Last night loads of leggy models--A-listers like Shalom Harlow, Doutzen Kroes, Coco Rocha and Crystal Renn among them--gathered at the Standard in the Meatpacking to sip free vodka drinks over loud music. At first glance, a typical fashion party.
Only it wasn't. These models were gathered to celebrate the launch of the Model Alliance, a non-profit organization founded by Sara Ziff dedicated to "helping models in the American fashion industry organize for safe, fair, and healthy standards in their workplace."
29-year-old Ziff knows something about how models are treated. She's spent more than half of her life working as a model and in that time says, "It just became more and more evident to me that this was a wonderful industry filled with strong, powerful, creative women but which lacked any regulation--and so was putting very young girls, often children, in compromising situations." She learned a lot more about the compromising situations models find themselves in--facing sexual harassment, in severe debt to their agencies due to lack of financial transparency, alone and vulnerable and often without a chaperone--while documenting the plight of other models for her documentary, Picture Me, which debuted in 2010. Fordham Law professor Susan Scafidi, who heads up Fordham's Fashion Law Institute, saw a screening and wanted to help. So did Jezebel's fashion writer (and former model herself), Jenna Sauers. And so the wheels for the Model Alliance were set in motion.
ADDRESSING MODELS' CONCERNS In researching to set up the Alliance--a two year process--Ziff talked to tons of models. She sent out surveys. And what she found over and over were two main concerns: the pressure to start working extremely young (at age 14 and 15) and sexual harassment. "There’s an emphasis on extreme youth that I think is a disservice to those young girls and I think it’s a disservice to models who are adults in the business who can’t possibly have a 15 year old body naturally and I think it's a disservice to women who are the consumers of the images these models create," Ziff said. And if we've heard the rumors about the sexual harassment that goes on in the modeling industry (like those accusations against Terry Richardson) then Ziff has witnessed it and heard about it first hand, again and again.
The Times slammed Ziff's doc as "worthless as social commentary and clueless as a film," and she admits her film was less compelling because she took out some of the stories about sexual harassment after models requested as much. "When someone is telling a story of being exploited the last thing you want to do is further that exploitation, right?" Ziff said. "When you’re working in an industry that is unregulated, you desperately want to be liked and it’s very competitive and you just want to be easy to work with and seem cool and it’s not so easy to handle those situations when you’re young and new to the business and you’re alone," Ziff explains. And that makes for a lot of uncomfortable situations.
Fortunately, the Model Alliance is now officially open for business. They're accepting members and charging just $50 a year (because most models don't rake in millions like Gisele). They've got a working bill of rights and a mission statement, both of which can be found on their website--which also hosts a forum for models to post about the issues they face (racism, sexual harassment, feeling pressured to drop out of school, financial transparency).
WHY IT'S NOT A UNION Ziff, who focused on labor while majoring in politics at Columbia, has taken great pains to set up an organization that will protect models and serve as a clearinghouse for their concerns for the long run. That means that while the Model Alliance is focused on labor issues and models' rights--they're not a union. Why? Well for one, models are independent contractors and cannot legally organize. They have partnered with Actor's Equity and the American Guild of Musical artists, both unions that represent workers (actors and ballet dancers) who contend with similarly precarious working conditions (easily replaceable, vulnerable to sexual harassment) to give members access to their legal teams so they can confidentially report improper sexual harassment or abuse. But after learning about the failure of the Models Guild, an actual union for models that was founded in 1995 and met with some resistance from major agencies, Ziff felt the Alliance was the way to go.
"The model’s guild did a lot of great work, that being said, it existed when I was working and I had never heard of them until years later after they folded," Ziff said. "We’re really working very hard to make sure that all stakeholders in the business feel like they’re a part of this and that this isn’t adversarial."
"We’re doing our best to send the message that we want to be inclusive and these problems affect everybody in this industry," Jenna Sauers said. "I know that fashion isn’t a business that’s populated by people that get up in the morning and say, ‘I’m going to go exploit some 13 year old Latvians!’...It’s not that these kinds of problems happen because of malice."
WHO'S INVOLVED? To that end, Ziff recruited Chris Gay, the president of her agency, Marilyn, to sit on their advisory board. He's all for an agency that advocates for models to start working when they're older because, he told Ziff, it's not a good long term investment for him to "take on 14 and 15 year old girls whose bodies are going to morph drastically." The CFDA is also on board. When CFDA heads Diane von Furstenberg and Steven Kolb sent out their CFDA Health Initiative Guidelines for this coming season, they asked the industry to "consider model privacy and to have the photographers cleared for first looks...on behalf of The Model Alliance." Ziff also met with Vogue's Valerie Boster and said she was "supportive."
And that's why Coco Rocha has signed on as an advisory board member, too. "It used to be so hush hush and we didn't wanna talk about it [these issues] because it could mean ruining out career," said Rocha. "But having the backing of the CFDA, I mean that means Anna and Diane von Furstenberg--our careers are safe."
Even with her supermodel status, her media savvy, and her outspokenness, Rocha says she still feels pressured to do things she's not comfortable with on set. "Even these days I'm pushed to do things," she said. "And I've been in the industry for years, I'm known...What about the new girl on the block, she must have no hope."
Until now. "I kind of love it," says Rocha of the Model Alliance. "I want to be like the big sister."
Watch this fancy vid to learn more about the Alliance.