Nearly a year after numerous models alleged on-the-job mistreatment and sexual abuse, leading forces in the the fashion industry have adopted policies to try to ensure their well-being.
The seas, so to speak, were considerably calmer before last fall’s New York Fashion Week. Reports of Harvey Weinstein’s alleged decades of sexual harassment and sexual abuse had yet to break. Ditto for The Boston Globe’s February investigative exposé, which detailed models’ claims against several well-known fashion photographers. Other models also described alleged sexual misconduct in reports in The New York Times. In October 2017, the #MeToo movement started to surge and model-activist Cameron Russell called out the fashion industry for its rampant sexual harassment, and shared models’ stories on her Instagram feed.
After Kering and LVMH Moët Hennessy Louis Vuitton issued a charter for models last fall, Condé Nast and Tapestry Inc. — parent of Coach and Kate Spade — in January released ones of their own for photo/video shoots and fashion shows and presentations with the intention of safeguarding those who work with the companies. Kering and LVMH 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. 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.
It goes without saying that models have become more mindful, empowered and vocal about standing their ground on location or on the runway. But what some would consider to be perks of the job — such as post–show parties often with free alcohol — can lead to underage models winding up in compromising situations. As contracted workers, young women, some of whom are new to a city, or country, sometimes end up over their heads in terms of savvy and even the financial know-how to be sure their payment is in check.
In advance of NYFW, the CFDA has advised members to not use models under the age of 18. This effort builds upon an earlier mandate that models under the age of 16 not be allowed to walk the runway. The CFDA’s president and chief executive officer Steven Kolb cited Conde Nast’s Code of Conduct and Vogue’s recent pledge to only work with models who are 18 or older as clear signs of progress. “You saw that same level of leadership with Elite Models and DNA supporting that, and the CFDA as well.” said Kolb, adding that “Being 18 makes a lot of sense in terms of what we know about what has been happening and the level of maturity and ability to be able to deal with some of these adult situations.”
On another front, earlier this year the CFDA Health Initiative was extended to cover health, safety and diversity. That update included information about support lines for victims of sexual harassment and assault. The CFDA has lined up an alliance with The Assemblage, so that models can visit the private club’s two locations during fashion week for yoga, meditation or just to have a safe space. For the second consecutive season, IMG and Spring Studios will create private dressing areas for models backstage, Kolb noted. Other venues such as Pier 59 are making similar accommodations and the CFDA is asking producers at off-site venues to create private dressing areas. The private dressing area initiative started last season with the support of the Model Alliance. Kolb said, “They have developed the RESPECT program and have been doing some industry outreach to create more systems to protect not just models but freelancers as well who aren’t covered by labor laws. Also, a system where they can report labor abuse.”
Kolb said, “The leadership has been significant from editorial, from production, the CFDA and others. How that will translate in terms of the ability to feel comfortable in reporting something or creating a safe work environment, we’ll see. But I’m optimistic about the swift response as these awful allegations have come to light in our industry.”
To try to protect models across the board, The Model Alliance has initiated its Responsibilities RESPECT program to combat discrimination and harassment in fashion, entertainment and media. The program was introduced in May with the support of 100 models including Karen Elson, Doutzen Kroes, Teddy Quinlivan, Nathalia Novaes and Milla Jovovich. The plan is to implement a code of conduct and to have business and industry groups publicly commit to upholding the code with the help of a neutral nonprofit guaranteeing accountability. Setting up channels for filing complaints, conducting investigations and mediation are also part of RESPECT’s aim, as well as establishing a Seal of Approval for affiliates that “demonstrate constructive cooperation,” according to the group’s site.
The Model Alliance founder Sara Ziff said via e-mail, “Recently, a number of private sector initiatives have emerged to address sexual harassment and other abuses in the fashion industry, including the LVMH and Kering Models’ Charter, the Condé Nast Code of Conduct, and Condé Nast’s new underage initiative. What differentiates RESPECT from these initiatives is that our program is informed and powered by the models themselves, it is charged with investigating and addressing complaints impartially, and there are real consequences for individuals who violate the program’s standards. Implementation is key; we know that standards without enforcement are not truly standards, they are aspirational guidelines. Victims often fail to report abuses they have suffered due to their very real concerns about retaliation, so it is critically important to have independent channels for filing complaints. How many models have actually used LVMH/Kering and Condé Nast’s respective hotlines? Since October, the Model Alliance has seen a huge increase in complaints regarding sexual harassment and assault on the job. Our goal is to build on our efforts through the RESPECT Program so that corporate signatories to the program can be made aware of abuses happening under their watch and take appropriate steps to prevent further abuses from happening.”
Earlier this year to promote fair treatment, equal opportunity and more sustainable practices “from the runway to the factory floor,” the group introduced the Models’ Harassment Protection Act in New York and the Models’ Harassment Protection Act in California, bills designed to close loopholes that would leave models open to sexual harassment on the job.
To help models cope with the demands of their jobs, and lives, IMG has increased its Model Prep events from twice a year to a monthly speaker series. “Eating disorders, mental illness, financial fitness — how to keep track of your expenses and pay your taxes on time, security and safety when you’re traveling, how to stay safe” are among the issues discussed. “We tackle a lot. We’ve used #MeToo as an opportunity to try to expand the situation and try to tackle difficult topics that certainly relate to modeling, but also relate to young women and their well-being,” Paula Viola, head of legal and business affairs for IMG, said.
Looking forward, Viola said, “From our perspective, we’d really like to see a continuation of the focus on health and safety around the working conditions of modeling shoots, around fashion shows and castings. It’s great to be able to talk about these things more openly and to have a greater dialogue. The conversations that are going to be happening around New York Fashion Week, many of which are panel discussions that we are organizing, are about things like how to increase model health and safety but also how to diversify the industry. That’s a conversation that we’re very much looking to push forward and to use #MeToo sort of as an opportunity to do that.”
Kering’s chief sustainability officer and head of international institutional affairs Marie-Claire Daveu noted that since the charter’s inception several magazines from Lagardère Group already joined the movement and signed. Kering would welcome other companies to join, too. “We have built up this models’ charter in order to change the way of doing things in depth, and create common standards not only for our brands but also applicable to the entire industry — since the beginning, the mind-set is to open these new guidelines to other brands,” she said.
Among the upsides of incorporating the charter was the speed in which Kering took action. Executives started to work on it before the summer of 2017 and it was written, signed and implemented by all Kering brands in time for last year’s September shows. What was also gratifying was how, “the collaboration in itself between two leading groups such as LMVH and Kering is key to changing mind-sets, and, for the industry, this is a strong signal showing how important the topic is,” said Daveu. “Lastly, the very positive feedback we have received from the stakeholders around us.”
Regarding additional changes that are needed, Daveu said, “With our models charter, there is clearly a before and an after, even if we are aware that we need to keep up the pressure to be sure that every commitment is fully implemented. We also need to continue to monitor and control the application on a regular basis. This is the reason why we created a Steering Committee in charge of the follow-up, which is composed of casting directors and model agencies amongst other members.”
Another area that is showing signs of improvement is diversity thanks to the success of models like Adut Akech and Adesuwa Aighewi. Celebrities are gaining traction as well, as Vogue tapped Beyoncé and its first black cover photographer for September and Rihanna landed British Vogue’s cover, Naomi Campbell and Adwoa Aboah teamed up on Love’s cover and Lupita Nyong’o graced Porter’s September issue. Having championed diversity since she was a model decades ago, activist Bethann Hardison noted the bevy of West African models working in fashion. “There are so many girls of color that it is almost as though they are starting to dominate. The introduction is always on the runway. That’s the beauty of designers. That’s where everything is introduced whether it’s the hemline, textile, silhouette and the model that comes with the collection,” she said. “It’s always so wonderful when you discover the girl, any girl — any color. It doesn’t matter: extreme, wonderful, sedate, awkward. They are just girls you discover because of designers and eventually they do editorial, campaigns and the covers of magazine.”
As for whether Hardison expects this shift to be ongoing, she said, “That’s where my foot stays on the gas. I honestly do for some reason. You’re always hoping that it doesn’t fall back, but for some reason I feel it’s ongoing as long as its done intelligently by modeling agencies, by casting people. Let’s keep it where the model is recognized because she is supreme in her beauty and in her style. It’s really about style more than anything else.”