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Talent Agencies Split on Promoting Underage Models

A shift is underway in the modelling world as agencies, publishers and fashion brands are vowing to only work with 18-and-over models. But not everyone is on the same page. 
Gucci Autumn/Winter 2015 | Source: Associated Press
By
  • Cathaleen Chen

NEW YORK, United States — Ford Models is joining a growing number of agencies, publishers and fashion houses to ban the use of under-18 models during New York Fashion Week.

Ford, which represents about 800 models, will no longer sign any new talent under the age of 16, and will not promote models under the age of 18 for fashion shows in North America, effective immediately, chief executive Nancy Chen said. The agency follows DNA Models and The Society Management in submitting only 18-and-over models for fashion shows, though all three make exceptions for under-18 models that have walked in previous seasons.

Underage models are more vulnerable to the abuses of the industry, advocates say, such as eating disorders and the stresses of a jet-setting job. In the wake of the #MeToo movement, the industry is also grappling with the reality that minors are especially susceptible to exploitation, and are often intimidated by possible repercussions if they come forward.

Signing and promoting models under 18 was not common practice for Ford to begin with, the agency’s chief executive Nancy Chen told BoF.

“The hope is that other agencies will join hands and this becomes a widespread thing,” she said.

Chen points to a Vogue editorial, published last month, that atoned for Vogue's own use of underage models and called on other decision-makers in the industry to follow suit. Condé Nast released a code of conduct in February, to ensure the safety of those involved in editorial shoots, including a provision that banned models under 18. Kering and LVMH both committed to stopping the use of models under the age of 16 last year, and the Council of Fashion Designers of America issued a statement last month encouraging brands to only work with models aged 18 and over.

"The agencies, publishers and brands committing to [an 18-plus policy] are leading in a way ... that will hopefully inspire [others] to do the same," said Steven Kolb, president and chief executive of the CFDA.

Pushing teenagers into professional modelling before the end of puberty can have dire consequences, supporters of the limit say. Sixteen-year-olds may fit into sample sizes because they’ve not stopped growing. When they get older and outgrow these sizes, some might develop body image issues — even eating disorders.

"It's not a healthy environment for young people, nor does it create a healthy career," said Chris Gay, chief executive of Elite World Group, the parent company of Society Management and a number of other agencies including Women Management and Supreme Models, which have yet to adopt the rule.

Setting an age limit also “delays the decision to make a professional career. It gives someone the ability to stay in school and to not necessarily rush through that process,” he said.

Minors are also less likely to report harassment and abuse on set, Gay added. “There is a large power dynamic when minors are concerned, and a lot of the time a kid might not have the courage to speak up when they should.”

Earlier this year, the Boston Globe's extensive investigation of sexual abuse in the modelling world found that adolescent models routinely encounter exploitative situations with photographers, stylists and agents.

Enacting the age limit could also benefit the industry from a professional standpoint, according to Ford’s Chen. “It shrinks the overall talent pool… [so] this allows for everyone to focus on the longevity of each individual talent’s careers,” she said.

But some agencies plan to continue working with under-18 models, including two of the biggest, IMG Models and Next Management.

IMG Models will continue scouting and signing models as young as 14, though the company has a longstanding policy of not allowing them to walk in shows until they turn 16. IMG, a unit of talent, sports and events management giant Endeavor, represents some of the most well-known under-18 models, including Kaia Gerber. For the September shows in New York, 12 of the 54 models IMG proposed for designers were under 18, the company said.

To prepare models for the potential stresses and pitfalls associated with the industry, IMG has a development program that addresses issues such as mental health, eating disorders and what to expect on the job. Younger models are also granted protective measures, such as being chaperoned at all times by family members or IMG staff. The agency also set up private dressing areas backstage at New York Fashion Week spaces operated by IMG in which underage models are required to change and complies to California and New York state provisions on child models.

Age is not always the deciding factor in whether a model is ready for a job, said David Cunningham, senior vice president of scouting and development at IMG Models.

“There are going to be some 17-year-olds we work with who are completely prepared … and some 19-year-olds who are not,” he explained. “It’s about maturity and confidence.”

Ultimately, the conversation should be centred around ensuring models are adequately protected, said Paula Viola, head of legal affairs at IMG Models.

“We feel comfortable that we have the infrastructure here to give people a great career regardless of their age,” she said. “We hope … that 18-plus isn’t the end of the conversation, but that it’s the beginning of a conversation about diversity and … health and safety and sample sizes — for all of our models.”

Next Management said it has certain protections for their under-18 models, such as chaperones. The president of its New York division, Kyle Hagler, pointed to the importance of “the proper systems” in place to protect their childhood.

“While I understand the positive motivations for [the 18-and-over] suggestion, I started working from the age of 13. I was always treated well, and what I took away from that experience was the value of working, the importance of creating my own possibilities through work,” he said in an email statement.

Right now, there is no legislation or law that bans underage models outright, according to Kolb. The CFDA does not have the power to enforce such rule if it were imposed, he said. “Right now there are people who think it’s a good idea but there are people who don’t necessarily feel we need to do it.”

But, he added, in a perfect world, underage models will be organically phased out as 18-and-over becomes the industry norm.

Additional reporting by Brian Baskin and Andres Pajon-Leite. 

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