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How New York's Recently Passed Model Law Could Change Fashion Week

The upcoming season will be the first true test of the Model Alliance-championed legislation, which is meant to protect underage girls in the industry.
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Heading into the fall 2014 shows, the fashion industry is facing a new hurdle that's bigger than snowstorms or iPad-wielding seat stealers: New York state's new law that gives underage models the same status as child performers.

The law was the result of a major push from the Model Alliance, which championed it from its earliest stages and was heavily involved in its structuring. It officially went into effect Nov. 20 of last year, which means that the upcoming shows are the first true test for the new rules. "I think it's a pivotal point in fashion," Model Alliance member Coco Rocha tells us. "This fashion week is kind of a moment in time where we're changing the history of fashion, and I'm excited to be part of it."

For a quick catch-up, the basics of the law are as follows: Models under 18 are now required to have work permits and a trust fund set up under their name. Clients -- in the case of fashion week, the designers -- are required to have a certificate of eligibility to engage child performers. (Agencies, to be clear, carry no responsibility under the law, though according to the Model Alliance, many have willingly helped their models come into compliance.) Clients found in violation face fines: $1,000 for the first violation, $2,000 for the second and $3,000 for the third and every one thereafter. Violators also face the loss of their certificate of eligibility, assuming they had one in the first place.

The major hurdle is enforcement. Doreen Small, a lawyer on the Model Alliance's board of directors, tells Fashionista that New York Assemblyman Steven Otis, who sponsored the bill in the state assembly, sent a "compelling" letter to the Chairman of the Department of Labor. In the letter, Otis suggests that this first fashion week is "very important, because if there was no sense that someone was watching, there would be a return to complacency," according to Small.

"I don't know how the Department of Labor intends to enforce this," she adds, "but they've been made aware that it's important -- certainly for the first try -- for the people who are involved to know that this law has meaning and consequences." [Fashionista has reached out to New York's Department of Labor and will update if we hear back.]

Fortunately, it does sound like many designers are taking this seriously. "The Department of Labor has told us that there has been a huge uptick in applications for certificates of eligibility, so I think all the stakeholders are doing their best for compliance," Small says.

For its part, the CFDA is helping its members be compliant. CFDA CEO Steven Kolb shares that when the law was passed, the CFDA took several steps: It put together a synopsis of the law -- what it meant and how to follow the proper procedures -- and sent it to all members. The organization then held a workshop in conjunction with the Model Alliance for about 70 people, which featured an open Q&A. They also took phone meetings with the Department of Labor to explain how fashion week works, and what the experience is like for models. In addition, the CFDA has contacts at the Department of Labor to which it can refer members who have questions about the law.

"There's some confusion," Kolb says, "but I think the Department of Labor and the industry will work through that, probably with a little bit of a learning curve this season."

Kolb adds that the CFDA Health Initiative will continue, and that it has sent out the seasonal reminder letters. "As a point of focus, one of those guidelines that we continue to recommend -- 'recommend' being the key word -- is that designers not work with models under the age of 16," he tells us. "We're saying you shouldn't work with a girl under 16, even though the law [protects those who are] 18 and under."

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The effects have rippled out abroad as well. Casting director James Scully observed that in seasons past, foreign agencies (especially, he notes, European and Brazilian ones) were sending too many girls. "If one girl could get Alexander Wang, she would have a great season," he explains. "But I don't think you need to send 75 girls hoping that one or all of them will get it, because it won't necessarily have that effect on a girl's career."

"Before, they could just send any girl they wanted, hoping they would get something, and now they can't really do that," he continues. "I don't think they were making a proper edit of how many girls were right." Now, Scully says, these agencies are forced to send only the girls they truly believe can succeed, whittling down to a much smaller group.

Because of the trust fund clause, the law could tangentially affect the common practice of paying models "in trade" -- giving them clothing for work, in other words. Now, child models (like other child performers) are required to put 15 percent of their income into a trust fund.

Exactly how this would change is a matter of opinion. Small theorizes that models being compensated in trade "wouldn't be paid much money anyway," but adds, "I would imagine 15 percent of fair market value [of the garment] would have to be put into a trust account." Rocha is significantly more optimistic. "Now that they have to put 15 percent of their income into the trust, you can't really do that with clothes," she says. "So it has to be tangible, it has to be money."

Girls under 18 must also be spared the long and grueling hours often associated with fashion week, especially fittings. Under New York state law, child performers must be given 12 hours of rest between jobs, with other breaks and hour restrictions (full details can be found at the Department of Labor website). "That excites me, because I remember getting the phone call, 'You have to go to so-and-so casting and we don't know how long you're going to be there,'" Rocha says. "And again, for pretty much no pay."

The final effect -- intended or otherwise -- is that many designers are foregoing child models altogether, rather than jumping through hoops for certification. "It's a lot of paperwork," Scully says. "I have clients that are like, 'Don't bring me anyone [under 18].'"

Which, depending on where you stand, could be a good thing. "I think there were too many young girls in the business," Scully says. "I just felt there was pressure for older girls to be thin because all of these girls were so young, and by the time they turned 18, the pressure for them to not lose their pre-pubescent bodies was getting slightly abusive. I think it was time that somebody put their foot down and said, 'This is not the way this business should be run.'"

But in the end, everyone involved with the law insists that this isn't about ruining the careers of underage models or pushing them out of the industry. Rocha is hopeful that underage models will now enjoy modeling, and not face the same disappointments and difficult decisions she did when she was younger. "The point is that if you are underage, you will have a great experience as a model now," she says. "As long as we're protecting children, [designers] can continue to be artistic, [designers] can still be creative, and they can still work with younger models if that's what they want to do -- they're just going to have to do it the right way."

Ultimately, everyone Fashionista spoke to was in agreement that -- whether because of confusion, ignorance or just plain willful disregard -- there will likely be designers who will be in violation this first season. "There's going to be people that want to work with underage models so they'll do that correctly," Rocha says. "Then there will be people who think, 'It doesn't matter, it's always been this way, and I'm going to do what I want to do.' And those people won't be caring so much about a fine, but people do care about bad PR."

As to what exactly that bad PR means, Rocha has one thing to say: "You're violating a child's rights," she states. "When you put it that way, it sounds pretty scary."