June 11, 2012 • In web :: Features
Modelling Workers’ Rights
Model and community organizer Sara Ziff speaks up for models’ rights in the fashion industry.
Continued from page 3
Why has that bargaining power been eroded?
I think part of it is that designers and clients wised up and said, “Why should I pay Naomi Campbell a million dollars to walk down the runway when I can get models to walk down my runway for free?” I think that it is also because people started to feel that the model’s celebrity was overshadowing the clothes. Ultimately, our job is to sell merchandise. So if you have this standard size-zero girl walking down the runway, the same silhouette every time, you don’t really know the name or the face, then you’re not distracted by the body, by the personality. You’re just looking at the clothes. There’s also been a large influx of models from Eastern Europe and Brazil, where there aren’t the same expectations that they complete their compulsory schooling. Often these models begin working without papers and they are more vulnerable than their American peers.
Do new entrants to modelling face greater levels of precariousness than they would have even a decade ago?
Absolutely. Right now the competition is fierce and models know they are highly replaceable. Clients know that if you’re at all difficult to work with, if you’re not willing to stay at a fitting until 3 o’clock in the morning, well, then there are plenty of other girls who are willing to take your place.
Fashion is inherently transient – in one moment and out the next. I think that one of the problems is that the fashion industry has confused “newness” with age. So in looking for the “new thing,” they’re also looking at girls who are younger and younger, who are fresher and fresher. And so when a 14- or 15-year-old girl becomes the ideal, then you’re looking at an adolescent physique that would be unhealthy for any woman who is over the age of, say, 18, to achieve.
The work I’m doing through the Model Alliance is trying to reframe the conversation about body image and eating disorders in our industry in terms of labour standards. Because for such a long time now people have failed to ask, well, “why is that girl a gangly beanpole?” It’s because she’s 15! And a lot of people are naturally beanpoles at 15. We should be thinking about child labour laws and the fact that that girl has dropped out of school to walk down that runway, and she’s probably not even getting paid any money for her work. I feel that if you discuss the issues in less subjective terms – in terms of aesthetics and image – and more in terms of labour standards, then you’re talking in terms that allow us to act and actually bring about change.
Before we get to some of the specific proposals for improving labour standards, would you give some background on how The Model Alliance formed?
I’ve worked as a model for a long time—since age 14. While I was modelling I made a documentary called Picture Me. While making the film, I started speaking with other models and tried to discuss these issues. I was still immersed in the business when I made the film. I see things differently now than I did then. When we were finishing up the film I got in touch with two models in the UK who approached Equity back in 2007. Equity is an established union for performers in the UK, and it extended its union membership to models. Since 2007 Equity has established minimum rates and made sure that models have private changing areas.
So Equity provides a precedent that you can point to when attempting to improve labour standards here?
Exactly. The union effort here through the Models’ Guild failed, which is a little discouraging. But there’s an existing models’ union in the UK. Granted, the terrain for labour is totally different in the UK. But, as you said, it sets a precedent. I reached out to Equity and became more informed about the work they were doing there. And I also became friendly with a former model, Jenna Sauers, who writes for Jezebel, and we started collaborating on this effort.
I also just graduated last year from Columbia University, where I studied labour and community organizing. I was a political science major with a focus on American politics. I did an independent study with professor Dorian Warren and was really turned onto learning about the history of the labour movement. I studied labour and politics because I wanted to pursue this work.
The night we screened Picture Me in New York, this wonderful woman in the audience, Susan Scafidi, approached me after the Q&A. Susan is the director of the newly formed Fashion Law Institute at Fordham Law School. She came up to me and said, “I would love to help you.” That relationship really kick-started the Model Alliance, because it was through Fordham that I had access to law professors who suggested to me that maybe thinking in terms of unionizing was too narrow, path dependent, and unrealistic. I started to think more in terms of organizing and less in terms of unionizing. Through the law school I’ve worked with their legal clinic, and they helped me form a 501c group (a non-profit organization).
The Model Alliance is a not-for-profit that provides models and other industry leaders a platform to organize to improve models’ working conditions, give models a voice in their work and set standards. We’re not a union. But we’ve forged a partnership with two unions – the American Guild of Musical Artists and Actors’ Equity – and we may work to gain legal status to become a trade organization.
Are there specific traditions of unionism that inspired or influenced the design of the Model Alliance?
A lot of my thinking has gone from thinking purely in terms of wanting to join a union to recognizing that this would be very difficult in our industry, and seeing union representatives as key advisors, but not as folks who are necessarily going to extend their membership to us. I think collective bargaining would be tough. Of course we would love that, but I’m trying to do what’s possible.