This year’s Copenhagen Fashion Summit looked to the future, following a number of sexual assault exposés
In a talk at the tail end of 2016, casting agent James Scully promised to name and shame fashion industry abusers for their mistreatment of models, and to relay the stories that came to him. It didn’t take long for the first case to break: in February 2017, he posted that casting agents Maida Gregori Boina and Rami Fernandes had allegedly left models to wait for hours in a darkened staircase at a Balenciaga casting, kick-starting a conversation about abusive and cruel behaviour in the industry. As the #MeToo movement took over the world, fashion began facing the facts about some of its most famous names (including Bruce Weber, Mario Testino, and Patrick Demarchelier) – and the shocking ways these icons had treated models according to multiple on the record sources compiled by the New York Times and the Boston Globe.
On Wednesday, Scully was on stage at the prestigious Copenhagen Fashion Summit – an annual conference focussed on driving forward a positive future for the industry – to discuss the movement his whistleblowing helped put into motion. He was joined by outspoken model Edie Campbell, founder of the Model Alliance Sara Ziff, and Marie-Claire Daveu, Kering’s chief sustainability officer. The panel discussed not only the industry’s moment of reckoning, but also misconceptions about modelling and the recent comments of Karl Lagerfeld – that anyone who doesn’t wish to have their pants pulled down on the job should consider joining a nunnery rather than work as a model.
Most importantly of all, however, the inspiring talk also addressed how change can be enacted for the future – making sure that #MeToo is a movement rather than a moment, and ridding fashion of the fear, ego, and violence that have been able to continue just beneath its surface for far too long.
Here are the main takeaways.
MODELS AREN’T LIVING THE LIVES YOU THINK
Models, Scully argued, are not necessarily the first people to get sympathy for the harassment they face – in fact, because we associate their beauty with privilege and the glamorous lives they are employed to portray, their suffering can be perceived as less valid (boo hoo hoo, essentially). Campbell – who has been outspoken on model mistreatment since these conversations started to take place – agreed, arguing that while being a model might appear to be a dream job, outsiders are not privy to how hard it can really be. “It’s very difficult to be sympathetic towards somebody who you could see as having fame and fortune and success from a young age, or who you might perceive (as having) those things,” she said. “But I think what’s lost is the realisation that young (people) are often 17, maybe younger, very far away from home, don’t speak English…” there’s also the fact that modelling comes with real financial consequences, with teenage hopefuls in debt to their agencies until they start making money. “(Some) have taken massive financial risks in starting their career and often have been sold a dream that will never come to reality,” she said.
WHICH MEANS THEY ARE ARE PERFECTLY POISED FOR EXPLOITATION
...In part, thanks to the fact that they’ve been told that the (often much, much older) people they’re working with have the ability to make or break their careers. “You’ve been sold this idea that these people that you’re working with are the ones who are the key to your success,” Campbell reasoned, “a lot of models come from backgrounds when they may be the ones financially supporting their families so there’s a huge pressure on them not to mess up and not to lose out on a single opportunity to be rebooked and to have this ascendant career which is what everyone is banking on.” Ziff added that sexual harassment doesn’t exist in a vacuum – it’s closely tied to other abuses and economic factors. “When you are not being paid for your work, when you’re waiting as much as six months to a year to be paid for a job, whether it’s because the client is slow pay or the agency is withholding your funds which happens in our business if you’re not in the top 1% (of models). There’s a huge amount of economic abuse that’s going on and makes people even more vulnerable.”
IT’S A LABOUR RIGHTS ISSUE
Ziff started work on the Model Alliance after a good career as a model herself, but one in which she experienced the pitfalls of working in what is a largely unregulated industry. Initially, she reached out to established labour unions to see if models could gain memberships with them – but thanks to the fact that they are technically independent contractors, the answer was no. The Alliance was founded instead – and has already established child labour laws in New York State (where there were none) to help protect the rights of young models. “It’s strange to think that we’re the most visible people in the supply chain and appear to be the most privileged, and yet we don’t even have basic labour protections,” Ziff said.
SOME HIGH PROFILE FIGURES ADMITTED THEY WERE GUILTY
While Scully was pleased that in six months the industry has gone from being a lawless “Wild West” to one that’s putting safeguarding measures in place, there was one thing he didn’t expect – known offenders admitting they’d done wrong. “The thing that was the most surprising to me was that there are obviously people who say it doesn’t affect them and it’s not them doing this,” (the disgraced Weber, Testino, and Demarchelier all denied the multiple allegations) “and then there are other people who I’ve found are the biggest offenders in the business who write me letters and say I didn’t realise I’d turned into this person, you made me want to be more respectful and a better person than I am.” Whether these are cases of genuine remorse rather than people confessing sins and promising to do better before they get called out publicly, we’re not convinced.
SCULLY IS BORED OF PEOPLE TRYING TO DISCREDIT THE MOVEMENT
…especially by people who want to know why it took so long for these stories to come to light. “What I can say is that if you’ve never been used or you’ve never been assaulted, you can’t answer that question and you have no right to ask anyone for a time frame to deliver an answer that will satisfy them.” Another criticism? That models knew what they were getting into, and slept with people to get ahead. “If someone really thought that was their only way to survive, that was not a work decision,” he said, “That was a decision being taken away.” He called Lagerfeld’s recent comments “upsetting” and worrying, and Ziff agreed. “I think it says everything that we’ve heard crickets from the vast majority of people in the fashion industry in response to Karl Lagerfeld making disgusting remarks in response to… models raising very legitimate concerns about their safety on the job.”
WE CAN’T COUNT ON CHANGE COMING FROM ABOVE
While it would be nice to think that individual companies would be able to ensure the safeguarding of models, they don’t exactly have a good track record. “I think it’s important for us to talk about what real and lasting change looks like,” Ziff said, arguing that it will come from the bottom up rather than the top down. “We don’t think that voluntary corporate social responsibility initiatives, as well-meaning as they are, are going to address the outstanding issues which remain in the supply chain.” She announced the Alliance’s new Respect program during the talk – which is intended to “foster meaningful accountability in the industry”. This will encourage companies to enter a legally binding commitment to no longer work with harassers, to ensure better education of all parties, to have a confidential complaint mechanism so that models can bring forward their concerns without worrying about retaliation, and also establish independent investigations to follow-up on complaints and make sure appropriate action is taken.
COLLABORATION IS VITAL
Last year, rival fashion conglomerates Kering and LVMH announced a charter designed to help protect models – including regulations such as requiring medical certificates to show models are in good health, not hiring anyone younger than 16 (unless for childrenswear), and requiring models aged 16-18 to have a chaperone or guardian. “I can tell you that we don’t have so many topics where you have LVMH and Kering with the same press release!” laughed Marie-Claire Daveu of the partnership, but collaboration, she stressed, is vital to move things forward. “If we want to change the entire industry, because I think it’s also a question of mindset, it’s a question of culture, we have to work together.” And despite initial pushback from people who thought it couldn’t happen, progress has been quick. “Some people told me, it will be impossible. In the luxury world, it’s like that. You take fashion models under 16 years old. What I can say, after two fashion weeks, now it’s obvious for people not to (hire) children under 16 years old that will be wearing adults ready-to-wear.” For people hoping to work with Kering or LVMH, the rules are clear: "if you don’t respect the charter, we stop working with you.”