Last night at Harvard, while speaking with Anna Wintour on a panel about models' health, Michael Kors pledged to no longer use girls under the age of 16 in his shows and campaigns. It's a step, but is it enough?
Said Wintour: "Everyone's eyes are open and looking at the problem." But it was hard to tell, beyond "looking at it," what the people in power are actually doing about the problem.
The discussion, called "Health Matters: Weight and Wellness in the World of Fashion," was moderated by Dr. David Herzog, who also moderated last month's CFDA Health Initiative panel in New York. Herzog is the director of the Harris Center for Education and Advocacy in Eating Disorders at Massachusetts General Hospital. This man has spent his professional life examining the destruction eating disorders inflict on the lives of women. This makes the question of why he's so far up Anna Wintour's/Vogue's butt that much more compelling.
Herzog fawned over the work the CFDA's Health Initiative has been doing in the three years since its inception in 2007. How can we see for ourselves the results of these labors? Herzog thinks you should check out the April issue of Vogue — you know, the "Shape" issue. Herzog clearly hasn't realized that as good as it can be to see the variety of body shapes and women in that issue — when the rest of the time Vogue is trying to pass off Lara Stone as an example of body diversity — it that it is still just one issue out of 12. Nine years after the first Shape issue appeared on newsstands, have the sizes of the models in Vogue become more diverse or attainable? And outside of its debatable victories in Vogue, what else is the Health Initiative doing, really? Has it managed to get designers to abide by its suggestion to not use models under 16? No. New York is still known for its 14- and 15-year-old breakout runway stars, like Monika Jagaciak and Karlie Kloss, and the many, many other models like them who work in relative obscurity. Has the Health Initiative gotten clients to make sure healthy food is available during show season? Not really; Jenna says there was more food backstage at the Bryant Park tents last month than in seasons past, but it was still very hit-or-miss. Has the Health Initiative done anything to fundamentally shift the industry's power dynamic more in models' favor? No — they're still vulnerable to their agencies' and clients' demands. Pretty pictures in Vogue aren't sufficient to address these problems.
What I walked away with as the group's main message can be summed up by Michael Kors, in the Health Matters video shown, which was created and funded by Condé Nast and Michael Kors, Inc: "The change has been the awareness." When your goal is the fuzzy cure-all "awareness," any step can be made to seem like success.
Wintour, Vodianova, and Kors returned to this theme again and again. Wintour spoke first, and earnestly set about proving that the Health Initiative has brought about some real change. She pointed to the guidelines created by the initiative, and claimed that fashion shows have become entirely different events since recommendations were put in place — she said there is less alcohol backstage, and that there is in fact more food provided to models. Wintour failed to offer any real evidence to support this claim, other than being quick to commend Kors' efforts to use healthy, age-appropriate models in his shows. Wintour also pointed to Vogue's support of the Initiative. She mentioned its piece about Kim Noorda, and its interview with Lara Stone as proof that "We want healthy-looking girls; our readers want healthy looking girls."
Before I went to last night's event, Jenna told me that in the past, Wintour and others at Vogue have blamed small sample sizes, the ages of the models who fit into these sizes, and the use of celebrities for beauty and fashion magazine shoots as causes, or at least primary elements, of the problem. Impressively, Wintour managed to hit every one of these talking points. She said the very young average age of models promotes a body type that is unrealistic for most adult women, she pointed to über-thin celebrities taking over as cultural influencers, and then shrugged and said Vogue was stuck using whatever models fit into the tiny sample garments designers lend it. Wintour wryly described the "tyranny of clothes that fit, just barely, 13-year-olds on the brink of puberty," as if it were not in her power to request a larger size garment from a designer. Wintour commended Prada for hiring Doutzen Kroes to walk in Milan last month (Kroes was in attendance as well, in the first row) and said, "Change does seem to be within reach."
I think Michael Kors was probably the most popular of the three on panel. His opening statement — "The fashion industry, as a whole, is starting to address real women again" — earned the crowd's spontaneous applause. His best moment came when he said that simply making recommendations was "passive" but, like Wintour, didn't really make it clear what active steps the CFDA should be taking, or better yet, what other players in the industry could be doing.
Kors obviously knows and understands who is buying the clothes he makes, and repeatedly returned to the idea of representing "real women" in the fashion industry. "Girls dressed up in their mother's clothes? Guess what, it's not attractive." In the night's big moment, Kors committed to action himself by publicly pledging to no longer use any model under the age of 16 in his campaigns or runway shows. (That shouldn't be too hard. Kors used only one model who may have been under 16 in his most recent show — Keke Lindgard, whose biography states only the year of her birth, 1994. Kors used three 16-year-old models: Monika Jagaciak, Frida Gustavsson, and Julija Steponaviciute, though it should be noted that Jagaciak, whose birthday is January 15, turned 16 barely a month before the show. Last September, Kors booked Jagaciak, who was then 15.)
Kors condemned the fashion industry's tendency to treat young models as a commodity to be discarded when no longer wanted. Kors told a story about meeting a young model who became increasingly distressed throughout a fitting. Kors took her aside, and she told him the sweater he had chosen for her was too sheer, making her uncomfortable. At this point, Kors told the audience, he was reminded that "this was a child," not always capable of protecting herself. It was a good anecdote until Kors ruined it by throwing in, "She thanks me every time I see her."
Soft-spoken supermodel Natalia Vodianova was the most charismatic member of the panel. People around me kept whispering how cute she was — she had a tendency to giggle. Vodianova talked about returning to modeling after the birth of one of her children having lost a drastic amount of weight, and later her realization that she had a problem, brought on at least in part by the pressures and scrutiny of the fashion industry. After therapy and her own self-examination, she realized "no one is judging me the way I judge myself." But we had just heard Vodianova describe hearing the criticism leveled at other models; worrying about what was said about herself seemed a very legitimate fear.
Vodianova was quick to credit modeling for changing her life, granting her travel and educational opportunities she would not otherwise have had access to growing up in poverty in small-town Russia. "I knew I was a lucky one," she said. Vodianova tended to veer between acknowledging the pressures and dangers the fashion industry presents to models, and crediting the industry for her success and even her recovery from her own eating disorder. She explained that in the fashion industry, where models' bodies and appearance — indeed, all matters of their lives — are largely subject to the whims of the agency, the stylist, or the magazine, "Anorexia is the only form of control girls have. It's what girls can do to take some control of their careers." Vodianova said, "Their sense of worth is handed over to people who don't care about their feelings. They're simply not paid to."
Rather than take questions from the audience, the organizers apparently solicited queries via email at some point prior to the discussion, and chose three. The whole thing took 15 minutes. This unwillingness to engage the audience, the extent to which everything was prepared and scheduled, made it all a bit dry. Herzog completely failed to challenge any member of the panel — he was also very mild-mannered at last month's CFDA Health Initiative — which is probably why he was chosen as moderator. Maybe he doesn't know much about fashion, but just flipping through a Vogue might have helped him come up with a few questions for Wintour (especially since organizers weren't willing to take any from the audience), and we could have heard some real dialog.
Herzog did ask the panel to predict what changes or progress might have been made three years in the future, but tellingly, everyone on the panel was reluctant to say what the Health Initiative could accomplish in that time. Said Wintour: "I think we should just feel really good about today." With that pat on the back, the panel dispersed.