New York Fashion Week is a biannual event held in February and September in Manhattan that showcases American designers. Journalists and fashion fans descend on the city twice a year for runway shows and other events. This month’s event will showcase about ninety designers. With so many people and events in one place, the chaotic atmosphere can cause particular problems for fashion models. This year, Sarah Ziff, a 29 year-old who has been modeling for fifteen years, has formed a group, the Model Alliance, to advocate for workplace standards protecting models and addressing issues like sexual harassment and backstage privacy.
Many fashion models begin their careers as minors, and their modeling careers often end shortly into adulthood. Despite the glamorous image of modeling, young models must deal with issues of financial and sexual exploitation, lack of privacy, unauthorized nude photographs, and a total lack of job security or safety standards. The modeling business has few safety regulations, according to Ziff, and the industry often bends or breaks child labor laws. Sexual harassment can be rampant at photo shoots and shows, with many employers ignoring or tolerating egregious acts of harassment. A lack of privacy in backstage areas at shows can allow surreptitious photography of models while dressing and undressing.
Models have had few sources of support or safeguards in dealing with abuse and exploitation. Very few fashion models ever reach the status of “supermodel,” with the ability to command huge modeling fees and negotiating power. Most fit the conception of any other sort of starving artist, with added pressure related to body image. Anyone who complains may not get any more modeling jobs, so models have tended to keep quiet. Some designers, according to Ziff, only pay models in clothes instead of cash, leaving the models with few to no resources in addition to no bargaining power. Ziff decided to do something to protect people in these environments.
Ziff received advice on starting the organization from the Council on Fashion Designers of America (CFDA). The CFDA is helping Ziff and the Model Alliance lobby New York Fashion Week’s organizers to prohibit photographers and “non-essential staff” from backstage areas at runway shows when models are changing clothes. The Model Alliance has also developed a draft of a “bill of rights” for models, giving them the resources to demand fair treatment on jobs and providing a confidential service to advise them on issues like sexual harassment or abuse. This can include overt sexual harassment as well as pressure over issues like weight.
Many models work essentially as independent contractors, hired by a designer for a specific campaign or show. Once the job ends, that contractual relationship ends. Laws protecting workers against workplace discrimination or harassment do not always apply the same to independent contractors, which can make protecting models’ rights even more difficult. A group like the Model Alliance can hopefully help people in this business not only to ensure better treatment in the future, but also to pursue justice against people who engage in harassment and exploitation.
The New York sexual harassment lawyers at Phillips & Associates represent victims of workplace sexual harassment and discrimination, fighting to protect their rights. To schedule a free and confidential consultation, contact us today online or at (212) 248-7431.
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