NEW YORK, United States — Over one hundred models have signed a letter released on Tuesday morning to Victoria’s Secret Lingerie Chief Executive John Mehas, urging the brand to make a legally binding commitment to protect contractors like models from sexual misconduct.
“From the headlines about L Brands CEO Leslie Wexner’s close friend and associate, Jeffrey Epstein, to the allegations of sexual misconduct by photographers Timur Emek, David Bellemere and Greg Kadel, it is deeply disturbing that these men appear to have leveraged their working relationships with Victoria’s Secret to lure and abuse vulnerable girls,” reads the petition spearheaded by the Model Alliance, a nonprofit research and advocacy organisation led by Sara Ziff. The former model encountered Epstein early in her career, and recently wrote about it for The Cut.
Co-signers include former Victoria’s Secret “Angel” Doutzen Kroes as well as models Christy Turlington Burns, Carolyn Murphy, Edie Campbell, Gemma Ward, Iskra Lawrence, Karen Elson and Milla Jovovich. The letter is also signed by the Hollywood-led initiative Time’s Up and industry leaders such as photographers Inez Van Lamsweerde and Vinoodh Matadin and former Glamour Editor-in-chief Cindi Leive.
The Model Alliance’s letter calls on Victoria’s Secret to sign on to its Respect programme, which was designed by models and released in 2018 to formalise the ways in which models can report workplace problems across industries and create an independent body to investigate complaints, as well as provide education and training. Companies that sign onto the programme make a binding commitment to its principles. This commitment also applies to a company’s contractors, such as photographers, agents and vendors.
"Models are really finding their voice and excepting more of companies, especially Victoria's Secret," said Ziff in an interview. "Victoria's Secret is not just dealing with problems that are cosmetic. This isn't a marketing issue, this is a human rights issue."
L Brands was already in conversations for some months with the Model Alliance about signing the Respect initiative, said Model Alliance board member Agatha Schmaedick Tan. But the organisation decided to escalate the process with this public letter partially because allegations of sexual misconduct against Timur Emek, who photographed Victoria's Secret Fashion Shows, encouraged more models to share their stories and concerns with the alliance in recent weeks. Emek did not respond to request for comment.
"We are always concerned about the welfare of our models and want to continue to have dialogue with the Model Alliance and others to accomplish meaningful progress in the industry," said a spokesperson for Victoria's Secret.
The call to action comes during a difficult period for Victoria’s Secret, the American lingerie behemoth owned by Leslie H. Wexner’s L Brands. Not only is the company facing sliding sales due to changing consumer attitudes, which are turning against its sexualised image, but Wexner’s decades-long relationship with sexual offender Jeffrey Epstein has come under intense scrutiny. The New York Times recently reported that Epstein presented himself to models as a scout for the brand. Wexner has denied any knowledge of this behaviour, and the L Brands board of directors has hired a firm to investigate Epstein’s relationship with the company. Last year, reporting in the Boston Globe alleged photographers Greg Kadel and David Bellemere, who had both worked for Victoria’s Secret, had a history of sexual misconduct with its models. Both men denied the allegations, and the brand has stopped hiring them.
Victoria’s Secret has long made supermodels a big part of its brand. Some of the girls who work for the company are called “Angels” and enjoy lucrative, multi-year contracts, appearing in the company’s once anticipated, now criticised made-for-television runway show led by Ed Razek, the brand’s longtime marketing head who announced his resignation on Monday. This year, the lingerie brand will not stage or televise its traditional fashion show.
“Victoria’s Secret has the opportunity to be a leader, to use its power and influence to bring about the changes that are urgently needed in our industry,” read the letter. “Every day, fashion brands, publishing companies, and agencies set the norm of what’s acceptable and what’s not in fashion.”
Victoria’s Secret’s support would be a win for the Model Alliance’s Respect initiative, which has widespread support from models but has yet to sign on any companies. In 2018, Condé Nast created its own code of conduct following allegations of sexual misconduct against several of its contract photographers. Kering and LVMH jointly signed a charter in 2017 that also established workplace conduct norms for models. Both Condé Nast and Kering have also committed to not working with child models under the age of 18.
"The modeling industry is largely unregulated, which has created challenges to establishing even the most reasonable baseline protections," said Ziff, describing models as a highly vulnerable workforce. "It's like the wild west."