It’s been two years since the model charter was drawn up to protect the fashion industry’s most vulnerable players. But has anything really changed? Lauren Cochrane investigates.
James Scully was having a bad week. Not only had he been unable to get an internet signal at Stella McCartney’s office in Paris, where he’d been working all day, but something else was playing on his mind. Hours earlier, Scully had been left open-mouthed as tearful models confided in him about alleged abuse taking place across town, explaining how they’d been locked in a dark stairwell for hours as they waited at a Balenciaga casting.
A veteran casting director at some of the biggest fashion houses for over 30 years, Scully was familiar with such stories. He tried speaking out before, but his pleas fell on deaf ears. He became so disillusioned with the industry that, years earlier, he planned to leave fashion altogether.
As he walked into the February afternoon, he took out his phone and fired off an Instagram post that sent shockwaves through the industry. ‘I’m disappointed to come to Paris,’ he wrote. ‘And hear that the usual suspects are up to the same tricks.’
Scully named the ‘usual suspects’ as Balenciaga casting directors Maida Gregori Boina and Rami Fernandes, and called out Lanvin, who’d reportedly asked model agencies to send no women of colour to its casting.
It echoed words that Scully said in 2016, when he spoke at an industry convention. In that speech, watched 50,000 times on YouTube, his voice cracked as he said: ‘I feel like I work in a business I don’t even recognise.’ He said he’d name offenders if their behaviour did not cease. The 2017 Instagram post was him making good on that promise.
When we speak, he explains what happened after that post. ‘Three hours [after], the President of Communications (for Kering) came to see me and said to go to François-Henri Pinault’s office “now”.’ Pinault is the CEO of the luxury conglomerate that owns Balenciaga, and a long-time employer of Scully’s. ‘I thought I was getting fired,’ he remembers. ‘But the post had gone viral – I had 1,500 messages and 300 emails.’
Among the clapping-hands emojis in nearly 2,000 comments, jobbing models shared their stories. Judith Schiltz, who’d been at the Balenciaga casting, said the casting director was ‘screaming at us to go outside, in the dark – and told us we were like groupies at a concert’.
Even household names joined the conversation. ‘This is important,’ Helena Christensen wrote. ‘People can be such scumbags, selfish, arrogant and pathetic.’ Boina and Fernandes were subsequently fired from Balenciaga. They published a statement in which Boina described Scully’s post as ‘inaccurate and libellous’. Lanvin’s response at the time was: ‘These allegations are serious and completely untrue.’
The result went far beyond just an internet storm. Scully’s meeting with Pinault – and later Antoine Arnault, Head of Communication and Image at LVMH (which owns Louis Vuitton, Celine and Christian Dior, among others) – was the start of the Model Charter, a document developed by the two conglomerates, designed to protect models from abuse. It was the first time the industry powerhouses had united in the hope of cleaning up an industry that had long been mired in scandal and sleaze. But, asked many, would it change anything?
If you had a problem with [inappropriate behaviour] you were seen as uptight
The fashion industry has been rife with talk of abuse for years. In fact, a handful of models had tried to speak out before. In 2001, Karen Mulder – one of the original supermodels – revealed she’d been raped by bookers, and encouraged to use heroin and cocaine. Her original interview on French television was deemed so controversial it was cut, and the allegations seemed to disappear with many citing Mulder’s outburst as a result of her deteriorating mental health. (She has since recovered.)
In 2011, Jaime King, now a successful actor, said she felt so pressured to stay the size of a 14-year-old, she developed a drug addiction as a teenager. Coco Rocha complained of similar weight issues. ‘Girls are told they are not skinny enough, or they hear, “She’s old, she’s boring, we’ve had her. She’s not tiny any more.”’
While these stories are shocking, they didn’t inspire the industry to modify its behaviour. The tipping point was Scully’s Instagram post. Perhaps this was down to the casting director’s reputation as the white knight of the industry, and the fact that he was able to talk freely while scores of young models suffered in silence for fear of ruining their careers.
Scully’s post coincided with the mood of the time. Sandwiched between the #MeToo movement, sparked by the Harvey Weinstein scandal, and reports of abuse in the Catholic church, there was a growing anger, in which victims began to speak out, backed by an entire movement. Social media, and its huge rise in users, meant this story was able to spread with ferocious speed. By 2017, the secret of so many was out, and it was impossible to ignore.
In September of that year, just before fashion month began, the Model Charter was created, with the help of casting director Ashley Brokaw, Viva Model Management founder Cyril Brule and Kering’s Chief Sustainability Officer Marie-Claire Daveu. Written in two weeks, it was rushed out in order to be implemented for the next round of shows.
Daveu, through her role as head of corporate social responsibility and Kering’s commitment to better ethical practice, was instrumental. Although aware of the problem, she says the Charter’s formulation and partnering with LVMH was expedited by the online movement. ‘We discovered [the issue] thanks to social media and models’ reactions,’ she says, talking to us between meetings. ‘It was the right time to formalise our expectations, how we want to work with fashion models and to write a kind of framework.’
According to the Charter, brands are asked to work with models who have a valid medical certificate stating they’re fit to work, with women over size 34 (UK 6) and men over size 44 (XS). They have to provide food and drinks, with alcohol prohibited on most sets. Models must have privacy when changing – with any nudity for a photo shoot pre-agreed. Daveu describes it as a way to ‘define with integrity and responsibility what we are expecting for working conditions and health conditions for the models’.
Voluntary self-regulation won’t eradicate the industry’s common abuses
The industry responded with a wave of commitment to change. In December 2017, the British Fashion Council (BFC) launched similar guidelines with its Models First Initiative, which involved an extensive best practice guide for model agencies, which covers everything from scouting to assisting models with their accounts.
‘The meetings we have with models and stylists tell us the challenges. They are like a sounding board,’ says Caroline Rush, chief executive of the BFC. ‘We’ve had some tough conversations over the years. Established agencies are now using best practice – and this is being shared with the younger agencies.’
Models are also encouraged to join Equity, the trade union that represents actors, to ensure they have an independent representative. For young models, this may be vital. ELLE approached many for this feature with few coming forward, suggesting that there is still a problem with speaking out.
Karlina Caune, who has modelled since 2010 and now has her own agency as well as working with Elizabeth Arden and Numero, was a rare exception. Over email, she claims photographer Cuneyt Akeroglu pressed her to do a nude shoot in December 2012.
‘My agent came ASAP, and dealt with this situation, protecting me from a grade A asshole who has no sense of boundaries or morals,’ she writes. ‘Not every girl has such support and the Model Charter is what protects these girls. It’s important.’ (Cuneyt denies any wrongdoing, saying a brief of what was required for the shoot was sent to Karlina’s model agency, including information about nudity, and that he did not take a picture of her on set, or force her to do anything she did not want to do. He says there must have been a misunderstanding by Karlina and her agency).
Now, calling someone out for objectionable behaviour is, rightly, lauded. But 10 years ago, you were seen as a party pooper. Avril Mair, ELLE’s Group Fashion Director, gives an example. ‘Terry Richardson was “just being Terry” – if you had a problem with it, you were somehow deeply uncool or a bit uptight,’ she says. ‘Today, that person is a hero.’
Two years on from 2017’s moment, and there have been further developments, particularly around age. In March this year, Kering announced that from 2020, its brands will no longer work with models under 18, as a way to protect younger people from an environment they may not be ready for. ‘When you’re 18, you have the psychological maturity to do this job,’ says Daveu. ‘If you have teenage children, you know there’s a huge difference between [the ages of] 16 and 18.’
LVMH, and indeed London Fashion Week, are yet to come into line with this point (Rush says it contradicts UK employment law and could be seen as discrimination, although a model must be 16 to walk in a show at London Fashion Week).
‘What matters is not so much the age, as the conditions under which models work,’ says Antoine Arnault, who calls for a ‘protected environment’ for 16 to 18-year-olds. ‘Banning models of that age will not stop them from working.’
But modelling agencies are already seeing the effect on their scouting, says Scully: ‘In Paris, the paperwork required to work as a model has stopped the flow of young girls by more than 50%.’ This season, it’s striking that women in their forties – Carolyn Murphy, Stella Tennant, Christy Turlington – were the stars.
As models are now walking in the SS20 shows, how much has changed in two years? With LVMH and Kering’s brands adhering to the Charter and, according to Scully, brands such as Prada implementing their own versions, the day-to-day life of a model has improved somewhat. Rush points to privacy backstage, and an overall acknowledgement of models’ needs for food and other levels of comfort. Importantly, predators are on the wane, says Scully.
‘I think it has curved the behaviour by about 70%,’ he says. ‘If someone does something now, people will take them down on Instagram. It’s also opened up a new breed of photographers like Ethan James Green,’ who has shot for Alexander McQueen, Dior and The Row and is known for bringing a new honesty to fashion photography.
Of course, the modelling industry hasn’t transformed overnight. Caune points out that, although there have been media stories that have brought bad behaviour into the public eye, models themselves still find it hard to speak up, citing Terry Richardson as an example of a photographer who, despite numerous scandals, continues to work. Critics of the Charter’s impact question what, in reality, has changed. When Caune is asked if she has noticed a difference, she says, ‘To be honest, not really. The industry has a tendency to only act on selected issues.’
Sara Ziff – who has modelled for designers such as Stella McCartney – set up the Model Alliance in 2012. Scouted at age 14, a male photographer asked her to take off her bra at one of her first castings. She remembers raising concerns about the safety of her and fellow models, and being dismissed.
‘Our concerns were trivialised by agents, who seemed more interested in maintaining their relationships with other abusers than protecting us.’ When she eventually spoke out – in 2010 she released the documentary Picture Me, which told stories of abuse in the industry – she faced a backlash. ‘I was treated like a pariah. Speaking out came with consequences; it wasn’t easy.’
Ziff argues that the Model Charter has ‘generated good PR, but hasn’t adequately addressed concerns or eliminated the abuse that models face’. Her issue is that these are guidelines in an unregulated industry – they’re not legally binding. ‘Voluntary self-regulation won’t eradicate sexual harassment, financial exploitation and other common abuses,’ she says. Instead, the Model Alliance launched the RESPECT programme in 2018.
Endorsed by Edie Campbell and Doutzen Kroes, RESPECT demands a legally binding Code of Conduct signed by a model’s employer. ‘The only way to root out the structural problems that make models vulnerable is through enforceable agreements with businesses responsible for their work conditions,’ Ziff says. Rush agrees more official paperwork would help: ‘There’s no doubt more can be put into contracts so models can say, “This wasn’t what we agreed.” A lot of younger models are not sure of the protocol.’
There are positives now. ‘The younger generation of editors and designers tends to be more forward-thinking and appreciate the Model Alliance’s work,’ says Ziff. Mair believes good signs come from newer members of fashion’s establishment. ‘To have Maria Grazia [Chiuri], who is a feminist, at Dior, is a huge catalyst for change,’ she says. Mair points to Chiuri designing underwear for models to wear under sheer garments at Dior shows. ‘That culture of respect is the thing that will make the biggest change in the industry,’ Mair says.
Of course, for this change to last and evolve, the entire industry has to keep its eye on the ball. When asked what’s next, Daveu said it’s a ‘step-by-step approach’. To make real change, consistency and perseverance are essential. ‘It’s important to not say “we have the Charter, we’ve decided to implement the over-18s rule”, and that’s the end of the story,’ she argues. ‘No, it’s just the beginning.’
Ziff goes further: ‘We’re working towards prevention of abuses in the industry. It’s time to create an environment of genuine accountability.’
This article first appeared on ELLE UK.