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CHANEL SS15 Lea Colombo
Chanel SS15Photography Lea Colombo

2017 was the year models fought back

Outspoken individuals like James Scully, Edie Campbell, Cameron Russell and more decided it was time to call out mistreatment in the industry

Gone are the days of models being seen but not heard. With the rise of social media and increasing focus on discrimination in the fashion industry, 2017 was an explosive year for model activism. Models took to the streets and their social platforms to call out political injustice, campaign for equality, and to show support and solidarity for victims of sexual assault.

The year got off to a fiery start, with millions of people campaigning for women’s rights in the worldwide women’s marches. Among these were numerous models, including recently crowned Model of the Year Adwoa Aboah and her crew of Gurls Talk ambassadors. Arguably 2017’s most prominent figure in the new wave of model activists, Aboah has been a tireless campaigner for women’s issues and mental health, using her collective Gurls Talk as a platform to inspire and support women in speaking out against abuse and inequality. This culminated in the form of a one-day festival with Coach, in partnership with Dazed that included workshops and panels for young women in London. 

Aboah wasn’t the only model making waves at the Women’s March. British model Leomie Anderson also made her voice heard, only this time it was via her brand LAPP, whose website publishes articles and produces clothing supporting young women against discrimination and abuse. Started in 2016, the project gained global recognition when Anderson’s message was spotted emblazoned across the chest of Rihanna, who wore one of the label’s “This P***y Grabs Back” hoodies to attend the New York march. 

If January set the year off to a bold start, the following month was no different. Following his brave speech at Business of Fashion’s ‘Voices’ event, in which he detailed the industry’s culture of malpractice, casting director James Scully heralded fashion week’s arrival by calling models to share with him any experiences of discrimination and misconduct.

True to his word, Scully used Instagram to name and shame “serial abusers” Maida Boina and Rami Fernandes, casting directors employed by Balenciaga who allegedly made models wait for over three hours in the dark before being seen by them. In the same post, Scully called attention to lack of diversity and use of underage models by other major fashion houses. Encouraged by his trailblazing efforts, models also began telling their own stories, like Ulrikke Hoyer, who used Instagram to call out a Louis Vuitton casting agent for alleging that she was “too big”.

In a post-Harvey Weinstein world, models also joined the worldwide chorus of women speaking up against sexual assault as part of the #metoo movement. One of the most prominent model activists of recent years, Cameron Russell, whose 2013 TED talk remains one of the platform’s most-watched videos, used her Instagram to share anonymous stories of fellow models’ experiences of abuse. Similarly, British model Edie Campbell wrote an open letter to the fashion industry, published by WWD, calling for a reexamination of the industry’s practices and principles. Campbell’s letter also drew attention to the often overlooked cases of male models, a matter reflected in recent allegations against the photographer Bruce Weber.

Elsewhere, some proved that anger can be power, literally. Model and musician Julia Cumming’s new venture @angercanbepowernyc aims to help people think creatively about ways to enact change. Launched in October, the collective has already hosted multiple events and discussions. “Finding inspiration in the kids she saw at rock shows all around the world, ANGER CAN BE POWER endeavours to invoke the DIY spirit to inspire people to integrate political involvement in their lives,” reads the website’s manifesto. This is not Cumming’s first foray into political activism, teaming up with earlier this year to produce a video explaining how best to contact your local government representatives. The clip, starring various of Cumming’s model friends, calls for protest against harmful new government legislation, mixing political activism with a healthy dose of humour.

Although 2017 saw models revealing some ugly truths about the industry, it wasn’t all bad. Elsewhere, Belgian model Hanne Gaby Odiele speak openly about being intersex, educating those who aren’t and, more importantly, fighting stigma. Teddy Quinlivan was another who used her public profile to increase visibility, choosing to reveal her transgender identity and become another positive voice for the increasing number of trans models in the fashion industry.

Not only that, major corporations began to implement changes to protect models’ health and wellbeing. In September, LVMH and Kering announced a new charter to protect models employed under their brands, placing regulations around working hours and conditions for models, and banning unrealistic sizing and underage models from their casting process. The British Fashion Council also announced a new “Models First” initiative to regulate standards within the industry and ensure good practice, also appointing Adwoa Aboah as a representative for models’ health and diversity. While it seems that there have been huge leaps in terms of progress, there is still a long way to go. We can only hope that 2018 will see a continuation of brave voices speaking out against mistreatment and bringing about much-needed change.