By  on June 10, 2008

NEW YORK — When the controversy over ultrathin models erupted almost two years ago, each fashion capital tried to come up with its strategy to tackle the issue — all while the media had a field day, often at the expense of the industry.

But most news outlets quickly lost interest in the subject and the brouhaha quieted down, leading some in the fashion industry to think the trend had come and gone as quickly as the latest "It" accessory. Not so, it seems. Over the past months, executives at the Council of Fashion Designers of America and its health initiative have been working with designers, model agents, casting directors and stylists to reaffirm the suggested guidelines.

Tonight, the topic will move back into the forefront when the CFDA hosts a discussion themed "The Beauty of Health: How the fashion industry can make a difference."

CFDA president Diane von Furstenberg, Michael Kors and model Coco Rocha will address the crowd at the Milk Studios penthouse on how the initiative has evolved, its importance and, in the case of Rocha, her own personal experiences as a model.

Expected attendees at the event include Donna Karan, Francisco Costa, Nicole Miller, Tory Burch, Doo-Ri Chung, Amanda Brooks and Michael Vollbracht.

"There was all this press, and they were after the fashion industry, blaming us for a lot of the young girls," von Furstenberg said. "But in as much as I don't think we can take all the blame, it is our role to encourage that beauty is health."

Steven Kolb, executive director of the CFDA, was surprised at the initial negative reaction to the CFDA's intentions.

"I knew what we were doing was very genuine, and I thought that starting this conversation was an important step," he said. "It got so much negative press...that we weren't doing enough, that we weren't considering body mass index. It was hard, but it didn't push us away from our health commitment."

Since the first health symposium in February 2007, the CFDA has been sending letters to designers, show agents and stylists to remind them of its efforts and the recommended guidelines and principles of beauty and health.Nian Fish, the chairwoman of the CFDA Health Initiative and KCD creative consultant, has been working with the industry to secure progress. Fish herself struggled with an eating disorder as a teenager and was instrumental in formulating the CFDA guidelines, particularly the suggestions to not use models under the age of 16 without parental guidance, and to not have these young women at fittings into the wee hours.

"This is a daunting issue, so whatever we do is better than zero," she said. "The purpose of this discussion is to continue to raise awareness about this and to know that we have, for lack of a better word, a parental responsibility to these girls, because we use them for their beauty."

According to Fish, agents, casting directors and stylists have been very collaborative over the past year. She noted that it's become almost impossible to find a casting these days with models under 16 without the presence of their mothers.

"Things have been happening," Fish said. "There have been several well-known girls that agents took off the runway and gotten help for," said Fish, who wouldn't disclose names. "They came back and they are still slim, but they have health and are not what we call 'overly skinny.' Our point is not to talk about what size these girls should be, but really projecting a healthy picture. The agents and casting directors have been very aware of this."

After the February symposium, the CFDA held a smaller session with nutritionists, fitness experts, Renfrew Center's Susan Ice and casting agents to talk about the things they should be doing.

As for tonight's aim, Kolb said, "It should not be about people blaming each other, of designers blaming agents, and agents blaming designers. Everybody should recognize that there is a certain aesthetic that designers are looking for to show clothes, but it shouldn't be at the expense of someone's life and health. It's not about a debate on whether fashion is good or bad, but about our industry having a dialogue about how we can be and should be more responsible."

"From the agencies to the designers to photographers and stylists, we all share in the responsibility to make sure that health is a major priority," Kors said.Tonight's discussion is being sponsored by The Tharanco Group and Condé Nast Publications.

Haresh Tharani, chairman of Tharanco, said he had personal reasons to feel so passionate about the issue: His daughter recently suffered from an eating disorder but, with the right help, has been able to recover.

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