Fashion models gracing the runways of New York Fashion Week aren’t typically the sort of workers to elicit much sympathy from the general public. They get to wear high-end designer clothes for a living. They’re associated with enormously wealthy celebrities like Gigi Hadid and Kendall Jenner, couture collections from Miu Miu or Jacquemus, and looking perfect at all times. But a group of sexual abuse survivors and former models want you to know that they are also regularly subjected to financial and sexual exploitation and abuse.
A new bill proposed in the New York state legislature, the Fashion Workers Act, seeks to protect fashion models from enforced financial dependency, physical abuse, and sex trafficking, according to the Guardian. The bill, geared towards models, makeup artists, and other vulnerable workers in the fashion industry, is set to be discussed in the upcoming 2023 legislative session in January.
The legislation wouldn’t exist without the models and survivors who advocated endlessly for institutionalized labor protections, several of whom are among the women who came forward against Harvey Weinstein, now a convicted sex criminal. Kaja Sokola, a model from Poland, was just 14 years old when she walked down a Polish runway in underwear. At 15, she was photographed in a see-through top, and, years later, would find herself the victim of Weinstein’s sexual misconduct.
“On so many levels, from emotional to physical to financial, fashion has been abusing models for years and years and years,” Sokola told The Guardian.
The bill seeks to enforce basic labor standards, like requiring management agencies to compensate models within 45 days of completing a job and providing them copies of their work contracts. Management commissions would also be capped at 20 percent to avoid predatory contracts. Oftentimes, models coming from poor countries to “make it” in New York City are offered to live in an agency-owned apartment, where 11 models are crammed into a two-bedroom flat for $2,000 per person. With more transparency and timely payments, the survivors behind the bill say workers would have better chances of escaping or avoiding an exploitative situation altogether, whether that means stable housing or the means to buy a plane ticket to flee the grips of an abuser.
“Often, these teenage girls who are trying to be models are thousands of dollars in debt, and the only way they can eat or afford to do anything is to go to these dinners with businessmen,” says Sara Ziff, founder and executive director of the Model Alliance.
“It is no coincidence that Harvey Weinstein, Jeffrey Epstein, Bill Cosby, Peter Nygaard solicited girls through model management agencies,” Ziff said, adding that agencies sometimes arrange these meetings themselves, “which are sort of presented as a business opportunity, but ended up being something very different.” And because many of these women are paid to (in some cases) walk nearly naked down a runway, the nightmarish “she asked for it” excuse seems very much still on the table for the worst offenders America has to offer.
Abuse in the fashion industry has gone unchecked for decades, and that may be in part due to the general disdain towards models: We don’t like to talk about the struggles of pretty people because pretty people are visibly lucky already. Pretty people get to operate with ease in a capitalistic society that values conventional attractiveness, especially within a space like the fashion industry that, on its face, appears glamorous and lush with unlimited opportunity for social ascent.
But abuse in the workplace—or outside of it—is just plain abuse, regardless of the appearance of its victims. Putting aside the Hadids and Naomi Campbells of the world, most fashion models are anonymous faces on the runway—those identified in photos as simply “a model.” And when women are devalued and regularly reduced to mere pretty things, it becomes easier to ignore their proximity to people with too much money and power—those who think a model is just another gem to be added to their collection of Rolexes and private jets.