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All across New York City, the fashion industry spent Thursday evening gearing up for fashion month with parties, previews, dinners and even a few fashion shows sliding in before the official calendar was set to kick off the next day. The start of a new season is always guaranteed to spark conversations about where fashion is headed next, and surely that was the topic at the top of minds no matter what the event — but it was a quiet, intimate ceremony on the Upper East Side which may have best marked the direction the industry is going. 

At the Consulate General of France, Model Alliance founder Sara Ziff was awarded the Chevalier dans l'Ordre National du Mérite, or Knight in the National Order of Merit — the highest honor that the French Republic can award to non-citizen. She was recognized for her work with the non-profit organization she started a decade ago, with Jérémie Robert, the Consul General of France in New York, noting in his opening remarks that it was revolutionary not just for the modeling industry, but for the advancement of labor rights and women's rights, a priority for current President Emmanuel Macron. And while Ziff was soaking up the moment, don't expect her to rest on her laurels any time soon.

"It's nice to be recognized, especially after all these years," she tells Fashionista. "But really, we're in this to create meaningful change."

Ziff is still just in her 30s — she barely clears the honor's age requirement of 35, and Robert joked that recipients of the National Order of Merit are typically a bit older than she is — but she's already spent over half her life fighting for model's rights. She took a break from her modeling career, which began at the tender age of 14, to attend Columbia University; inspired by labor rights movements, she put together a documentary about the unglamorous underbelly of modeling called "Picture Me," released in 2010. Not long after came the Model Alliance, which coincidentally celebrated its 10th anniversary just a few days before, on Feb. 6. 

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In the decade since, Ziff has been a driving force behind some of the fashion industry's most crucial changes. The Model Alliance has helped to pass legislation in both New York and California, closing loopholes around sexual assault, providing underage models the same protection as other child performers and legally requiring that talent agencies provide education regarding sexual harassment and eating disorders. Following the 2013 Rana Plaza collapse, the Model Alliance joined the fight in pushing brands to sign onto the Accord on Fire and Building Safety in Bangladesh. Through its hotline, the organization has helped models fight against wage theft and navigate unemployment during the Covid-19 crisis. It also spearheaded the legally-binding "Respect Program" to provide models with safe working environments. 

Considering those are just a handful of the Model Alliance's accomplishments, it's no surprise Ziff and the organization have lately been on the receiving ends of accolades: In addition to her National Order of Merit, the CFDA gave the Model Alliance the 2021 Positive Social Influence Award

"We have come a long way — I mean, when I started the Model Alliance, we were dealing with a very different climate where Terry Richardson was still shooting everything; the Me Too movement hadn't happened yet, social media didn't operate in the same way," she says. "It was very different in many ways, but it's also remarkable how little things have changed. There's still so much fear."

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Ziff elaborated on that fear on Thursday evening, as did friend and fellow model Karen Elson, who spoke about her own experiences being blacklisted after speaking up for herself. Both noted that the fashion industry pressures models to be nothing but pretty faces; in her own remarks, human rights attorney and strategist Sienna Baskin noted that, on top of that, the industry uses models as the face of harmful messaging around socioeconomic status, body image and more. All of that has combined to create an idea that modeling is a glamorous industry and that anyone who would complain is ungrateful. What Ziff and the Model Alliance have fought to prove is that model rights are part of a broader labor issue, both inside the fashion industry and beyond. 

"When I started this work, it was very well known that there were concerns around body image and projecting this unrealistic, unhealthy ideal, but it was presented as a consumer protection issue, not as a labor rights issue, where we're dealing with the labor force that appears to be glamorous — but that's actually quite vulnerable," Ziff says. "I feel like I've been beating the drum for a long time, and it's taken a long time just to help people understand this as a labor rights issue and see past the glossy facade. "

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"Part of the challenge has been helping people understand that we're not talking about people who won't roll out of bed for less than $10,000 a day — we're talking about, in many cases, children who are working in debt to their agencies, and also an aspirational workforce where there are a lot of people who are being put in very compromising positions simply to try to be a part of this industry," she continues.

It's that specific effort which resulted in Ziff's honor from the French Republic, and one she'll keep pushing forward with as the Model Alliance continues to evolve. They're able to support a small staff now after years of relying on volunteer labor. (In fact, the Model Alliance helped pass two bills with that scrappy team. "We punched above our weight," she says.) And just in time, too, as there's still plenty of work to be done. But Ziff and the Model Alliance won't be able to completely revolutionize the industry without the help of those who are at the top changing how they think about models.

"It feels like you're putting a bandaid on an open wound," she says. "It's just very clear that we need to have the infrastructure to deal with these abuses, not just to address them, but to prevent them. And companies have a very important role to play."

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Ziff doesn't believe it's a coincidence that high-profile abusers, like Jeffery Epstein and Harvey Weinstein, were able to prey on models. She wants to challenge fashion companies to think of those who serve as the faces of their brands in the same way they're currently having to reckon with the people who work behind-the-scenes in their supply chains — "to think about what transnational solidarity looks like." 

"Obviously, I'm not trying to make a direct comparison between the highly visible workforce models here and garment workers in developing countries who are invisible, and in many cases risking their lives on the job," she says. "But I do think there's this complimentary crisis of recognition, where you have this glamorous facade that camouflages a lot of serious human rights abuses."

Leading companies could join the Model Alliance's Respect program, which would create legally-binding and enforceable standards for the industry when it comes to the treatment of models. "We have seen time after time companies roll out these nice-sounding pledges that are frankly meaningless because they're totally unenforceable," she says.

Closer to home, Ziff and the Model Alliance are working with New York State Senator Brad Hoylman (also present at Thursday's ceremony) to pass the Adult Survivors Act, which would "create a one-year window for the revival of time-barred civil lawsuits based on sex crimes committed against individuals who were 18 years of age or older." Currently, there's no legal recourse for survivors of sexual assault who come forward outside the statute of limitations window.

"I think there are quite a few people, including our former president, who would not like to see that legislation pass," Ziff says. (This is the case for Gérald Marie, the former European chief of Elite Model Management who has been accused of rape by several women, who Ziff noted was on a yacht in Ibiza instead of in jail. The Model Alliance has provided resources for these women and flew to France to support them as they testified to French police.)

It's a tall order for anyone, to be sure. But Ziff and the Model Alliance have shown time and time again that they're not afraid of putting in the work required to make change happen — and now, she has a Chevalier dans l'Ordre National du Mérite to prove it. 

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