Model Alliance founder Sara Ziff, New York State Sen. Brad Hoylman and model Karen Elson on Friday afternoon unveiled the proposed Fashion Workers Act to regulate modeling agencies.
Designed to create more accountability and transparency in the fashion industry, the pro-labor legislation is meant to regulate predatory management agencies. The proposed bill is designed to give models and behind-the-scenes creatives as much labor support as any other worker in New York State. If approved, the legislation would ensure that agencies have a fiduciary responsibility to models and creatives. That would encompass hairstylists, makeup artists and others who fuel the fashion industry. It would also see to it that workers are paid on time and in full. Unreasonably high commissions and outrageous fees would be prohibited, according to Hoylman.
New protections would also be created to prevent retaliation, which is something “that so many models have experienced,” said Hoylman, who thanked the models in attendance for speaking out publicly. “You’re doing it with some risk without this legislation.”
The legislation was presented by Hoylman and New York State assembly member Karines Reyes on Wednesday in the New York State House. There has not yet been any action taken. Friday’s press conference at Lincoln Center, which was once home to New York Fashion Week, marked the official public announcement. Supporters — including a bevy of models and Freelancers Union executive director Rafael Espinal — gathered on what was the 111th anniversary of the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire. Citing that anniversary, Ziff said: “New York has a responsibility to finish the job of the labor movement and extend these protections of the workers who are left out. We hope Albany lawmakers will rise to the occasion.”
The 1911 blaze in Greenwich Village resulted in 146 deaths and was the deadliest industrial disaster in the city’s history. The majority of the victims were young women.
The Fashion Workers Act would require management agencies to act in the best interests of their talent, pay models and creatives within 45 days, provide them with copies of contracts and agreements, register and deposit a surety bond of $50,000 with New York State, conduct reasonable inquiries regarding health and safety on set and notify former models and creatives if management collects royalties from a talent they no longer represent. It would also forbid the management company or client from discriminating or harassing talent on the basis of race, ethnicity and other legally permissible categories under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act as amended.
In her remarks, Ziff spoke of how New York Fashion Week is big business, generating nearly $600 million annually for the state. Noting how New York’s fashion industry employs 180,000 people and creates $11 billion in wages, she said “the creative workforce behind that success is totally unprotected.”
The bill is designed to close the loophole to make management companies accountable, to require them to pay models and creatives within 45 days of completing jobs, provide them with sound contracts and agreements, discontinue predatory practices, mystery fees, overcharges and such practices as placing 10 models in one apartment and charging them well above the market rate.
Introducing herself as “a well-respected model with a career spanning almost 25 years,” Elson said throughout that time it has been “an ongoing battle” to try to get financial transparency from modeling agencies and to get paid in a reasonable amount of time. Sometimes models and creatives have to wait for up to a year to get paid and “then receive a mere fraction of what they thought they would receive,” Elson said.
Recently, her lawyer and accountant emailed a former agency for five months to try to get paid for a shoot that she had done last year. “It took my accountant to be increasingly bullish and threatening in order for me to get paid. It should never have to come to that. It’s demoralizing and humiliating to have to beg to be paid. Young creatives entering the fashion industry don’t have the means, nor the support that I do to have the help that they need to get paid,” Elson said.
Afterward, Hoylman made the point that if a model like Elson can’t get paid on time, “how do we expect the thousands of models who aren’t well-known and the creatives who work behind-the-scenes to get their checks and have the protections that every worker in New York State deserves.”
While the fashion industry accounts for about 5 percent of New York’s workforce and nearly $2 billion in tax revenues annually, “the cultural impact may be even greater than the financial impact,” Hoylman said. “New York City is the best-dressed place in the country. It is part of what makes this industry special yet models and creatives often have the least leverage and the least power. And that’s just plain wrong.”
The senator vowed that the scales of power would be equalized and all workers in the industry would have the dignity that they deserve in the workplace. He acknowledged the 146 people who died in the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire because of “a basic lack of protections in their workplace.” He also noted how labor activist Frances Perkins’ career launched following the tragedy. After witnessing the fire, Perkins became the Secretary for the Committee on Safety, which created 36 labor laws including the 40-hour work week, and passage of both the Social Security Act and the Wagner Act, “which allowed for unionizing and negotiate under good faith.“
The rollout of the Fashion Workers Act wasn’t the only debut for Elson. Along with being a model, author and activist, she is a songwriter and musician. On Friday, Elson debuted her latest single “Broken Shadow,” which was co-written and co-produced by Daniel Tashian and Ian Fitchuk. The new song is a preview of her upcoming album titled “Green” that Big Yellow Dog will release April 29.