The event brought together people from across the supply chain — retail workers, members of United Students Against Sweatshops, labor activists — and representatives of an extremely visible group of workers within the fashion industry whose plight is often invisible: models.
While the conversation touched upon recent struggles and victories of front-line retail workers, and attaining justice for factory workers in South Asia, a large chunk of the discussion zeroed in on labor abuses within the modeling industry. Some in the audience nodded in agreement with the notion that fashion models are an exploited labor force, but the idea drew mostly genuine surprise and concern from the audience. She went on to explain that the abuses, especially during Fashion Week, are shouldered by a workforce of minors.
New legislation, however, stands to change all that. On Oct. Andrew Cuomo signed legislation to amend New York state labor law and classify print and runway models under the age of 18 as "child performers. The law creates a new protected class, stands to force players across the fashion industry at large to change their modus operandi and hiring practices, and can change the very images we see on the runway if designers can no longer so easily rely on children to show their collections. The legislation also represents a coming-of-age for the Model Alliance, the labor group behind it.
Due to a statutory loophole in New York labor law, print and runway models under 18 have long been excluded from protections given to other child performers. While working, protected child performers are required to have on-set chaperones, tutors and, in some cases, nurses. The number of hours a minor can work is closely monitored and capped. The lack of these protections for print and runway models has led to documented and in many cases, undocumented exploitation of these girls: Some models, facing pressure from their agents, have dropped out of school to work full-time.
Others have been fleeced financially by less-than-stellar agents or employers. Some models have faced unwanted sexual advances by photographers, while others have suffered sexual abuse.
Ziff, now 31, began modeling at the age of 14 after she was scouted on the way home from school at Dalton. While she considers herself lucky to have made it as far as she has, she is candid in explaining the darker side of high fashion work, where the career of a model can look somewhat Hobbesian: solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short.
Many models brought into the U. Off the runway, models — especially those without visas, who must prove themselves as worthy investments in the longer haul — are beholden to agencies that can fleece them financially and turn a blind eye to sexual abuse in the workplace.
And these conditions all exist in a volatile market flooded with new faces each day, where competition has skyrocketed as work is increasingly outsourced to celebrities.
Ziff understands full well that such a language can be read as hyperbole. These costs, alongside the agency commission, are deducted from a model's earnings, which are often paid months after a job, and sometimes not at all. And as independent contractors, models are exempt from minimum wage, overtime, workers' comp, and a chunk of non-discrimination law — and are not able to unionize. The passage of the child model legislation, however, marks its most significant accomplishment to date.
Until now, child labor regulations pertaining to fashion models have been inexplicably governed by the Department of Education — ironically, these regulations do not include education requirements. The new law, which includes models in child performer regulations under the Department of Labor, requires that employers — be they designers or brands — obtain a certificate of eligibility to employ a model under the age of 18, and notify the Department of Labor of the specific dates, times and places where the minor is to be used. Employers are also to provide chaperones for models under 16 and tutors.
Employers who break the law are subject to fines. The law currently stipulates that an employer must provide a tutor for a minor if he or she misses three consecutive days of school. The reality of Fashion Week is that a model might miss a month of school, but no single employer will be hiring that minor for three days. There had been talk of redrafting the existing child performer regulations in the fall.
But for the time being, according to Ziff, the Department of Labor has said that it will not draft any new regulations and that child models will be included in those regulations for other child performers.
So a model can work nonstop and still have to choose between her education and her job. And this led to an attitude where models were no longer respected as collaborators, but treated as cheap, replaceable bodies. He notes that starting out at 13 or 14 used to be the exception, not the rule, and that models who did start out young had time to build their careers with a stronger support system, instead of being washed up by their 20th birthday.
In , nonprofit trade organization the Council of Fashion Designers of America started its Health Initiative, which included a recommendation that designers not work with models under the age of Designers like Marc Jacobs can flout the recommendations and, as he did last February, knowingly hire models as young as Large fashion houses may be able to pony up money for the fines for breaking the law, but social disapproval may be a greater force to encourage clients to comply.
First of all, their business partners will have something to say about that now that this legally binding, but secondly the public will have something to say about it. Whether 18 and over will become the new runway norm is another question.
This Fashion Week was considered by many to be the first true test of the law, and clients largely seem to be complying. The agency Wilhelmina Models went so far as to not include any models under 18 in its show packages for this show season. Ziff has seen other changes since the law has taken effect. A lot of the people who are contacting us now are the parents of models whereas before it was models themselves who had been stiffed by a client or an agent.
Those are the girls who are the most exploited, the ones who are not the focus of Fashion Week. Eighteen becoming the norm could substantially change the aesthetic we see coming down the runway. Older women could very well lead to bigger women. Small insists that the law is not about dictating an aesthetic choice. In the last two years, the tenor of conversations about fashion models has indeed changed. In the past, Fashion Week usually prompted a rash of salacious stories from various media outlets about age, weight or sexual harassment.
Today, however, the climate has shifted, and conversations about labor, diversity and social responsibility in fashion have gained more traction.
Ziff compares this victory to ones experienced by other alt-labor groups, like the Domestic Workers Alliance. The legislation is also a step toward models being recognized as child performers, and reanimating the idea of what a model is. Follow her on Twitter at ShakthiJ. Profile Go Ad-Free Logout.
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