New York Fashion Week opens under the themes of #Metoo and Time’s Up

As the wave of scandals against sexual harassers and assaulters takes over the entertainment and media industries, fashion, where models have been mostly unprotected by the law, is now also under attack. As New York Fashion Week launches in New York, we spoke with Model Alliance founder and activist Sara Ziff about models’ health, privacy, and issues of diversity in the industry.

CHANEL RTW Spring/Summer 2015 runway show in Paris. Picture by Regis Colin Berthelier.

This edition of New York Fashion Week marks a new victory for models’ rights activist Sara Ziff. Ziff launched her organization, Model Alliance, six years ago after making Picture Me, a movie about harassment in the modeling industry. Now, thanks to her lobbying, most backstage spaces at the shows will have private changing rooms to shield models from unwanted gazes, cameras, and comments.   

CHANEL RTW Spring/Summer 2015 runway show in Paris. Picture by Regis Colin Berthelier.

“Harassment is so normalized that models don’t even think of their day-to-day experience as encountering sexual harassment,” explains Ziff. “A perfect example would be backstage at Fashion Week. It’s been normalized to change in front of anyone, including people who have no reason to be backstage and are standing by or taking photos without your permission. This has been tolerated, though every model experiences this problem.” This decision was made after the Model Alliance partnered with CFDA last fall, as part of their ongoing Health Initiative, which this past January became the Initiative for Health, Safety, and Diversity, launched by a letter from chairwoman Diane Von Furstenberg. “We’re seeing some progress,” continues Ziff. “Notably in 2013, we passed legislation that extended labor protections for models under 18 years old in the state of New York. We achieved this in less than a year when typically it takes several years. This made people take me and our work more seriously. We’re working to make the fashion industry more progressive and self-aware.”

The fashion industry has been increasingly scrutinized as a perpetrator of gender and race inequalities, issues that hurt not only the models but also the culture at large, spreading reductive images of bodies and power dynamics. Now, emboldened by social media and by the Weinstein scandals, more insiders are speaking out on issues of abuse that had previously been silenced. “A lot of the fashion imagery reflects the male gaze,” explains Ziff, “although the fashion industry likes to think it’s being ironic or commenting on itself. The industry is so insular that people don’t see themselves or their behavior and what they’re broadcasting. They are complicit, but totally un-self-aware. The typical structure in place in which “artist-geniuses,” as model Edie Campbell called them, are working with very young girls who don’t have much power – that sets the dynamic right there. If you have more diversity, we’ll see progress.”

CHANEL RTW Spring/Summer 2015 runway show in Paris. Picture by Regis Colin Berthelier.

Media organizations, such as Condé Nast, have recently issued guidelines on sexual harassment, suspending photographers Bruce Weber and Mario Testino after allegations of sexual harassment and abuse of power by several male models. Companies such as LVMH, Kering, and IMG Models have also issued updated rules about nudity, age, and recourse. But Ziff, who has been conducting legal and scientific research for several years with leading scholars around the United States, is pushing for broader, and more systematic, change.

“These are good first steps, but they are purely voluntary,” she explains. “If there are no provisions for enforcement or penalties, then I don’t think it’s really going to change people’s behavior, and we’re trying to evolve in an industry that has been so abusive for so many years. Now we’re starting to realize that expecting models to stand there naked is sexual harassment. If you’re going to face a lawsuit or if people are empowered to speak out, that will make people wake up pretty fast.”