Models backstage.

The Model Alliance founder and executive director Sara Ziff on Friday met in Paris with the French Minister of Gender Equality Marlene Schiappa and representatives from LVMH Moët Hennessy Louis Vuitton, Kering, Chanel and other brands to discuss fashion’s human trafficking problem. To offer a firsthand account, Airica Kraehmer traveled with Ziff to tell her experience, during the multibrand meeting, which was held to mark European Anti-Trafficking Day, according to information provided by the Model Alliance. As a potential solution, the alliance presented its “Respect” program as a way to prevent trafficking and abuse of models and others who help market French fashion’s most powerful brands.

Introduced in May 2018, the program calls for brands, modeling agencies and media outlets to sign a legally binding agreement to protect models. Their aim was to create an environment of mutual respect and to stop sexual harassment in the industry. In the past several  years, numerous male photographers have come under fire for allegedly mistreating or abusing models. Mario Testino, Bruce Weber, Patrick Demarchelier and Terry Richardson are among those who have been accused of misconduct, largely via media exposés — although some have denied the allegations. Karen Elson, Doutzen Kroes, Teddy Quinlivan, Bryce Thompson and Jason Fedele were among the 100 well-known models that helped to launch the program.

The focus on European fashion houses follows more than a year of trying to get American brands to commit to the program. A Model Alliance spokeswoman said Friday the group “is in negotiations with several companies.” She declined to pinpoint how many have committed thus far.

By the alliance’s assessment, the Models’ Charter introduced in 2017 by Kering and LVMH was ”a first step toward better compliance with human rights.” Describing the self-regulation approach as “insufficient,” the alliance noted the need for a neutral third-party monitor so that more models would have the incentive to come forward. As a result, the hotline for the Models’ Charter was ended since it was not being used, with the belief that models were fearful of being blacklisted by brands if they came forward.

Most working and aspiring models who fall victim to trafficking or abuse are unaware of their rights, or what to do when exploitation occurs, according to Ziff. Many models are afraid of retaliation when deciding whether or not to report abuse. The alliance believes the Respect program could create a safe and fair work environment. The initiative offers an enforceable code of conduct for the fashion industry, with mandatory consequences for brands, modeling agencies, photographers and other service providers who violate the terms of the code. Respect also creates a neutral third-party Standards Council that will be charged with receiving and investigating complaints, issuing corrective action plans to address work-related abuses and, ultimately, to work toward prevention. Finally, the program includes avenues for models to file complaints and seek guidance, which are improvements on the alliance’s existing support line.

In advance of Friday’s event in Paris, the alliance offered Kraehmer’s prepared remarks, noting that her modeling career started at the age of 12. She planned to attest that her manager sexually assaulted her, and her New York modeling agency turned out to be a criminal escort ring. “When I was trafficked, I was taken against my will to a house I had never seen before. I was kidnapped, assaulted and raped repeatedly — sometimes a dozen times in one day, and beaten any time I tried to fight back. I wanted to die,” said Kraehmer regarding abuses she suffered in 2015. “How could my dream of working for brands like Alexander McQueen and Dior — a dream that seemed within reach when I first moved to New York — result in scars on my body, broken bones, deep trauma and so much more?”

Regarding the timing of the European initiative, the alliance’s material referenced how the Jeffrey Epstein case “brought to light the problem of trafficking in the modeling industry, and highlighted how the issue is not only domestic but across borders.”

The alliance press material also cited the French modeling scout Jean-Luc Brunel, who was an associate of Epstein’s. French prosecutors have accused Brunel, the founder of Karin Model and MC2 Model Management, of sexual harassment. As a former companion of Epstein’s, Brunel is reportedly part of a larger investigation led by French officials into the alleged sexual exploitation of women and girls by Epstein and his circle. “Now, models are urging companies not only to address these abuses, but also to work toward prevention. With traffickers frequently posing as agents, photographers, or other professionals working in the industry, models are especially vulnerable to trafficking because few standards or norms exist regarding models’ recruitment and work conditions. When exploitation occurs, models are often unaware of their rights and lack adequate support,” the alliance’s material said.

“I know I am just one model,” said Kraehmer. “But there are thousands of stories like mine out there, thousands of models being taken advantage of. Some of their stories are told, but most are not.”