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ondria hardin
Ondria Hardin

What do older models mean for fashion?

Unpicking how the law on underage models has changed New York Fashion Week

This year, the runways at New York Fashion Week worked a different look: all the models seemed to be a little older. 

Last October, the state of New York passed a law that classed under-18 models as child performers in an attempt to curb the usage of extremely young models on the catwalk. The law, crafted by model Sarah Ziff and her campaign group The Model Alliance, means added paperwork and restrictions for designers who wish to use models under the age of 18. Among the regulations are strictly-defined work hours – young models cannot work after 12pm for runway shows or 10pm for a print shoot – and legal requirements that the models have access to on-site tutors and chaperones. If designers fail to comply with the law, they can be fined up to $3,000.  

The new legislation was in full force this season. Casting director James Scully, whose clients include Tom Ford and Jason Wu, estimates that almost "sixty per cent" of the girls he saw used to be young than 18. "This year, I saw over 350 girls, and I only saw three that were under 18,” he told The New York Times.

Jessica Weinstein, another casting director, thinks the legislation has already prompted a drastic rethink of how shows are cast, with casting directors, agents and designers bringing up the age restrictions from the start. It's great that the new laws are working to protect young models, who are often thrust into the glare of the industry spotlight with little adult supervision or guidance. As Shalom Harlow told The Model Alliance, "I started working as a model at the age of 15. I know first-hand the acute vulnerability of being a child working in an unregulated adult industry. During show seasons, there were many times I slept on a fitting room floor until three or four in the morning, waiting to fit a dress, with an 18-hour work day ahead of me."

How will the new law affect the catwalk aesthetic and how we view the model body? NYFW is up against the powerful influence exerted by the runways in Milan, Paris and London, all of which have very different labour laws regulating the hiring of under-18s – it's not uncommon to see a 14 or 15-year-old fronting a major campaign or doing a show. But now that New York's designers are being pushed into casting fully-grown women and not pre-pubescent teenagers, we might see ripple effects for the rest of the industry – maybe the runway move away from the waif ideal and return to the muscular curves that dominated the industry in the 80s. As NYFW wraps up this weekend and hands over the reins to London, we'll just have to wait and see.