New York fashion week ended about two-weeks ago but there’s a group that works year-round to improve the working conditions of models on the runways and magazines—the majority of them who begin working between the ages of 13-16. The group Model Alliance aims to establish ethical standards that bring change to the fashion industry as a whole.
New York Fashion Week this February was the most diverse in ages. “Models of color finally topped 20% of the models booked for fashion week shows,” wrote Jenna Sauers on Jezebel.com, who’s been tracking diversity at Fashion Week for the last eight seasons. (Designers of color at Fashion Week still have a long way to go—out of 127 designers who presented only 2 were black.)
According to Jezebel, the largest single ethnic category, after whites, was Asians. Asian models were used for 8.8% of the time. Black models were at 8%. Non-white Latina models were used 2.4% of the time.
But as diversity on the runway increases so is the need for the rights of those models.
Model Alliance’s goals include: providing affordable health care for models, greater financial transparency, ensure that existing child labor laws are enforced and establishing a grievance and enforcement system for issues of sexual harassment.
Unlike actors in the U.S., who rely on strong unions like SAG and AFTRA, models in the U.S. lack union support and basic workplace protections. Strict rules that govern child actors’ working hours and provisions for tutors during professional commitments are not applied to child models, who often work long hours and drop out of school to make the most of their earning ability during their teenage years. Many models lack affordable health care, which is particularly troubling considering the psychological and health costs on models who anxiously struggle to control their bodies over short-lived careers and are isolated by their frenetic and nomadic lifestyles.
The Model Alliance is part of a growing movement worldwide to combat this exploitation. In 2009, the British trade union, Equity, agreed to take models into membership in the U.K. As members of Equity, models can enjoy benefits including injury compensation, legal and accounting services, and visa advice. In 2010, Equity established a minimum wage of £100 per runway show that increases depending on the number of seasons that the designer has presented his or her collection. Future efforts include crediting models and their agencies in magazine editorials, and criminal background checks for anyone in the industry who works with minors. These standards established by Equity are encouraging, as they set a precedent for the kinds of benefits and reform that are both necessary and possible for models working in the U.S.
Meanwhile, in 2007, the Council of Fashion Designers of America (CFDA) formed a health initiative to address the concern that some models are unhealthily thin. While the CFDA’s recognition of eating disorders among models is a huge step forward, their guidelines designed to promote wellness are just the beginning. Models deserve industrywide standards that extend beyond the bi-annual fashion weeks in New York—a mere 14-day span of runway jobs that apply to a relatively small, select group of high fashion models. And eating disorders are only symptom of a much larger problem plaguing the industry—namely that most models’ clout in the workplace is as miniscule as their size-zero frames.
Watch the video above and you’ll meet a member of the Colorlines.com family. Dorian Warren is a board member at the Applied Research Center, Colorlines.com’s publisher.