Federico Pignatelli della Leonessa

Federico Pignatelli, founder and owner of Pier59 Studios, Art and Fashion Group Corp. and Industry Model Management, is calling for an industrywide change in how agencies pay their models.

Issuing what he calls the “Model’s Bill of Rights,” Pignatelli exclusively described to WWD the fundamental changes he’d like to see in how models get paid and ways in which they should be treated. He plans to discuss these issues at Pier59 in New York on Wednesday night before a crowd that will include media, models and celebrities.

The executive believes that the current method of how many agencies pay their models is outdated and highly unfair. He explained that the modeling industry was a relatively small one 25 years ago, but it has grown exponentially over the past few years, as advertising and media have evolved with  newer technology. “It’s a business that has grown substantially and has grown unregulated,” he said.

Pignatelli founded Pier59 Studios 24 years ago, which has become a full production company. Over a year ago, he started a modeling agency and The Industry Management, which represents photographers, directors, makeup artists, hair stylists and fashion stylists.

“Given that I’m now the owner of a modeling agency, I find it’s part of my responsibility to contribute in regulating the business and bring clarity to this business and to get rid of abusers who have been permeating this business for many years. One of the biggest abuses is delayed payment or lack of payment [to models],” he said.

“When a model takes a job, modeling agencies don’t pay them when normal business happens. They tend to collect the money and pay whenever they want,” he said. He said that top models who work all the time get paid on time, but the lower-level models don’t and have to struggle to get paid. The agencies use that money to fund agency operations, first to pay salaries, rent and travel, he said. He said his modeling agency has instituted a payment plan of paying models within 60 days of their work.

He noted that clients are paying the modeling agencies for their jobs on time, but then the agencies don’t disperse the money to models. At his agency, if a client pays before 60 days, within five working days, Pignatelli pays the model. “We don’t sit on that money that belongs to her. Those are practices that should be implemented throughout the entire industry,” he said. He believes that some of the big agencies take 120 days or even 240 days to pay the models, “and often they don’t even pay for certain jobs.”

“Models don’t have any financial security. They’re under financial duress. Essentially, if a model can’t plan her life, because she doesn’t know when a check will come, it’s highly demoralizing to the model,” he said. “We pay regardless of whether a client has paid us or not. It’s our job to collect the money from the client. The model pays 20 percent to the agency for a reason — to manage her career and make sure she’s getting paid and she’s getting paid the fair rate,” said Pignatelli.

So what’s in this for him?

“I want to be an example for the business, and I will make a statement that things need to change,” he said. “We should treat it as a real business, not have the model subjected to unfair practices. Ultimately I’d like to get to the point where it can be regulated and contracts need to be standard,” he said. “We’re talking about models who don’t understand legal language, and do not have lawyers to represent them. When they sign the contract, it should be a contract that is protecting them. It has to be a fair contract for both parties.” Further, he pointed out, “Lawyers are expensive. Models are young, and particularly models coming from overseas, they don’t get a lawyer. They sign and there’s a level of trust toward the agencies. Agencies in many cases abuse the trust. That has to end.”

In general, models pay a 20 percent commission to their agency, on top of administrative fees, travel expenses, head shots, portfolios and other expenses that eat away at their paychecks. For example, a $10,000 job can shrink to less than $3,000 after taxes, fees and expenses. In order for a model to build her portfolio, an agency will front the expenses for her plane ticket, for paying for photographers, for printing the photos, for the physical portfolio itself, for the comp cards, for the retouching, for the clothes to go on castings and for a model apartment for her to stay. All of these expenses are expected to be paid for by the model, whether she does or does not book an equivalent amount of work through that agency to cover these costs.

According to a report by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (May 2016), the average mean wage for models was $21,870 a year, or $10.51 an hour. That compares to $15.65 for the U.S. average pay for sales and related workers. Few states have strict laws that require modeling agencies to be licensed.

Asked what safeguards his agency has put in place to ensure the well-being of models — a hot topic these days in light of sexual allegations against several photographers and stylists — Pignatelli said, “Once models are paid, they are safer. Once they’re not subjected to financial duress, they obviously will be empowered and will be able to say, ‘no.’”

Further, he said, there has to be strong clarity from agencies in terms of what the job will entail. “If there’s nudity involved, the model needs to know ahead of time, not go and be put in an unpleasant position and pressured and see an entire crew in a studio and she’s doing something she doesn’t want to.”

He also said that models are being charged for expenses without any proof of there being expenses. Some of these costs aren’t justified. The expenses could be for photography tests or sending out their book, even though today, everything’s done by e-mail, as well as overprinting cards, he said

The Industry Model Management represents between 150 and 200 models in New York and Los Angeles.  Pignatelli said Pier59 Studios, which has 11 studios and produces on average 2,500 advertising campaigns a year, caters to all the agencies and has contact with many models from other agencies.

Pignatelli is also calling for clarity on the issue of visas, and that some agencies are using visas to coerce models. The 0-1 non-immigrant visa is for the individual who possesses extraordinary ability in the arts, sciences, business or athletics. “Agencies use visas to coerce models into not asking for money. “If a model from overseas is insisting on getting paid, I have heard that agencies tell the model, ‘Stop, because otherwise we’re going to have you deported, or we’ll cancel your 0-1 visa.’ That kind of duress has to end and is unacceptable. Models are not educated to the fact that the 0-1 belongs to the model. It does not belong to the agency. So agencies should not use that to pressure models.”

Finally, he pointed out that when a model enters a contact with an agency, it’s bilateral in obligations. “The model has to perform her work, but the agency has to perform as well,” he said. If the agency does not perform, and the model sees that her career is not progressing, the agency is breaching the contract and she should be free to leave. “If the model feels the agency isn’t performing, she has to have the right to get out of the contract because slavery is long gone,” he said.

Sara Ziff, executive director of Model Alliance said, “Late payment and nonpayment is a pervasive problem in the fashion industry. Even at the highest levels of the business, models routinely wait many months to be paid monies owed by their agencies and/or clients. 

“With the passage of the Freelance Isn’t Free Act in New York, freelancers now have legal protections against late payment and nonpayment. That said, because of the multilevel of structure of hiring in the modeling industry, many models still struggle to get paid monies owed in a timely manner, if at all,” she said.

Model Alliance offers a discreet grievance reporting service and refers models to attorneys when needed.

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