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What Must Fashion Do to Safeguard Models?

In the post #MeToo era, the industry has gained momentum in its race to protect models. But how far has it come in recent years?
Givenchy Haute Couture Backstage FW18 | Source: InDigital
  • Sophie Soar

OXFORDSHIRE, United Kingdom — Two years ago, casting director-turned-whistle blower James Scully delivered his plea to end the "cruel and sadistic" treatment of models to an audience at VOICES 2016, BoF's annual gathering for big thinkers in the fashion industry held in partnership with QIC Global Real Estate.

Scully’s address unveiled the abuse and bullying once passed over as industry norms, garnering global attention from which he still receives between five to ten letters a week. Yet, despite that “initial blast”, the uptake to advocate change was hesitant. “The line that I kept getting from people was, ‘I totally support you, but I can’t put my name on this,’” Scully told BoF.

So, in 2017, Scully returned to Soho Farmhouse to host one of five VOICES Salons designed to spark debate and explore solutions for some of the most pressing issues in fashion today, including: “What must fashion do to safeguard models?”

That salon announced the Responsible Trust for Models, or RTM, an organisation looking to apply independently audited certification to modelling agencies. “There is a deep issue entrenched within the industry that needs shifting,” Elizabeth Peyton-Jones, founder of RTM, said to salon attendees. “But the problem is making the shift because the dynamic is so set that actually just to shift it creates quite a force.”

Indeed, the force required to set endeavours to safeguard models in motion was the #MeToo movement, which gained traction in October 2017 following sexual assault accusations against Harvey Weinstein. The campaign gave way to similar allegations against casting directors, agents and leading fashion photographers, including Terry Richardson, Mario Testino and Patrick Demarchelier. “#MeToo jumpstarted everything that was going on. It made it more urgent,” said Scully.

The line that I kept getting from people was, 'I totally support you, but I can't put my name on this.'

That sense of urgency saw the likes of luxury conglomerates and long-term rivals LVMH and Kering unite to create their Model Safety Charter. “I thought this was going to be a five-year journey before LVMH and Kering would sit in a room together,” Scully told BoF. “The fact that that happened four months later was pretty incredible. When people used to say it’s not possible, I say 'well it is possible; LVMH [and] Kering sat in the same room and knew they had to do the right thing.'”

Despite following the announcement of the LVMH and Kering Charter, some salon attendees still expressed despair towards the industry. One participant said, “I'm so disillusioned, I don't believe that because some big brand is going to sign a piece of paper that they are actually going to follow this tune.”

Yet, the industry's biggest names continue to commit their names to paper. In the last year, the British Fashion Council has launched the British Fashion Model Agency Association in December 2017, Condé Nast produced a code of conduct in January 2018, LVMH and Kering's joint endeavour saw the launch of their shared website in February 2018 and the organisation Model Alliance launched its RESPECT Programme, a legally binding agreement to protect models, in May this year.

"The RESPECT Programme that Sara Ziff made for the Model Alliance was initially proposed at that [VOICES] forum," Scully said, which he and Ziff presented at the Copenhagen Fashion Summit. "Every single agent in New York [has] green-lighted it. The people who make things happen in that realm of the business, they walked the walk this time."

Peyton-Jones has found a similar willingness in modelling agencies that “want to be certified” to make it clear “who the good guys are,” which RTM is working towards through the British Standards Institute, an auditing agency that operates in 120 countries. However, Peyton-Jones still finds resistance: “Trying to get people to understand has been a challenge this year,” she told BoF. “Brands immediately feel that they’re the ones going to be audited. This is a certification over modelling agencies.”

Through the standardisation of agencies, the endeavour aims to make the supply chain more transparent, so that brands know where to source models from and models can trust the agencies with which they sign. However, RTM is also working to protect those still abused under an opaque system, for which Peyton-Jones has spoken to the Anti-Slavery Commissioner and at the House of Lords, pioneering the recognition of models as a link in the modern slavery supply chain.

Do I think models are being treated better? Yes. Is there recourse for models if they are treated badly? No.

Her talks with the British Government also include the recognition of modelling as a professional entity “because models are not seen as professionals,” said Peyton-Jones. “We don’t even know how many models there are in the world, let alone how many models there are in a city. That’s how crazy and unprofessional this industry is.”

In a bid to professionalise the career, RTM is launching a course for signed models at London College of Fashion in March 2019 — an endeavour the organisation announced at the VOICES Salon in 2017. The programme will train models from runway walking and applying makeup, to mental health and social media responsibilities, which Peyton-Jones also intends to launch in schools in Canada, New York, Sri Lanka and Dubai.

For both Scully and Peyton-Jones, awareness and knowledge for the next generation of models sits at the top of the priority list. “At least everyone coming in knows, ‘I can now speak up if someone overworks me or tries to make me do something,’” said Scully. “That is the big change and this next generation really understands that.”

“Do I think models are being treated better? Yes. Do I think that models understand a little bit more that they can’t be treated badly? Yes,” said Peyton-Jones, adding: “Is there recourse for models if they are treated badly? No. Is there any prevention, real prevention, from harm? No. Is there a level playing field? No.”

Additional reporting by Lauren Sherman.

To learn more about VOICES, BoF's annual gathering for big thinkers, visit our VOICES website, where you can find all the details on our invitation-only global gathering in November, in partnership with QIC Global Real Estate.

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