young, fair-skinned girls on the runway, they do seem very privileged — they embody privilege. But in many cases, they are also undocumented, and they’re also not getting paid. And certainly, the designers or other clients are taking advantage of that.

Well, the only time the general public really sees these girls is during that brief moment when they want on a runway during Fashion Week. So all we see is: she’s beautiful, she’s wearing expensive clothing, she’s literally on a platform above everyone else. The appearance is one of glamour.

And it’s difficult to be sympathetic towards a beautiful, young woman who is wearing a $2,000 dress. I get it. But I think when you consider, when you just look at the facts, whether or not someone is being paid for their job, or whether they have been forced to drop out of high school or they have to endure sexual harassment and have no recourse. If you look beyond this sort of façade that does appear very glossy and enviable, then I think it’s maybe easier to understand that there are underlying problems that models face that I think are common to a lot of other workers who are trying to improve their working conditions.