NEW YORK, United States — If there is a silver lining to the onslaught of disturbing allegations against powerful men like Harvey Weinstein and Terry Richardson, it’s that these scandals have exposed a culture of sexual assault and exploitation that has long existed in the workplace.
Fashion can no longer ignore the scale and pervasiveness of this appalling conduct. In the wake of such startling revelations, it’s crucial to take a closer look at the structures and norms currently enabling predators and other exploitative individuals. Asking the hard questions starts with examining our collective pathology. Why do we tolerate the behaviour of the tyrannical or predatory creative? And what is it about the glamour of fashion as a vehicle for both artistic endeavour and social membership that brings about uncritical devotion from its supporters?
We now know that powerful individuals, appearing as kindly gatekeepers to a big opportunity before they exploit, grope, assault or attack, are ubiquitous. One need only glance at Cameron Russell’s Instagram feed, on which the model and activist has shared anonymous accounts of harassment within the industry, for proof. Other names have come to light in the meantime and these individuals are still working in fashion. Speaking out when something is wrong is difficult. We expect those above us to lead the way with exemplary behaviour. But what happens when they don’t or when the really bad stuff comes from the top?
The modelling industry is largely self-regulatory, but the recent revelations prove that self-regulation hasn’t been effective. There are, however, a few avenues through which a model can voice a complaint without fear of being judged as a less than ‘compliant and helpful’ professional.
Models are entitled to be treated with dignity and respect, just like every other worker.
Equity, a UK-based organisation that represents performers, artists and, since 2009, models, is one company striving to address the lack of support for young and vulnerable talent in the workplace. Independent unions like these have no commercial interests, unlike agencies, who are invested in keeping the brands and photographers who hire models happy. Equity is concerned only for its members and is working to provide a safe and confidential place to report dispute or assault, with full legal support if needed.
“Models need independent advice and support to ensure their rights at work are respected,” says Emmanuel de Lange, industrial organiser at Equity. “Any model who has experienced harassment, assault or bullying at work can contact us for advice and support. Models are entitled to be treated with dignity and respect, just like every other worker.”
If individuals and organisations are to effectively challenge and dismantle exploitative and predatory norms, there must be backing for everyone. This suggests the fundamental need for an independent, ethical watchdog that has the power to enforce protective measures and elevate ethical and moral standards. The following points are therefore proposed as areas of initial investigation for a regulatory team:
1. The regulation of agents and responsibilities
Government health and safety regulations pertaining to young persons in the workplace state that young people should not be exposed to risk due to lack of experience, or being unaware of existing or potential risks. This ruling places modelling agencies as primary providers of preventative counselling for threats from predators or exploiters, and responsible for signposting rights and complaints procedures. Right now, there is scarce information provided to new models by their agents about the benefits of a trade union membership. Enforcement of these necessities require immediate application.
2. The introduction of protective labour legislation for models enforceable by law
The US Model’s Harassment Protection Act, developed by model and activist Sara Ziff to protect models from workplace assault, is a good start. In this legislation, “harassment” includes pressure to maintain unhealthy and damaging physiques, pressure to get naked, pressure to behave in a sexualised manner and pressure to navigate unwanted attention. Although employment laws are different in the UK, legislation developed here — or in France, or Italy — could make it unlawful for any commissioner, agency or agent — such as a designer, magazine or retailer — to subject a model to harassment. This would mean that clear steps would be taken after a model is brave enough to complain.
3. The regulation of diversity in leadership within fashion companies
Behaviours become entrenched when there are narrow points of reference, and the upper echelons of fashion are still nearly homogenously white and male. The McKinsey report of 2014 clearly outlines the benefits of a diverse company board, confirming higher production, improved customer orientation and better decision-making and innovations. The appointment of Edward Enninful, the first black, gay man to edit British Vogue, is surely a step in the right direction. Enninful’s declaration of his intentions to feature “all colours, shapes, ages, genders and religions” is recognition of the need to challenge previously held positions on fashion’s normative appearance.
4. The regulation of fashion education to deliver a compulsory professional ethics and diversity module
This initiative to address both workplace behaviours and diversity accountability would perform two vital roles.
Firstly, graduates — as recipients of safety guidance and procedures — would gain valuable insight for their own protection. Fashion school graduates often report high levels of exploitation, such as long hours with no or below minimum pay and may also be prey to predatory advances from senior management.
Secondly, graduates — having been mentored to investigate opportunities for disrupting gender norms, unachievable body ideals, objectifying portrayals of the body along with race, age and body-type stereotypes — could further challenge entrenched thinking. We see this playing out not just in image-making but also in team building, casting choices and networking, where racism remains unaddressed by a largely Caucasian cohort. Edinburgh College of Art leads the way with this protocol and is home to the Diversity Network in collaboration with All Walks Beyond the Catwalk, endorsed by former government minster for equalities Lynne Featherstone in 2011.
These are suggested as only the first areas of investigation. Much more thought and analysis will be necessary. Implementing initiatives for this progress requires backing from large organisations and high-status individuals. Finances for reform are fundamental. Visionary leadership and action is needed.
But that shouldn't stop us from looking at things from an individual perspective. We could, for instance, commit from this moment, to creating more kindness and empathy in our immediate territories as well as paying attention to the discomfort of others in difficult situations. This approach could have a positive impact on mental health and self-esteem for everyone. We all deserve to feel valued in the workplace and fashion is still full of many wonderful individuals, despite the few who fall short and are making headlines right now.
Caryn Franklin MBE is a fashion and identity commentator, co founder of All Walks Beyond the Catwalk and Professor of Diversity at Kingston School of Art.
The views expressed in Op-Ed pieces are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Business of Fashion.