Underage, overworked and on their own: How do we protect teen models?

A new law gives models under 18 new protections -- but will it make a real difference?

Published April 2, 2014 5:27PM (EDT)

Sara Ziff        (Jeff Tse)
Sara Ziff (Jeff Tse)

On a humid evening in early October, workers from across the garment industry gathered for a panel discussion at the Retail Action Project’s Midtown West office in New York City. The event brought together people from across the supply chain — retail workers, members of United Students Against Sweatshops, labor activists — and representatives of an extremely visible group of workers within the fashion industry whose plight is often invisible: models.

While the conversation touched upon recent struggles and victories of front-line retail workers, and attaining justice for factory workers in South Asia, a large chunk of the discussion zeroed in on labor abuses within the modeling industry. Some in the audience nodded in agreement with the notion that fashion models are an exploited labor force, but the idea drew mostly genuine surprise and concern from the audience. “There’s a very cavalier, anything-goes attitude amongst higher brands who see themselves as artists,” said Sara Ziff, working model, filmmaker and founder and executive director of the Model Alliance, a labor group that fights for models’ rights. She went on to explain that the abuses, especially during Fashion Week, are shouldered by a workforce of minors.

New legislation, however, stands to change all that. On Oct. 21, Gov. Andrew Cuomo signed legislation to amend New York state labor law and classify print and runway models under the age of 18 as "child performers." This marks a watershed moment for the historically unregulated modeling industry, one largely composed of minors from across the globe, and one that has resisted reform -- the first attempt at organizing models in the '90s was shuttered after seven years. The law creates a new protected class, stands to force players across the fashion industry at large to change their modus operandi and hiring practices, and can change the very images we see on the runway if designers can no longer so easily rely on children to show their collections.  The legislation also represents a coming-of-age for the Model Alliance, the labor group behind it.

Due to a statutory loophole in New York labor law, print and runway models under 18 have long been excluded from protections given to other child performers. While working, protected child performers are required to have on-set chaperones, tutors and, in some cases, nurses. The number of hours a minor can work is closely monitored and capped. The lack of these protections for print and runway models has led to documented (and in many cases, undocumented) exploitation of these girls: Some models, facing pressure from their agents, have dropped out of school to work full-time. Others have been fleeced financially by less-than-stellar agents or employers. Some models have faced unwanted sexual advances by photographers, while others have suffered sexual abuse.

According to Ziff, fashion models — so often encouraged to “work it” — “are not taken seriously as workers.” Rather, they are “a raw material. You don’t see individuals on a runway, you see this abundant resource of youth and fragility.” Ziff is a Manhattan native who’s walked the runway for Prada, Calvin Klein and Balenciaga, and been a face for Tommy Hilfiger, Kenneth Cole and Nautica. She founded the Alliance in February of 2012 with help from Fordham’s Fashion Law Institute.

Ziff, now 31, began modeling at the age of 14 after she was scouted on the way home from school at Dalton. While she considers herself lucky to have made it as far as she has, she is candid in explaining the darker side of high fashion work, where the career of a model can look somewhat Hobbesian: solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short. The picture that emerges is one of an unregulated industry reliant on a largely underage workforce, crops of youngsters who, after putting in long hours without adequate rest or meal breaks, get paid for runway work with a garment from a designer’s collection (known as “trade”) in lieu of a paycheck.

“I have worked and I still work 14-, 16-, 20-hour days and we don’t even have food, we don’t even have a break,” model Anne Vyalitsyna tells Salon. Vyalitsyna has walked in the Victoria’s Secret fashion shows and appeared twice on the cover of the Sports Illustrated Swimsuit edition. “And now, after 12 years, I’ve managed to speak up. If I’m hungry, I’ll say, ‘I want to eat.’”

Many models brought into the U.S. for Fashion Week, Ziff says, lack work visas. Off the runway, models — especially those without visas, who must prove themselves as worthy investments in the longer haul — are beholden to agencies that can fleece them financially and turn a blind eye to sexual abuse in the workplace. And these conditions all exist in a volatile market flooded with new faces each day, where competition has skyrocketed as work is increasingly outsourced to celebrities.

When speaking about their industry, models often use the terminology of conflict -- they liken modeling to the “Wild Wild West,” characterize it as “lawless” or reference the “trauma bonds” forged among models. Ziff understands full well that such a language can be read as hyperbole. “I feel like the biggest battle for me has been trying to convince people that we even are an exploited group,” she says. The industry’s extremely successful outliers, with their abundance of high-profile contracts and star status — the Giseles and Adrianas -- eclipse the condition of those everyday working models teetering on the brink of debt and working for trade with the hopes of gaining exposure.

The astronomical earnings of supermodels have created a gross misunderstanding of how much most models actually make. Ashley Mears, former model, assistant professor of sociology at Boston University and author of "Pricing Beauty: The Making of a Fashion Model," writes that modeling is what economists call a “winner-take-all market,” where earnings can be tremendously skewed. Alongside Gisele Bundchen walk models who are upward of $15,000 in debt, incurring costs for model apartments — agency-owned apartments where models reside for short stretches of time — visas, test shoots and a series of agency charges (which include fees for comp cards, portfolios, bike messengers to shuttle around said portfolios, prints, P.R., Web maintenance and Fedexing). These costs, alongside the agency commission, are deducted from a model's earnings, which are often paid months after a job, and sometimes not at all. Mears also likens some arrangements with agencies to “indentured servitude,” because models typically don’t see a dime until their earnings surpass their debts to the agency. And as independent contractors, models are exempt from minimum wage, overtime, workers' comp, and a chunk of non-discrimination law — and are not able to unionize.

Since its inception, the Alliance has drafted a Models’ Bill of Rights and established a support channel where models can report sexual harassment. The passage of the child model legislation, however, marks its most significant accomplishment to date. Until now, child labor regulations pertaining to fashion models have been inexplicably governed by the Department of Education — ironically, these regulations do not include education requirements. According to Ziff, the regulations in place were inadequate and woefully out of date and didn’t “reflect the realities of modeling work today,” where a model can have multiple jobs back to back and up to 20 different employers during one season on the runway. While the law did restrict a model’s maximum working hours based on a model’s age, those rules were rarely enforced. “You see violations all the time,” Ziff said at a late August Model Alliance panel on the legislation during Fashion Week. “I just saw a 5-year-old working from 7 a.m. to midnight.”

The new law, which includes models in child performer regulations under the Department of Labor, requires that employers — be they designers or brands — obtain a certificate of eligibility to employ a model under the age of 18, and notify the Department of Labor of the specific dates, times and places where the minor is to be used. Employers are also to provide chaperones for models under 16 and tutors. Additionally, 15 percent of a model’s gross earnings must be set aside in a trust account established by the model’s parent or guardian in the model’s name. Employers who break the law are subject to fines.

Ziff notes that the law has yet to truly address the unique nature of a model’s career. The law currently stipulates that an employer must provide a tutor for a minor if he or she misses three consecutive days of school. The reality of Fashion Week is that a model might miss a month of school, but no single employer will be hiring that minor for three days.

There had been talk of redrafting the existing child performer regulations in the fall. But for the time being, according to Ziff, the Department of Labor has said that it will not draft any new regulations and that child models will be included in those regulations for other child performers. “Child models are being lumped in with child performers, which is better than before,” says Ziff, but she calls the lack of regulation adaptation “disappointing.” Because “models are still going to be forced to drop out of school. So a model can work nonstop and still have to choose between her education and her job.”

The industry’s penchant for hiring young girls can be traced to the decline of the supermodel and the influx of models from newer markets — namely, Eastern Europe and Russia. “I saw the pendulum swing from supermodels like Gisele being considered true collaborators to very young girls who were too scared to ask for a lunch break,” Ziff says. This shift toward younger models, she adds, had distinct consequences for the industry’s culture. “It was like fashion models ceased playing a role in the process. And this led to an attitude where models were no longer respected as collaborators, but treated as cheap, replaceable bodies.” Says Vyalitsyna, “A lot of people do take advantage of you because you are young.” Younger models, especially those brought in from poorer regions overseas with the hopes of making it big to feed their families, are also cheaper, walking into a strange industry with no parents to guide them and without the ability to command the money of an older, savvier woman.

James Scully is a freelance runway casting director and show producer whose client list includes Jason Wu, Stella McCartney, Tom Ford and Lanvin, among others. He notes that starting out at 13 or 14 used to be the exception, not the rule, and that models who did start out young had time to build their careers with a stronger support system, instead of being washed up by their 20th birthday. “I think 16-year-old girls should be in school and going to Sweet Sixteen parties. There’s no reason a girl should feel forced to have to work at 16 because she’s out at 18, or if she leaves her agency that someone else will replace her,” he tells Salon. “It used to be a fun industry where you see these girls blossom and now I feel like I’m a cow farmer. This industry should be fun; it shouldn’t leave these girls scarred for life.”

The industry has attempted to regulate from within. In 2007, nonprofit trade organization the Council of Fashion Designers of America started its Health Initiative, which included a recommendation that designers not work with models under the age of 16. The organization has been relatively successful in building consensus -- in 2010 Michael Kors announced he’d no longer be using models under 16, and in 2011 CFDA president Diane von Furstenberg began carding models backstage -- but inevitably, there were transgressions, slip-ups and resistance. After all, the CFDA is a trade organization that explicitly states that it is about “awareness and education, not policing,” and it has no actual authority to set or enforce rules. Designers like Marc Jacobs can flout the recommendations and, as he did last February, knowingly hire models as young as 14. And in 2011 von Furstenberg herself apologized to the CFDA for using a 15-year-old girl in her fall show, stating that “to her horror … one girl slipped through the cracks.”

It remains to be seen what lasting effect, if any, the new legislation will have across the industry. Large fashion houses may be able to pony up money for the fines for breaking the law, but social disapproval may be a greater force to encourage clients to comply. “There are actual teeth in this law, as opposed to the currently existing and widely disregarded law,” says Small. “There will be a few designers who very publicly decide to hire people younger than 18 and make a statement about it and who disregard the hours, or agencies who decide to break the law. First of all, their business partners will have something to say about that now that this legally binding, but secondly the public will have something to say about it.” She believes that ultimately, “there are far more people who will quietly comply than will loudly flout the law.”

As Ziff points out, the nature of the age conversation has changed: “When it moves from adhering to recommended guidelines to breaking the law and being abusive to a child, I think that you’re talking about a very different thing … it’s not about idle recommendations anymore, it’s the law.” Says Fordham Law's Susan Scafidi, “The headline is not going to say, ‘forgot to sign the paperwork,’ the headline is going to say, ‘such and such designer violates child labor law.’ And that social mechanism is the real enforcer here.”

Veteran fashion show producer Nian Fish says, “People are taking it very seriously. Nobody wants to break the law … not only is there a big sheep factor within the industry, but people will fall in line because it’s just paperwork.”

Figures within the industry can be extremely tight-lipped, but the initial modest show of support — which certainly doesn’t mean there may not be any behind-closed-doors grumbling or opposition — is promising. “I think it is a great law and one we support and builds on our work over the past six years,” CFDA CEO Steven Kolb writes. “We understand the complexities of the law and that the industry will need to adapt and I am confident it will.”

Whether 18 and over will become the new runway norm is another question. “Water flows in the easiest direction,” says Scafidi. “I do think there will be a shift. It’s the next step. We’ve already seen 16 become the new norm [as opposed to 14 or 15]. This won’t make 18 the absolute new norm, and it won’t make the use of 16- and 17-year-olds completely taboo, but it will make it inconvenient.” Clients will be required to notify the Department of Labor of any minors to be used within a 48-hour period of using them — considering the last-minute nature of casting changes within the industry, it might be easiest for a designer to hire models over 18.

This Fashion Week was considered by many to be the first true test of the law, and clients largely seem to be complying. “We were very concerned that if the Department of Labor didn’t enforce the new law and designers flouted it that it would be very unlikely going forward that designers or any other clients would take the law seriously,” says Ziff. “We were hoping for spot checks [by the DOL] and it’s possible that that still might happen but it seems like people are in compliance without the DOL having to send people unannounced to a Marc Jacobs show,” she adds, with a laugh. “I’d say overall it’s been well-received and I don’t see too many problems.”

Other industry figures have spoken to the law’s success during Fashion Week. “This year, I saw over 350 girls, and I only saw three that were under 18,” Scully recently told the New York Times -- before the implementation of the law, the majority of the models he saw were under 18. “People are listening,” model Coco Rocha told the New York Post, “I was actually shocked ... because I was expecting someone here or there to forget about the laws or just not pay attention.” Scully noted that some of his clients have asked him not to bring him anyone under the age of 18. The agency Wilhelmina Models went so far as to not include any models under 18 in its show packages for this show season.

Ziff has seen other changes since the law has taken effect. “More parents have called our Model Alliance Support service, to ask about their daughter doing a photo shoot without their consent or asking if what a company is doing is illegal. A lot of the people who are contacting us now are the parents of models whereas before it was models themselves who had been stiffed by a client or an agent. "

Ziff is quick to remind people that while there is a tremendous focus on Fashion Week as it relates to the new law, the law is not Fashion Week-specific: “Obviously models work throughout the year going on other jobs, catalog work, editorial, test shoots, running around castings well before and after Fashion Week,” she says. She hopes that the models who aren’t the face of New York Fashion Week, “who do all the other jobs throughout the year, that they will be working with protection or at least with clients taking this new law seriously. Those are the girls who are the most exploited, the ones who are not the focus of Fashion Week.”  

Eighteen becoming the norm could substantially change the aesthetic we see coming down the runway. “Modeling has been a teenage sport much in the way gymnastics has been,” says Small.  “Once a girl grows hips and breasts, once you have a womanly form you're not expected to compete.” Many critics even within the industry have argued that the fixation on the prepubescent body has led to fashion's problem with eating disorders: When the body of a lanky 14-year-old is the normative aesthetic, models may go to dangerous lengths to maintain that figure, turning to anorexia, bulimia and drug use. Older women could very well lead to bigger women.

Small insists that the law is not about dictating an aesthetic choice. “If Marc Jacobs decides his aesthetic is still 14-year-olds, it’s about protecting them.” She adds, “It’s not an issue of free speech, it’s a labor issue.” And the law is representative of a particular moment within the industry, and a larger shift within the industry toward recognizing models as legitimate performers, and ultimately, workers.

In the last two years, the tenor of conversations about fashion models has indeed changed. In the past, Fashion Week usually prompted a rash of salacious stories from various media outlets about age, weight or sexual harassment. These stories would capture the public’s attention but for a moment, then disappear. Today, however, the climate has shifted, and conversations about labor, diversity and social responsibility in fashion have gained more traction.

“I hate the term 'tipping point,' but [this moment] is almost Gladwellian,” says Ziff. “People in the fashion industry are sheep and I think that we have gotten to the point where you’re the black sheep if you’re opposed to this. We’ve reached the same tipping point as gay marriage, that it’s not just right thing, it’s not just idealistic, but it’s the consensus.”

Ziff compares this victory to ones experienced by other alt-labor groups, like the Domestic Workers Alliance. “Domestic workers are another group, mostly female, who have historically been excluded from labor protections. We are mostly women, whose work isn’t always seen as work, whether it’s caregiving or modeling, work that’s based on your appearance and not recognized as work that’s deserving of the same labor protections as everyone else.”

The legislation is also a step toward models being recognized as child performers, and reanimating the idea of what a model is. “A model isn’t just a coat hanger, beauty isn’t just a size. You are hiring a performer on a stage,” says Ziff.  Small sees this shift as consistent with the shift that is “causing our culture to recognize that fashion designers are also artists.” “If we think of models as performers, then we expect something different from the model, she’s not a clothes hanger who’s ambulatory, she expresses something with her walk or look, or the way she engages the camera. It’s extremely exciting and I do think that having a few extra years of practice and life experience can help that.”

By Shakthi Jothianandan

Shakthi Jothianandan is a New York City-based journalist who has written for New York magazine, People and the Daily Beast. Follow her on Twitter at @ShakthiJ.

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