Coinciding with Spring Fashion Week, which opens February 9, some New York models have launched an advocacy group to press for workplace rights and safeguards against financial exploitation, labor law violations and sexual abuse.
Sara Ziff started modeling at age 14. By 21, she was walking the runways for top designers. Her image was plastered all over Manhattan on ads for popular clothing lines, as shown in her 2009 documentary, Picture Me.
“The way I look in those, I don’t really think of myself as looking like that," she said."It’s so weird.”
But there's an ugly side to modeling, and it inspired Ziff to found a trade organization. She got the idea in a political organizing class at Columbia University.
“Despite the glamorous façade of the industry, the reality for a working model can be anything but that,” she said.
At a party ahead of New York's Spring Fashion Week, Ziff launched Model Alliance with a short film featuring its members.
Angela Highsmith: “We’re working to create a more respectful and professional work environment backstage at New York Fashion Week.”
Sara Ziff: “We’ve drafted a model’s bill of rights.”
Jessica Clark: “We’re also creating a way for models to confidentially report abusive behavior.”
Ziff says models are generally considered independent contractors, not employees, so many regulations don’t apply, or are ignored, like child labor laws that protect workers who are underaged.
“Some people might roll their eyes and say why would models need to organize? They might think the fashion industry is sort of a frivolous business," said Ziff. "But the fact is, modeling is a job like any other and we deserve rights and protections like any other worker.”
Many models start in their early teens, moving far from family and, sometimes, even their country of origin.
Ziff says they work long hours, sometimes accepting clothing as pay. They may earn so little money that they live in debt to their agencies. Sexual abuse is also a problem, the Alliance says, and it addresses that with a proposed grievance process.
“The lucrative careers of high-profile supermodels like Giselle and Kate Moss, I think misrepresent the reality for most working models who are often very young, from Eastern Europe, Brazil," she added. "Often, English is not their first language, and they are very vulnerable.”
The Marilyn Agency, which represents Ziff, supports the Alliance effort. And designer Diane von Furstenberg, president of the Council of Fashion Designers of America, says models should be at least 16 years old and their privacy, while dressing and undressing at shows, should be respected.
Von Furstenberg says many top modeling agencies have pledged not to use models under the age of 16.
But VOA requests for detailed comment from agencies, about other allegations, were not answered.
While Ziff says the Model Alliance is not a union, she hopes models will one day be able to use their collective power for better pay and working conditions.