In 2009, model Sarah Ziff released a documentary called Picture Me. The film may have earned less than rave reviews, but it drew much needed attention to harsh truths about the modeling industry, truths that Ziff’s been trying to change ever since. Last night, she celebrated the launch of her newfound program, The Model Alliance, at the Standard Hotel in New York with friends like Coco Rocha, Crystal Renn and Doutzen Kroes.
The Alliance is made up of models, agents, intellectual property lawyers and professors, all of whom have come together just in time for New York Fashion Week. Before its launch, the team polled models nationwide to pinpoint areas of working concern, the most prominent of which they hope to improve this season. With the blessing of both the CFDA and Fordham’s Fashion Law School, the alliance intends to act as a support group and unofficial union for girls whose profession lacks regulation when it comes to health and safety.
Still in its infancy, the alliance has resolutely drafted a bill of rights, laying out five goals to help remedy areas of ongoing concern. In addition to seeking affordable health care and financial transparency for young models, Ziff and her team are also working to see that child labor laws are actively enforced. ”I think when you have an unregulated labor force of kids, some things are bound to fall through the cracks,” Ziff explained to us last week. ”I did have experiences [early on] when I was forced to miss school or was put in an uncomfortable situation that wasn’t age appropriate. Would I want that for my 14-year-old daughter? No way.”
At the top of their list is the age-old issue of backstage photography during shows, where photographers are often snap-happy and catch models in various stages of undress, capturing photos that have little to do with a designer’s work. Over 60% of the models polled expressed issue with the lack of privacy while changing looks—the number prompted Diane von Furstenberg and Steven Kolb to outline the concern in their seasonal health initiatives to the industry. Ziff explained, “We want to make sure unauthorized images don’t continue to end up online, once things land on the Internet you cannot take them back. Actresses have contracts that negotiate nudity down to the areola while models don’t even have a policy of informed consent.”
Ziff, a recent graduate of Columbia University where she received a degree in Political Science with a focus on labor and community organizing, has enlisted fellow models Coco Rocha, Amy Lemons, and Jenna Sauers—who now works as a fashion journalist and models rights activist—in her fight for a regulated industry. Though models are cast younger and younger, as Sauers points out, they’re often plucked from rural Eastern European towns, adding extra pressure, both culturally and financially, to girls who ultimately move overseas. ”When you start off, you’re often in debt for travel expenses, test shots, and so on. When you’re from a poorer nation and start to accrue debt in US currency, it may amount to $3,000 but that is unimaginable for someone whose parents maybe make that in an entire year,” Ziff says. “So you may go along with situations you wouldn’t otherwise, like a photographer asking you to take your shirt off or whatnot.” As an added service, to help those who’ve unfortunately experienced cases of sexual harassment, the alliance provides direct contact with professionals who will provide guidance as well as discretion.
As for the most commonly talked about issue when it comes to models—being too skinny—Ziff has this to say: “This isn’t about the thinness of one particular model, it’s the industry-wide standard of extremely thin and extremely young. Nearly everyone is taking unhealthy measures, simply to do their job.”