PARIS — In fashion history books, 2017 may well go down as the year in which models found their voice — and the industry started listening more intently.
For the first time this season, French luxury groups Kering and LVMH Moët Hennessy Louis Vuitton implemented strict new measures governing the well-being of models, resulting in a ban on size-zero and under-16 models from shows including Gucci, Louis Vuitton, Saint Laurent, Givenchy, Balenciaga and Céline.
In recent months, models have started speaking out about their working conditions on social media, a phenomenon that is snowballing with Cameron Russell’s decision to post anonymous stories describing abuse and sexual harassment on Instagram with the hashtag #myjobshouldnotincludeabuse.
They have found a number of male allies who are spearheading important changes — no doubt reflecting the fact that powerful women are still a minority in the fashion industry.
Backed by François-Henri Pinault, chairman and chief executive officer of Kering, and Antoine Arnault, ceo of Berluti and a director at LVMH, the charter on the well-being of models unveiled in early September has had a ripple effect on other houses, and not just in Paris.
“It’s already had an enormous impact on the industry as a whole,” said Cyril Brulé, founder and director of Viva Model Management and president of the National Union of Modeling Agencies, which goes by the French acronym SYNAM.
He noted that even brands outside Kering and LVMH took care this season to avoid situations that were considered normal in the past, for instance, having models change in full view of everyone backstage, or making them wait all night for fittings.
For casting director James Scully, who set the ball rolling during Paris Fashion Week in February by publicly denouncing several brands for allegedly mistreating models, the change has been swift and dramatic.
“So far, I think it’s been incredibly positive,” he said. “I can’t thank Kering and LVMH enough because they were really, really, really serious about getting this under way.”
Scully said he has witnessed a steady increase in poor behavior over the last decade, but the tide appears to be turning.
“It used to be rampant, and not only was it rampant, it was just kind of the norm,” he said. “I did hear from other casting directors and models that a lot of brands outside of this charter have all taken the rules and are using them as a guideline. That already is pretty helpful.”
Officials at Kering and LVMH said there was no going back.
“In a way, it has lit a spark, and for me, there is a before and an after,” said Marie-Claire Daveu, chief sustainability officer and head of international institutional affairs at Kering.
“The culture is changing, it had to change, and our charter is about saying that things that may have been tolerated before by some as being part of the job are not — and will never be, in fact — part of the job,” she said, listing issues such as the absence of a chaperone with a minor, or the lack of private space to change.
“Zero risk unfortunately doesn’t exist, but we are putting into place the tools that can help prevent or denounce any problem,” Daveu added.
Marc-Antoine Jamet, secretary-general of LVMH, said he hoped other groups would publicly endorse the charter.
“We want to be at the heart of a movement and to bring everyone together,” he said.
“So far, nobody has joined us officially. But there is a shift in the mood so that people are backing us privately. Some of them still think that if they say, ‘I am joining you,’ that means they were doing something wrong before. That might actually be the case, but perhaps this is the right time to say so,” he added.
Brulé and Scully worked with Kering and LVMH on the charter after separately concluding the industry was reaching a tipping point.
“During London Fashion Week in March, one of the models from our London agency was very ill because she was malnourished, and over the last two years, we have seen a number of models with physical and psychological issues like depression,” Brulé said.
“That’s when I thought [that] I can’t continue doing my job in deteriorating conditions where there is a tyranny of thinness that is tantamount to violence against women,” he added.
Scully likewise said he was close to turning his back on fashion when he decided to start speaking out. “When I did it, I just didn’t give a crap. I was just, like, ‘I don’t care if I’m thrown out of this tomorrow,’” he said. “I couldn’t take another minute of it.”
All parties agreed that despite the positive start, there was room for improvement in the implementation of the charter. A shared monitoring committee is scheduled to meet later this year to swap first impressions.
“There are going to be slip-ups,” Scully said. “But the one thing I do know is a lot of people out there who were the big offenders, they fell into line really quick, and the fact that the models noticed that, it pretty much proved that it was a great beginning.”
With only weeks to go before the shows, Kering and LVMH sent out strict instructions to their brands. Among them: Models were to provide a medical certificate less than six months old certifying their overall health; models under 18 were to be accompanied by a chaperone or guardian at all times, and brands were to provide return transport for any model working after 8 p.m.
Pinault and Arnault both warned that no exceptions would be tolerated.
The change was apparent from Day One, with the backstage area at Dior plastered with posters containing nutritional advice and the number of a psychological support hotline. Dior creative director Maria Grazia Chiuri, who has championed feminism in her work, was an early supporter of the charter.
Both groups took steps to ensure that no models under a size 2 hit the runway — going as far as measuring models backstage.
“One of the things that I also did hear from many agencies is there were quite a few girls who had to be sent home because they didn’t fall into that realm, and all of those girls were under 18,” Scully said.
Brulé said Viva was careful to field only models he thought would make the cut.
“We refused to take on some new models this fashion week, and we asked others that we already represent not to come, because we think they are much too thin and they need to put on a few pounds if they want to work for us in Paris,” he explained.
“The hardest thing is telling models who have been on a very strict diet for years that they can start eating normally and they won’t lose work,” Brulé added.
Model Coco Rocha, speaking after the charter was announced in September, said it was important not to stigmatize models who are naturally thin.
“If we’re all about being inclusive, it’s rough to say that every size-zero person is unhealthy. I’m a size zero and I just ate a hamburger,” she said.
“We have to understand there are people out there who are petite and skinny and they can’t do anything about it. It’s been all about being inclusive and I love it, but I don’t think removing some girls because of the stigma that they are unhealthy is fair. There are probably some girls who are unhealthy, so we need to decipher who that is and how do we change that,” Rocha added.
Other observers noted there was no visible move toward plus-size models on the Paris runways, with the exception of the Alexander McQueen show, which featured two. In New York, by contrast, brands such as Prabal Gurung, Michael Kors and Anna Sui cast a variety of sizes.
“We had our most diverse show package ever this past season, and we’re seeing a fashion industry increasingly interested in runways that reflect the world we live in,” said Ivan Bart, president of IMG Models, which represents models including Kaia Gerber, Ashley Graham and Christie Brinkley.
“For us, size doesn’t matter. It’s the talent that matters, and if there are laws in place, we obey those laws,” he added.
Bart said the charter did not have a significant impact on how the agency operates, since he does not field models under 16 for runway shows and always has a chaperone or guardian accompany those under 18.
“Our intention and our behavior have long reflected the values and guidelines initiatives like this charter are now finally trying to address,” he said.
Even if changing the Paris mind-set may take a while longer, Jamet felt the mood backstage was already more relaxed. “I saw a joie de vivre among models that you didn’t feel at some shows in the past,” he reported.
“I’m not saying people were 20 kilos heavier, but it was obvious there was a physical change. And we know that because there were maybe one or two houses that didn’t play along, among all those that showed during fashion week, and you could really tell the difference,” he added.
Daveu said the process was just beginning. “With this charter, we have forged a new path. Globally, the brands were operational in record time, so that already was a real accomplishment,” she said.
“I’m satisfied with the application of the charter in this first version. Having said that, it’s a work in progress, as we indicated from the start, so I won’t say that everything was perfect the first time around,” she added.
Indeed, the charter met with resistance from five modeling agencies, who sent a joint letter to Kering and LVMH, saying that even though they supported the initiative in principle, they regretted not having been consulted.
“Moreover, we are receiving many new requests from you that impose deadlines that we are obviously unable to meet,” said the letter, signed by the heads of Elite, Karin Models, Oui Management, Success Management and Women Management.
Eric Perceval, secretary-general of the French Federation of Modeling Agencies, which represents four out of the five agencies in question — declined to expand on the letter, as they were due to meet with Kering and LVMH to discuss the matter.
“The FFAM and its members fully support the spirit of this charter,” he added, saying the letter was motivated by technical concerns linked to the way the occupational medicine system works in France.
Daveu and Jamet said the modeling agencies’ main objection was having to provide a medical certificate less than six months old, which goes further than the French legal requirement for a certificate dated less than two years ago.
“The Givenchy show was tough, because I think out of 37 models, there were 21 that belonged to the five agencies,” said Jamet, adding that an agreement was eventually struck with all the parties involved. The group expects full compliance by Paris Couture Week in January.
Daveu said she would meet with each Kering brand to find out what issues, if any, they encountered.
“Together with LVMH, we will be meeting with these agencies in the coming weeks to determine what worked and what didn’t work. To be honest, when you are implementing new and somewhat disruptive measures, you also need to manage change,” she said.
Another point that Kering and LVMH want to fine-tune is the hotline. Jamet said the LVMH number did not receive any calls, while Daveu could not say how many, if any, were made to the Kering platform.
“We may have to review the hotline, because it was conceived as a way for models to express themselves, but given that many of them are digital natives, it is not necessarily the most adequate platform. That is something we will have to examine, depending on the feedback we will get [from our houses],” she said.
Jamet agreed. “It’s up to us to imagine new forms of communication, new platforms, new ways to provide information to models,” he said, adding that LVMH also wants to work on a booklet of nutrition advice, and possibly a related app.
There is no doubt that social media will continue playing a leading role in policing the sector. “I think social networks have been more than useful because they have really helped raise awareness of the issue and given an idea of how widespread it is,” Daveu said.
“This has been a key concern for François-Henri Pinault for a long time. He had the feeling that things were evolving, but they weren’t evolving fast enough. Social networks have provided models with a sounding board and a direct voice,” she added.
Brulé, whose agency represents models including Adwoa Aboah, Aymeline Valade and Edie Campbell, said there was no question of trying to censor their voices. Aboah and Campbell, for instance, belong to a group of models that is helping Russell to relay the flood of testimonies she is receiving.
“I think freedom of speech is important and beyond the measures in the charter, what was important was to send a message to models that the houses were on their side and that they could express themselves and voice their discontent if they didn’t agree with something,” Brulé said.
Bart said it was important to ensure everyone along the chain is respectful of models. “Vigilance is key. We must continue to hold each other accountable across all aspects of the industry,” he argued.
Scully said models who speak out are brave — and are finding an increasingly supportive community online.
“When models would speak out about things like that, other models would never like those posts, and the fact that, this time, models came out in defense because they know it’s happening and it’s happened to them, I think that’s pretty great,” he said.
“You’re probably going to get called out, and that is the thing I think in the last year that has changed completely,” Scully added. “I’m wondering in this next year how much this will or won’t go away. My feeling is that these things won’t go away anymore, because once you open the door, that’s it.”