Conversations about abuse in the fashion industry need to cut to the heart of the problem: the distribution of power within the system
With every new allegation of abuse, the same questions ricochet through the media. Why did he do this? Why didn’t she speak out? Each new scandal becomes a morality play in which the individual psychology of villain and victim take centre stage.
But as the names pile up, the problem can’t be understood as primarily about Weinstein, or more recently, Testino and Weber. And those who are speaking out aren’t just young actresses, but models, assistants, interns across the creative industries. In fashion particularly, it’s clear things need to change, and on a much wider scale than brands severing ties with a few now-sullied names.
Of course abusers need to be but outed, centering the discussion on the misconduct of a few individuals obscures the scale of the problem facing fashion’s global underclass, a growing body of workers kneecapped by financial precarity, unstable contracts, and inadequate labour laws. A process of reform needs to cut to the heart of the problem: the distribution of power within the fashion system.
THE SCALE OF THE PROBLEM
In 2013 I began working as a model. I never had much success – I was demonstrably more committed to carbs than catwalks – but the experience was eye-opening. Sure, it was fun. And yes, the parties are alright. But the glamour is a thin veneer over the exploitation on which the industry rests.
In the global south, Bangladeshi women are forced to work in structurally unsound factories. In the global north, assistants are worked to breakdown by powerful superiors who assume working 16+ hour days is the only way to cut one’s teeth in the industry – because they did it too. Young models are ferried across the world and overworked to exhaustion. This culture isn’t something to grin and bear: on October 20th 2017, a 14-year-old Russian model died when she was sent to China with seemingly no support network. She contracted meningitis while working at Shanghai Fashion Week – by the time she was taken to hospital, her condition was terminal.
Chasing individuals won’t solve these problems, but looking at the structure of the industry might. When I reported on the abuses rife in the male modelling industry, everyone passed the buck: bookers blamed clients, casting directors blamed photographers, photographers blamed editors, and editors blamed brands.
Fashion – like other creative industries – is feudal. Power aggregates to an unaccountable class that perches above a vast system of underlings. Like all feudal systems, the way to succeed in the arts is through fealty and patronage, or, in other words, submission to the status quo. Bucking the trend, calling out misconduct, and campaigning for change is a death knell for any burgeoning career. A young model can indeed “just say no” in the face of fashion’s heavyweights, but a simple “no” can end a career faster than you can say “isn’t this illegal?”
Focusing on powerful individuals fundamentally misses the point: the reason why abuse is rife is that fashion has produced an “underclass”, a mass of bodies whose livelihoods depend upon a system that keeps them in a state of enforced precarity. For the millions of people who depend on fashion but are denied any meaningful voice within the system, structural reform is needed. But any vague notion of amplifying voices is unlikely to cut it. Fashion needs unions.
“Abuse is rife because fashion has produced an ‘underclass’, a mass of bodies whose livelihoods depend upon a system that keeps them in a state of enforced precarity”
Modeling is unreliable employment. Well-paid jobs are few and far between, while castings are numerous and time-consuming. The unpredictability of its hours mean that side jobs need to be flexible, which all too often translates to underpaid and irregular.
With agency fees that can swallow up to 50 per cent of your income, financial instability is inevitable. In 2016, the median pay of male models was estimated to be around £15,000 per year, around four grand less than the London Living Wage.
The employment status of many models leaves them especially vulnerable. In the US, models are classified as “independent contractors.” Unlike in France where models count as employees and benefit from a raft of labour rights and employment protections, “independent contractors” work in a largely unregulated space where the law stands firmly on the side of the employer, not employee.
In this context, saying no in the face of abuse or misconduct isn’t just about some abstract sense of inner strength or courage: it’s also about the economic resilience to withstand an axed payment or a lost job. In the midst of housing crises in the world’s major capitals and bleak job prospects for a generation blighted by debt, “no” can be a pretty costly syllable to utter.
“Saying no in the face of abuse or misconduct isn’t just about some abstract sense of inner strength or courage: it’s also about the economic resilience to withstand an axed payment or a lost job”
FIXING THE SYSTEM
The only remedy to the injustice that undergirds the fashion system is accountability. Not in the form of declarations to improve working conditions, nor in theatrical outrage when abusive people are outed. Accountability is meaningless without enforcement.
For models, legislative changes to reclassify them as employees – not “independent contractors” with threadbare labour rights – are a start. Bans on adolescents under the age of 18 working in the adult market is another. Perhaps most pressing are protections for those working overseas, including financial commitments by all agencies to cover any losses made or flights back home when required.
Any single “code of conduct” is unlikely to cut it. The process of reforming fashion will be long and painful. What’s needed is not simply a new bill of rights for models or interns or assistants, but the kind of infrastructures for advocacy that will work to continually improve working conditions and continually hold fashion’s ruling class to account.
That process won’t be pleasant. To give fashion’s disempowered a shot at dignity, money, responsibility and power needs to be dislodged from the industry’s kingmakers and dispersed among the people who keep the system afloat. Abuse and exploitation will only end when fashion’s power imbalances are remedied and when its “underclass” has legal and financial protections.
Whether Testino and Weber will be the catalyst for that remains to be seen. But the industry cannot feign surprise when the next names surface if it isn’t prepared to confront a system that supports mistreatment.