This is the height of New York ridiculousness,” a tall filmmaker told us as we lingered at the bar, surrounded on all sides by the toweringly tall legs of models looking ahead to Fashion Week. He had a point: there we were, enveloped in a sea of 5’10″ size 2s at the Fashion Week-friendly Standard Hotel. The room, like the models, was long and skinny. There was no food, or beer even, only vodka — Smirnoff.
This did not look like a labor rally. But that is, in effect, what it really was.
The Model Alliance, which officially launched last night at the aforementioned vodka-fueled festivity, is a new non-profit dedicated to improving conditions for the young and often helpless models who work for little or no pay and frequently have little or no voice to stand up in protest. The Model Alliance calls them “fashion’s most visible but least protected workers”.
The organization is the brainchild of Sara Ziff, a model turned Columbia University student and filmmaker, whose 2009 documentary Picture Me exposed the kind of conditions the Alliance is trying to combat. Twenty-hour days, being forced to take off your clothing without privacy, and payment in the form of clothes rather than money were just a few on the laundry list. As the evening’s host Coco Rocha put it, “You’d think this was the 18th century, not the 21st century in New York City.”
From the outside, it’s easy enough, especially when you’re 5’4″ and not 98 pounds, to peg models’ rights as a “ridiculous” cause. After all, these are beautiful teenagers who get to travel the world and wear couture before their 18th birthdays. But that veneer of a glamourous and fun lifestyle is probably what allows the conditions for models to remain so bad. They do look content, if not particularly well-fed, in the pages of Vogue and on billboards on Broadway, don’t they?
“Models in the U.S. lack basic workplace protections,” Ziff explains with the vigor you’d expect of a community organizer in the streets, not one in a sparkly dress and stilettos. “Generally we’re considered independent contractors, which basically means that the rule of law in terms of workplace standards does not exist.” The organization hasn’t fought the government yet, but they have gotten the recognition and support of the CFDA and Vogue. It’s a not-so-humble start for sure.
It helps that as beautiful as Ziff and Model Alliance board member Jenna Sauers (who was on hand at the event) are, they’re perhaps even more eloquent. Sauers, like Ziff, made her jump to the creative class by exposing the dirty underbelly of the model profession as the writer of Jezebel‘s famed “Tatiana The Anonymous Model Blogger” column. Now she’s a (non-pseudonymous) writer for the site. Almost inadvertently, they’ve also managed to dispel the belief that models have the brain power of the characters in Zoolander.
While the Model Alliance is focusing its energy on the no-good work conditions that young, largely unknown female models experience, those teenage girls aren’t the only ones who suffer in the biz. For their teenage boy counterparts, Rocha tells us, it’s much worse: “Males have it far harder. It’s the only industry where males are paid less. I mean that’s kind of amazing — boys have it far harder, because they can be replaced even faster.”
And even Rocha, who beams confidence, having covered international editions of Vogue and been the face of campaigns for Versace and Balenciaga, still admits she sometimes feels like a powerless prop. “Even me, I still feel uncomfortable working. I’m not saying I’m anyone but if Coco Rocha goes to work and she feels uncomfortable, what is that sixteen, seventeen-year-old feeling like?”
Hillary Reinsberg is the Associate Editor of The Jane Dough.