It’s Time to Stamp Out Systemic Sexual Abuse in the Fashion Industry

 

In the wake of the harrowing reports of rampant sexual misconduct committed by Harvey Weinstein and the resulting #MeToo movement, stories of misconduct and abuse across a range of industries are unfolding on a seemingly daily basis.

The latest report to rock the world of fashion was released on Saturday 12 January by The New York Times. Legendary photographers Mario Testino and Bruce Weber have both been accused of sexual exploitation by fifteen former and current models in the case of Testino, and thirteen male assistants and models in the case of Weber. On January 17, another four allegations levelled against Bruce Weber were revealed by The Business of Fashion.

Over the years other accusations have been made publicly, however, none have lead to the large-scale systemic change needed to reshape the industry. The fashion industry trades largely on sex and youth and, like Hollywood, is built upon a rigid power structure. Work environments are often unstructured, characters are often eccentric and the stakes are always high.

Perhaps these latest reports accusing two of the most powerful photographers in succession, following closely off the back of accusations of sexual assault made against photographer Terry Richardson, some of which date as far back as 1982, will be provide the impetus needed to kick-start lasting change.

 

Sex and Youth Sell

In the words of Tom Ford ‘we sell sex’. And, indeed, what the fashion industry largely trades on isn’t clothes or accessories: it’s sex and youth. Hyper sexualised images of beautiful young and mostly white men and women are par for the course and it seems that whatever is required to capture that in an image has become acceptable.

 

Gucci Campaign shot by Mario Testino 2004

 

In the New York Times piece outing Testino and Weber, female photographer Jessie English described the attitude she witnessed on set as an assistant to primarily male photographers as thus:

‘If I need to touch you between your legs or grab your breasts so you get the right look on your face, that’s just the way it is.’

Underage models unknowingly winding up in unchaperoned situations, fifteen year olds being smuggled into Paris fashion week, young models being asked if they are virgins, seventeen year olds being forced into nude shoots. Accounts of all of these situations have surfaced in recent years.

And herein lies the problem. It appears that abuse, sexual or otherwise, has become so normalised and in some cases considered a necessary part of the job, that by consistently sweeping this behaviour under the rug, everyone, except the few speaking out, have become complicit.

 

Calls for Change

In December 2016 prominent casting director James Scully spoke at Business of Fashion industry event VOICES. Fed up with the behaviour he regularly witnessed in the industry he has been a part of for decades, he earnestly implored the industry to make a change.

‘We’ve become desensitised to the way we treat these girls and just discard them. It’s so much more sadistic and so much more mean than you can believe. We have to support girls more and stop treating them like Tinder swipes.’

Scully continued: ‘This business for me, which was built on the celebration of beauty and diversity of women, has totally been hijacked by a small group of stylists, casting directors and photographers, who not only seem to dislike women, but go out of their way every day to prove that on a daily basis.’

 

James Scully on the Business of Fashion VOICES stage

 

Scully offered an ultimatum — if he continued to see evidence of bullying, cruelty and discrimination in fashion’s modelling industry, he promised to name and shame the perpetrators publicly on social media. And that he did.

On Monday 27 February Scully took to Instagram to describe an incident that took place at a Balenciaga casting the previous day where casting directors Maida Gregori Boina and Rami Fernandes reportedly left more than 150 girls waiting for over three hours in a dark staircase without light as the pair left the building and went to lunch. Following Scully’s post, which blew up on social media, Kering, the French luxury conglomerate which owns Balenciaga, quickly terminated its relationship with the stylists.

In the same Instagram post, Scully also levelled an allegation at Lanvin. ‘I have heard from several agents, some of whom are black that they have received mandate from Lanvin that they do not want to receive women of colour.’ Lanvin’s forty-two look show featured only two models of colour, one of which was Joan Smalls.

 

Who’s Job Is It to Protect Models?

With so many players involved it is difficult to pinpoint where the responsibility for model protection lies. Is it the agency that represents the model? Or the brand that books them? Is it the responsibility of the brand to vet any photographer they hire?

One reason why fashion houses and publishers fail to effectively address cases of mistreatment is that photographers, casting directors and stylists are often employed as external contractors, and are therefore removed from human resources departments. James Scully told The Business of Fashion that ‘if you behaved like a lot of these people did and you were working for that company as a regular employee, you’d be fired in one afternoon. Everyone has been turning a blind eye to these people because they’re freelancers.’

Activist and former model Cameron Russell, along with other prominent models have been calling out abuse and sexual harassment faced by fashion models using the hashtag #MyJobShouldNotIncludeAbuse. According to the Business of Fashion (the post has since been taken down) in one Instagram post, Russell wrote of the New York Times article:

‘This was not an exposé because nothing in these stories should be a revelation for those working in our industry. To the magazines, agencies, clients and editors who reached out for interviews, who commented to express solidarity and horror, who said they do not stand for sexual assault, SHOW US.’

 

Model and Activist Cameron Russell on the TEDx stage

 

In a statement made by Anna Wintour, creative director of Conde Nast and editor of American Vogue, on Vogue.com she said: ‘Even as we stand with victims of abuse and misconduct, we must also hold a mirror up to ourselves — and ask if we are doing our utmost to protect those we work with so that unacceptable conduct never happens on our watch. Sometimes that means addressing the fact that such behaviour can occur close to home.’

‘Today, allegations have been made against Bruce Weber and Mario Testino, stories that have been hard to hear and heartbreaking to confront. Both are personal friends of mine who have made extraordinary contributions to Vogue and many other titles at Condé Nast over the years, and both have issued objections or denials to what has emerged. I believe strongly in the value of remorse and forgiveness, but I take the allegations very seriously, and we at Condé Nast have decided to put our working relationship with both photographers on hold for the foreseeable future.’

In episode Episode 43 of pop culture and current affairs podcast The High Low journalist and former Sunday Times style writer Pandora Sykes explained that ‘everyone’ had known about Testino for years but as everything she had heard being only hearsay, she did not feel comfortable speaking out.

If, as Pandora says, ‘everyone’ knew about Mario Testino’s behaviour then, as his ‘personal friend’ and sometimes employer, Anna Wintour, like many other publishers and brands, must have heard rumours and yet continued to work with him.

 

The Code of Conduct

In addition to suspending their working relationship with Terry Richardson, Mario Testino and Bruce Weber, Condé Nast is currently finalising a new code of conduct which commits to employing models whom are at least eighteen years of age (unless they are appearing as themselves as part of a profile and have a chaperone present), banning alcohol from sets and providing advance notice of any nudity, lingerie, swimwear, sheer clothing, simulated drug or alcohol use or sexually suggestive posing, any of which will be disclosed to models in advance for approval. Photographers will also be banned from using a Condé Nast set for any personal, non-commissioned work.

A statement from the publisher said: ‘Our hope is that our colleagues and partners will adopt these or similar recommendations so that each of us involved in the creative process does our part to help ensure a safe and respectful work environment.”’

 

The Model Charter

After James Scully broke the news about model treatment during the Balenciaga casting, in an unprecedented move, luxury industry rivals Kering and LVMH have come together to develop ‘The Charter on the Working Relationships with Fashion Models and Their Well-Being’.

This charter includes a commitment to ban clothing sizes 32 for women and 42 for men (EU measurements), as well as asking agencies to present female and male models who are respectively sizes 34 and 44 or over. The charter also includes commitments to having a psychologist or therapist at the models’ disposal during their jobs, private fitting rooms, strict nudity and semi-nudity agreements, a ban on alcohol and provision of healthy food and drink at all times, the provision of transportation after 8pm, a ban on models under the age of 16, a ban on models between the ages of 16 and 18 working between 10pm and 6am, as well as the presence of a dedicated brand representative at all times.

‘I knew it was happening in our brands but I needed to have a bit of a wake-up call,’ Antoine Arnault, CEO of Berluti and son of LVMH chairman Bernard Arnault, told the Business of Fashion. ‘We started thinking about establishing a few rules inside our group and then I heard that Kering was obviously also very concerned with this issue, and we decided to write it together.’

 

Antoine Arnault (centre) on stage at Business of Fashion VOICES

 

The charter aims to tightly control external relationships between brands and contractors such as stylists and casting directors and will be implemented in time for next fashion week in March. Brands outside each the Kering and LVMH stables will also be welcome to sign the charter.

 

Will We See Change?

Only time will tell if the Model Charter will be widely adopted and adhered to. ‘I feel that in a way, they [other brands] will have to comply because models will not accept being treated certain ways by brands and another way with others,’ explained Antoine Arnault. ‘Once the two leaders of an industry apply reasonable rules, they will need to comply. They’re more than welcome to join even if they’re late to the party.’

Another organisation working to protect model rights in America is The Model Alliance launched in 2012 in New York to ‘promote the fair treatment, equal opportunity, and sustainable practices in the fashion industry, from the runway to the factory floor. By assisting models and other stakeholders in understanding the laws applicable to them, and by encouraging them to have a voice in their work, the Model Alliance identifies common areas of concern in the fashion industry, conducts strategic research with leading research institutions to inform policy initiatives, and educates the industry and the public about our core issues.’

The Model Alliance will no doubt also be monitoring closely the Condé Nast Code of Conduct as together with a group of like-minded colleagues, The Model Alliance is putting together a proposal to combat discrimination and harassment in fashion, entertainment, and media by developing a program that businesses and industry groups can commit to in order to ensure themselves a workplace free of abuse.

The program will have two main purposes:

  • to formulate and implement a code of conduct
  • to join participating businesses and industry groups that make a commitment to upholding these best practices, with a neutral, non-profit arbitrating entity that will guarantee accountability.

It is the second point of this proposal that is unique. As well as offering a code of conduct for signatories to adhere to, The Model Alliance is also offering a support and accountability network to make sure that the code is actually upheld.

 

Announcing and developing a code of conduct or a model charter is an admirable first step, but it cannot and must not be the end of the story. While organisations such as Condé Nast, LVMH, and Kering are finally getting the ball rolling, they must ensure that brands, businesses and individuals are held accountable to their actions to create lasting, systemic change.

 

We are currently working on a piece looking more specifically at the modelling industry in Canberra. If you would like to get in touch and share your experience with us please email editor@leidenmagazine.com.au

Emma Batchelor

Emma Batchelor

As well as a near obsessive interest in fashion, Emma is a former scientist, occasional contemporary dancer, avid reader and self-confessed cat lady (she has three). Emma lived in Leiden in the Netherlands as a baby and Leiden ought to have been her middle name had her mother thought of it at the time and not chosen Louise instead.

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