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Why Most Luxury Brands Still Hire Underage Models

While Kering moved to ban all models under 18, some of the biggest fashion companies haven’t followed suit.
Kaia Gerber, 17, at New York Fashion Week in February 2019 | Source: Getty Images
By
  • Victoria Berezhna

LONDON, United Kingdom — When Gucci banned fur from its products in 2017, it turbocharged a movement that saw many of the industry's most influential brands follow suit. It's less clear whether a decision to stop hiring models under 18 will have a similar impact.

Kering SA, which owns Gucci, Saint Laurent, Balenciaga and other luxury brands, last week announced the policy, which will kick in across all of its maisons starting next year.

Other companies have set the minimum working age for models to 18, including publisher Condé Nast and several talent agencies. New York introduced the Child Model Act with the Model Alliance, which bans brands signing girls under 18 if a company does not possess a certificate of eligibility, submit advance notice, make sure child models have valid work permits and adhere to restricted working hours. They've cited a variety of motivations, from revelations of widespread abuse of models on shoots to research showing young teenagers are ill-equipped for the rigours of the international runway season.

"We are more and more conscious of the kind of influence we have on younger generations through the images produced by our maisons," Kering's Chief Sustainability Officer Marie-Claire Daveu told BoF.  "It's our responsibility to put in place the best possible practices."

We are more and more conscious of the kind of influence we have on younger generations.

But among major luxury brands, Kering is virtually alone in barring under-18 models. And the conglomerate’s main rivals indicate they aren’t interested in following Kering’s lead.

The owners of Louis Vuitton, Versace and Calvin Klein are among the brands that continue to hire models between 16 and 18 years old. Under-18 models are still welcome on most European and Asian catwalks, and many agencies still work with them, fearful of missing out on the next Kaia Gerber or Bella Hadid, who walked their first shows at ages 16 and 17, respectively.

These companies argue that modelling should be treated similar to the entertainment industry, where underage talent is frequently booked for jobs while being subject to extensive protections. Others point to modelling as a vehicle to lift young men and women out of poverty, especially in emerging markets where a model can support her entire family from the money earned during one fashion month circuit.

"They have a chaperone, stricter working conditions — they cannot work on evenings, [they] arrive later in the morning, [they] go back home in a taxi, [consume] no alcohol," said Antoine Arnault, chairman of Loro Piana and CEO of Berluti, last week. "These are short careers. If they decide to choose to go this way, we must accompany them. I prefer to know they are with us than… with brands that would take less care of them."

LVMH signed a charter with Kering in 2017 that raised the minimum age for models to 16. However, the owner of Louis Vuittion, Dior and other brands has no plans to follow Kering's latest move.

I prefer to know they are with us than with brands that would take less care of them.

PVH Corp., which owns Calvin Klein and Tommy Hilfiger, said in a statement that it adopted rules in 2018 governing working hours and the use of chaperones and tutors, among other things. It has adhered to the CFDA's health initiative for models since its launch in 2007.

Capri Holdings, which owns Michael Kors and Versace, said in a statement that it provides a "safe and respectful environment for all models, with special accommodations for the handful of models who are between the ages of 16 and 18." Chanel says on average models aged under 18 represent five out of 80 women at the brand's shows, and insists on "very strict standards," such as having models always be accompanied by a chaperone.

Still, the industry has faced escalating criticism over its use of under-18 models.

"Over the last couple of years the aesthetic became 'young and pre-pubescent' and it's this cycle of faster and newer," said casting director James Scully, whose models' rights advocacy led to Kering and LVMH's Model Charter. "These kids would come in, go through puberty, and their careers will be over. Just this [LVMH and Kering] charter alone stopped the flood of models that weren't ready by thousands."

Sara Ziff, founder and executive director of The Model Alliance — a non-profit organisation that launched, among other initiatives, the Respect programme, a legally binding agreement to establish industry-wide standards and a safety net for models and creatives — said that when a brand casts an underage model, the model will "face a great deal of pressure to capitalise on her brief moment in the spotlight."

She added that these women are encouraged to maintain the same measurements as they age and go through puberty, raising the likelihood they develop eating disorders.

These kids would come in, go through puberty, and their careers will be over.

Some of the biggest agencies won’t send models to runway shows while they’re underage.

"The longer we can delay [a model's entry into the full runway circuit], we found it creates a healthier environment and long-term career," said Chris Gay, co-CEO of Elite World, which also includes agencies Supreme and The Society. While Elite takes on models at 16, all training is done around their high school obligations, and they are only allowed to walk in shows in North America when they turn 18.

Exceptions are made, however. While DNA models, which represents Gerber, said in 2018 that they will no longer submit models under 18 for show consideration in North America, underage models who previously participated in fashion week will be put up for consideration. Gerber, who turns 18 in September, has appeared in dozens of runway shows and ad campaigns.

The percentage of models between 16 and 18 years old who walked the runway last fashion week in New York, London, Paris and Milan among Kering's brands was less than 10 percent, Daveu said.

IMG still hires models between 16 and 18 to the company’s development board, only moving them to the main board once they’ve matured, which could happen at 18 or later. However, underage models can still participate in international fashion weeks, provided they are accompanied by a chaperone, their schedules are manageable and studies remain unaffected.

“Age is only one consideration in the model welfare equation,” said Jeni Rose, IMG’s senior vice president. “Placing limitations on age alone will not inherently improve models’ working conditions, since such measures do little to address systemic issues in the fashion industry.”

Many consider Kering’s move as one in line with the times and with the demands of Millennials and Gen Z, who are increasingly looking at companies’ corporate social responsibility policies to guide their consumption.

“[Kering] obviously realise that youth culture demands that global brands deliver more meaningful standards beyond the status quo,” said Gay. “This will resonate well beyond the runway.”

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