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Was #MeToo Just a Trend for Fashion?

Reactions to public claims of sexual misconduct within fashion have shifted dramatically over the past decade, but critics question how much the industry has really changed. As part of our series reflecting on the 2010s, BoF takes stock.
Source: Shutterstock
  • Tamison O'Connor

As the 2010s come to a close, BoF reflects on how the past decade transformed the fashion industry — and the culture at large. Explore our insights here.

LONDON, United Kingdom — In the heart of London's prestigious Mayfair neighbourhood sits Hamiltons, a gallery that has been exhibiting work from renowned contemporary photographers since the late 1970s. Names well known within the fashion industry, such as Richard Avedon and Irving Penn, are often on its exhibition roster, while works by the likes of Paolo Roversi and Annie Leibovitz have also been displayed.

But the gallery's current exhibition centres on a more divisive figure: Mario Testino. The famed photographer was accused of sexual exploitation by multiple male models, in an exposé published almost two years ago by The New York Times. Testino denied the accusations against him. Now, it seems, he is staging a quiet comeback.

Last month, Kim Kardashian West posted a photo of her and daughter North West on Instagram, tagging Testino in the image, but without revealing when the photograph was taken. The post was picked up by Diet Prada, which commented: "her very public and premature endorsement of Testino is problematic in that it both discredits the experiences of survivors and worse, potentially enables further exploitative behaviour."

Bruce Weber, another photographer named alongside Testino in allegations of years-long sexual misconduct, is also back at work. (Like Testino, Weber denied all the allegations against him.) In February, he released a book about actor Robert Mitchum before debuting a related film, which was screened in a handful of French cinemas. This month, The New York Times reported that the most recent issue of indie magazine Man About Town ran a sexualised spread shot by Weber. (According to editorial and creative director Huw Gwyther, the magazine did not commission the spread, nor was Weber paid for his work.) Similarly, Holiday Magazine ran a shoot by the photographer in its Spring/Summer 2019 issue. The magazine did not respond to BoF's request for comment.

Allegations of sexual misconduct against media mogul Harvey Weinstein in late 2017 saw the #MeToo hashtag skyrocket into the mainstream, with victims of sexual abuse within Hollywood speaking up against their alleged predators. (Weinstein this month reached a tentative $25 million settlement with dozens of his alleged sexual misconduct victims, in a deal that won't require him to admit wrongdoing). The movement quickly caught on in adjacent industries including fashion, prompting numerous investigations into the conduct of once-celebrated photographers, high profile company executives and other powerful industry players. It marked a shift in the way fashion companies responded publicly to allegations of abuse over the course of the decade, but critics still question how much the industry itself has really changed.

When gender equity and sexual respect oppose the very core of fashion, it takes more than a few charters and editorials to change that culture.

October 2017 wasn’t fashion’s first #MeToo moment of the decade. On March 8, 2010, model and actress Rie Rasmussen had a public bust up with high-profile photographer Terry Richardson at a fashion party inside Paris nightclub Le Montana. The model and actress accused him of exploiting young and vulnerable models.

"He takes girls who are young, manipulates them to take their clothes off and takes pictures of them they will be ashamed of," she said of the photographer, well known for his overtly sexual photography style. "They are too afraid to say no because their agency booked them on the job and are too young to stand up for themselves," she told New York celebrity tabloid Page Six, which reported on the incident.

The Page Six story sparked a deluge of additional allegations of Richardson's sexual misconduct and inappropriate behaviour from Jamie Peck, Sarah Hilker, and a handful of female models who requested anonymity for fear of repercussions. (The photographer responded with a blog post in which he vehemently refuted the allegations.)

However, unlike 2017 and 2018's wide-reaching global #MeToo moment, there was little public censure of the photographer. At the time, Fashionista put it to editors, writers, publicists and stylists, asking whether they thought there would be any consequences for the New York-born photographer. Respondents would only speak under the guarantee of anonymity.

"Aside from being a great photographer, Terry's very popular. I think his friends in the business won't throw him overboard because of some Page Six scandal," said one respondent. "Maybe a few parents won't let their girls shoot with him, but aside from that, no way," said another.

They weren't wrong, and Richardson's career continued to thrive. Over the next four years, he photographed some of the biggest celebrity names, from Oprah and the Kardashians; released a book with Lady Gaga; shot music videos for Beyoncé and Miley Cyrus. He continued to be employed top magazines and brands, including Harper's Bazaar and GQ luxury labels Valentino and Jimmy Choo, and mass retailers H&M and Target.

As new allegations against Richardson surfaced in 2014, leading to a further denial against what the photographer described as "hate-filled and libellous tales," the wider fashion industry again remained largely silent.

Fast forward to October 2017, when fashion seemingly woke up to its own problems of sexual misconduct. Model and activist Cameron Russell took to Instagram that month to spotlight individual stories and speak out against widespread mistreatment of models by industry professionals, using the hashtag #myjobshouldnotincludeabuse.

“This was not an exposé because nothing in these stories should be a revelation for those working in our industry,” Russell wrote on Instagram at the time.

Soon, more models came forward with exposés of abuse and sexual misconduct by some of fashion's most powerful figures, including Testino, Weber, Patrick Demarchelier and David Bellemere. All those accused of sexual misconduct denied the allegations.

Actress Kate Upton spoke out against alleged harassment by Guess Co-Founder and soon-to-be former CEO Paul Marciano. (Marciano denied the allegations against him.) Sara Sampaio called out French men's magazine Lui for allegedly publishing nude photos of the model without her consent.

This time, the fashion community was visible in their support of those who spoke out. Brands and magazines introduced codes of conduct to protect models from workplace abuse. Stylists worked with Hollywood clients on an unofficial fashion “black-out” for the 2017 Golden Globes in solidarity with victims of sexual harassment. Multi-billion-dollar companies launched internal investigations into inappropriate workplace behaviour.

In February 2018, Lululemon abruptly announced Chief Executive Laurent Potdevin would resign after he "fell short of ... standards of conduct," while Under Armour banned employees from expensing strip club outings on their corporate cards — something that The Wall Street Journal reported was "long-standing company practice" among employees and executives, including CEO Kevin Plank.

Meanwhile, Richardson, was swiftly blacklisted by the likes of Condé Nast International and Valentino, both of which had continued to work with him until 2017.

"The industry has gone through an evolution [over the past decade]," said Brooke Wall, CEO and founder of The Wall Group, a creative talent management company that represents names like Elizabeth Saltzman, Karla Welch and Kate Young. "Behaviours that were once overlooked or brushed aside are no longer being tolerated."

So, what changed?

According to Ivan Bart, president of IMG Models, "#MeToo's omnipresence [in society] created a sense of cultural accountability and mandated that everyone pay attention and enact change… We have collectively become more attuned, not only to our own behaviours, but to the way we interact in the workplace."

The rise of social media from 2014 onwards upended the fashion industry's power dynamics: now consumers could be a part of the conversation in a way they never had before. The actions and choices of editors, stylists, photographers and chief executives could now be held to account, especially under the constant surveillance of social media watchdogs like Diet Prada and Estée Laundry.

This shift has created an environment where it is bad for business to look the other way for fear of a social media-fuelled PR disaster. Today’s consumers expect their preferred brands to stand against unethical and intolerable practices.

The industry has gone through an evolution. Behaviours that were once overlooked or brushed aside are no longer being tolerated.

The past decade has also seen a changing of the guard among creatives working within the industry, the make-up of which has impacted attitudes among fashion’s workforce.

"I cannot recall such a potent time for women both behind and in front of the camera," Bart said, pointing to the rise of names like Cass Bird, Shaniqwa Jarvis, Harley Weir and Collier Schorr. "This has naturally changed the dynamics on photosets. Gender equality and sexual respect are of greater priority in fashion's workplaces than ever before."

To be sure, a handful of industry figures were fiercely advocating for model rights before the #MeToo movement scaled in 2017. Casting director James Scully and Model Alliance Founder Sara Ziff were among those who had been working to end abuses of power and fighting to make the fashion business more ethical. Ziff, in particular, is still vocal about the need to turn awareness into action, questioning whether much has actually changed at all.

"This is a business that is still largely unregulated, where there are no industry standards," she told BoF last year. "Industry standards and codes without enforcement mechanisms in place are not standards. They are aspirations."

What has changed is an acknowledgement of the problem, Ziff said. "But the behaviour hasn't changed that much because there is not currently a system in place to address these concerns," she told BoF in a previous interview.

According to Dr Ben Barry, researcher, activist and chair of fashion at Ryerson University in Toronto, the impact of the movement has only been felt by the most privileged within the industry.

“The brands with the most power have championed and enforced codes of conduct for creatives and models who also have the most power. But for those without power, they have not been held to the same account nor protected by the same regulations,” he said, pointing to the absence of discussions around widespread cultures of sexual violence in the Global South, where many brands’ clothes are manufactured by predominantly female garment workers.

In 2019, the #MeToo conversation has visibly slowed, and now, two of the photographers who faced sexual misconduct accusations have made a quiet comeback.

For Barry, “when gender equity and sexual respect oppose the very core of fashion, it takes more than a few charters and editorials to change that culture.”

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