LONDON, United Kingdom — In no other industry would an employee be required to pose in the snow wearing a bathing suit, or have her BMI measured due to concerns about widespread eating disorders amongst her colleagues.
For years, the modelling industry has been criticised for how it protects the rights of its workers. High-profile models like Cara Delevingne and Kate Moss have spoken out about the sexual harassment and emotional pressures faced by underage girls in the business, and model health is the subject of heated public debate.
But in the last few years, talk has turned to action. A flurry of laws, industry codes of conduct and educational initiatives addressing models’ rights and safety have sprung up in the world’s fashion capitals. Are they working?
In June, the UK advertising watchdog banned a Saint Laurent campaign image because it featured an “unhealthily underweight” model. In April, France passed a law that banned French modelling agencies from working with models that have a BMI (Body Mass Index) below 18. In 2013, Israel banned companies from working with models that have a BMI below 18.5.
Some countries have favoured an industry-led approach. There are no legal restrictions on a model’s weight or BMI in the UK, US or Denmark, but the British Fashion Council (BFC), the Council of Fashion Designers of America (CFDA) and the Danish Fashion Institute all run educational workshops with designers, models and eating disorder charities, to promote model health.
“A BMI measurement does not say anything about a person's mental health. I can't see how politicians are going to regulate this — are they going to be behind the curtain at every show, checking models’ weight?” asks Eva Kruse, chief executive officer of the Danish Fashion Institute and Copenhagen Fashion Week. Under the Danish Fashion Ethical Charter, a set of industry guidelines signed by more than ten modelling agencies, agencies are encouraged — but not forced — to oversee annual health checks for models, focussed on eating disorders.
“I don't believe in legislation. Self-regulation from within the industry is what is needed. But it does not come on its own; there needs to be discussions and agreements. We need to encourage and trust the industry to be responsible,” says Kruse, who says that most Danish designers make sample collections in a US size 4 or 6 (according to a London stylist, the wider industry standard is a US size 2). “But once our models go abroad, they are told to lose more weight,” she says.
The rules on model age are a similar mix of regulations and recommendations. To take part in Copenhagen Fashion Week, designers must sign the Danish Fashion Ethical Charter, which bans them from using under-16s in shows (excluding childrenswear). At London Fashion Week, designers are also contractually obliged to employ models who are 16 or older. “We do spot checks, backstage, to look at the age of the girls that have been cast, but we've not had any instances where that [age restriction] has been broken,” says Caroline Rush, chief executive officer of the British Fashion Council. These rules only apply to fashion week shows, not commercial and editorial jobs, although, in 2012, all international editions of Vogue pledged not to feature models under 16.
In the US, the CFDA “strongly recommends” designers do not use models under 16 at New York Fashion Week, but does not police this rule. In 2013, as a result of lobbying efforts by the Model Alliance, New York State passed a law ruling that models under 18 must be treated as child performers, meaning they are subject to restricted working hours, school-night curfews and adult supervision. “There needs to be a lot of supervision,” says Peter Fiztpatrick, founder of modelling agency Silent Models. “We work very carefully with their parents. We’re a small agency, so it’s easier for us to police things and to know what’s going on. I think we have a slightly different culture, but I can’t speak for some of the larger agencies.”
The CFDA is currently working with New York State senator Diane J. Savino to update New York’s law to reflect the specificities of modelling work. “If you're a child actor, you work on set for a number of days or weeks — you have one employer, one job,” says Steven Kolb, president and chief executive officer of the CFDA. “In the instance of a model, you might have five employers on one given day during fashion week — so who is the responsible employer? Is it the designer; is it the agent? There is some confusion in the translation of how the employer is responsible for that child.”
“What is really needed at this point is federal regulation,” adds Jennifer Sky, an actress, model and author whose writing documents the professional and sexual mistreatment she faced as a teen model. “There is a large group of child labourers in this country that are not offered the same protections.”
Indeed, while modelling agencies manage a model’s bookings, negotiate pay and working conditions, during a job it is not always clear who is responsible for the model’s wellbeing. “If the model is mistreated or has any kind of problems… that is where the agencies come into play,” says Fitzpatrick of Silent Models. “We just get on the phone with the clients and negotiate or tell them what they can and cannot do.”
“We as agencies should protect them at all times,” agrees Peter Damgaard, founder of 2pm Model Management, a Danish agency that has represented Gisele Bundchen and Karlie Kloss in Denmark. “Still, often it’s seen that an agency won’t take the side of the model, as they can lose the client. The competition between agencies makes it hard to make a stand and protect the individual.”
But models do not always inform their agencies of problems, says Carré Otis, who worked as a model for three decades and appeared in advertisements for Guess and Calvin Klein Jeans. “The industry is rife with sexual harassment, and there was never a place to report it,” she says. “This is where it is really alarming: it’s an industry where, for the most part, your career is potentially threatened if you cause too much of a stir. I think, especially with young people, there’s a lot of compromising that goes on so that you can make ends meet.”
During London Fashion Week, the BFC runs a “Model Zone”, an initiative started by model Erin O'Connor, where models can go “to speak to people that just have no agenda — not their agents. We also have a therapist available for them to book, should they have any further concerns or wellbeing challenges,” says Caroline Rush. In the US, the Model Alliance, a non-profit aimed at protecting models’ rights, which launched in 2012, offers a helpline where models can report “questionable practices” and receive confidential assistance outside of their agencies, such as helping victims to file a harassment suit.
One of the main issues the Alliance tackles is pay. “One of the most widespread problems in the global modelling industry is lack of financial transparency and wage theft by modelling agencies,” says Sara Ziff, a model and founder of the Model Alliance. Earlier this year, model Kim Forbes brought a lawsuit against her previous agency Wilhelmina Models, Inc, after learning it had received $8,050 for a job for her, but kept the money.
“Beginning in the 1970s, modelling agencies [in New York] began calling themselves ‘management companies,’ rather than ‘employment agencies’ – claiming that their primary role is to manage models’ careers, not to book jobs for models,” says Ziff .This allows them to operate outside the limits imposed on employment agencies under New York General Business Law, which includes a 10 percent cap on commissions and fees. Models Nekesha McCary and Devyn Abdullah both recently brought suits against New York-based agency Direct Model Management that claim the agency wrongly classified them as “independent contractors”, in order to take a higher cut of their earnings.
And as the industry evolves, agencies are not always involved in booking jobs, which can make payment negotiations more complex. Both Hood by Air and Marc Jacobs have used social media to cast non-professional models — a move that has been welcomed as promoting diversity in the industry. Swipecast, an app launched by Peter Fitzpatrick in 2010, also aims to disrupt the existing casting process by bypassing traditional agencies. “It’s a platform where people can communicate. We’re not a modelling agency,” says Fitzpatrick, who describes Swipecast models as “freelancers.”
Currently, there is no minimum payment for a job transacted through the app — jobs can be unpaid and designers can pay in in “trade” (designer clothing or accessories), so long as that is made clear in the job posting and the goods are worth twice the value of the cash payment that would have been agreed. “A really promising upcoming designer can say, I can afford to pay $100 in cash to a model, or I can give them this amazing handbag that will retail for $2,000 plus, which has a much greater value.”
Under Denmark’s Ethical Charter, models must be paid in cash, but rates are not specified. The British Fashion Council offers designers a “base guide” for payment based around a business’s turnover, but “those rates are all available for negotiation depending on core time, exclusivity and what's going to happen with the footage of the shows,” says Rush.
Indeed, regulating payment rates within an industry is prohibited by law. Last month, the UK’s Competitions and Markets Authority stormed the offices of agencies Storm Model Management, Premier Model Management and Models 1, seizing computer equipment and documents, as part of an ongoing investigation that alleges they were operating a cartel to fix the prices they charge to retailers and brands. “Models work with lots of different clients and can easily move agency in the UK,” explains Laurie Kuhrt, chief executive officer of the UK Association of Modelling Agencies (AMA). “The market mechanism works to ensure that fees and rates generally remain competitive.”
Overall, with laws and guidelines coming from governments, advocacy groups and the fashion industry itself, the biggest challenge in protecting models’ rights is achieving cohesion across the global industry.
“I think we have a long way to go,” says Carré Otis. “The model alliance is amazing for the girls in New York, but modelling is global. If the Model Alliance were to create a programme that could be implemented mandatorily into any agency, then we would be gaining some ground.”
Currently, the BFC is working with the AMA to produce a best-practise guide for models coming to London, to educate them on what is the norm on a job, and who they can contact if something is wrong. “Once we've got those in place, that's something we will share with Milan, New York and Paris. It would great if they founded something similar that we could all share and maybe adhere to,” says Caroline Rush.
To learn more about VOICES, BoF's new annual gathering for big thinkers, visit our VOICES website, where you can find all the details and apply to attend our invitation-only global gathering in December, in partnership with QIC Global Real Estate, hosted at the Soho Farmhouse in Oxfordshire in the picturesque English countryside, one hour from London.