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When Will the Fashion Industry Treat Underage Models Like the Children They Are?

Slaven Vlasic/Getty Images for Mercedes-Benz Fashion Week

It’s Thursday, day one at New York Fashion Week, and I’m taking in the bedazzled mood at the Lincoln Center’s pop-up city. The expo-like arena is a mashup of Blade Runner futurism and trade show banality, with elite sponsor huts laying basically vacant. But scan your email confirmation at the entrance and voila, you're inside. There, you can pose next to a $100,000 Mercedes-Benz or get your hair "dry-styled"—primped, without shampooing. Pass yet another level of security and you may enter the inner circle, the theaters where the shows are performed. Inside this shrink-wrapped zone, contrary to urban myth, the runways are not raised, like an altar, but laid at the audience's level. Important-looking folks squish shoulder-to-shoulder on benches, doodling on notepads and iPhones, and feigning nonchalance as they side-eye one other. The lights dim, then rise to the beat of a synthed-out bass drum. From backstage come lithe, drone-like, mostly white women wearing square layers and expressions of glum passivity. Happiness is just gauche.

The Nicholas K presentation rocks a desert oasis chic—which ought to serve the buying orders well, as the outside temperature sits at 9 degrees and dropping. As I watch conspicuously young-looking women glide by, I wonder how the newly established Child Model Law is affecting the fashion houses this year at Fashion Week. In 2013, New York state passed the Child Model Law, providing minors working as fashion models the same labor protections as other child entertainers: school-night curfews, on-set hour limits, chaperones, tutors, and mandatory financial trusts.

Had the Child Model Law offered me protection when I was a teenage model, I might've avoided being photographed nude at 16, unknowingly pimped to Wall Streeters, groped countless times, or forced to work 16-plus-hour days as a minor. Will the fashion houses comply, or risk fines by using underage models on the runways, in booths, and at parties? Notoriety doesn't compel them to stop using children; perhaps a hit in their pocketbooks would. But why is fashion so intent on taking advantage of kids at all?

Later that night, I’m at an official Fashion Week kickoff party in the Meatpacking District chatting with a stocky writer named David. He used to work at a porn magazine, he tells me. They'd require the "girls," in his phrase, to provide two forms of ID proving their age. Copies of those IDs would then be clipped to negatives of their shoots. “Then all of those negatives," he says, "were kept in a fireproof safe with a large man hired to guard the safe—we were just waiting for the FBI to show up. When my ex-wife became a fashion designer, the first model she used for her lookbook was 15. Her mom drove her to the photo shoot. Well, when we blew up the photo that we had chosen to use for all of our sales material, you could see this girl’s nipple through the top. I said to my wife, ‘We’re going to jail. This is an underage girl topless. This is child pornography.’ And my wife laughed and said, ‘This is fashion.’

"And she was right. It took me a minute to understand that in the fashion world, there are no rules. It’s a lawless state.”

I chug a Peroni and consider his analysis as Ash Ra Tempel kicks in too loudly over the sound system, swamping further conversation. A 21-year-old wannabe designer asks for my number and settles for my Instagram as a smooth let-down. Justin Bieber slips by in some red moto-getup. I take that as my cue to leave.

It is an interesting comparison my new pal makes, on the historic problem of fashion's view toward its labor force. As fashion resides under the banner of art, it’s easy to forget that the operative word in fashion is industry. Worldwide, corporations create and sell $2.5 trillion worth of clothes and textiles a year. Fashion's recent problems with rampant sexual assault allegations, child labor, and association with international human trafficking rings are indeed a lawless state in action.

In other cases, you can't break laws that don't exist. From cotton fields in India, to Bangladeshi factories, to the disposable sweater on the rack, to the model that wears it on the silicone runways, fashion has built an globalized mechanism subject to surprisingly few labor regulations here and abroad. In Bangladesh, this leads to a sweatshop collapse that crushes more than 1,100 workers. In the United States, we classify fashion models as independent contractors, and thus exempt them from Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. That status denies them protection against sexual harassment in the workplace and prevents them from being able to unionize.

On Friday night I huddle with supermodel Gigi Hadid in a corner of the Milk Studios penthouse. Boys and girls walk by offering sliders; Champagne is flowing freely. Around us are a mix of the requisite fashion people, Instagram celebrities and basketball stars in town for the NBA All-Star Game. One is J. R. Smith, formerly of the New York Knicks, always better at missing shots than missing parties, and at work on a line of high-end skullies.

Hadid and I chat about her time as a child model. Her first shoot: Baby Guess, age 4. Campaigns for Guess Kids and Guess followed; she had just turned 18 when Sports Illustrated photographed her for its swimsuit issue. Now, at 19, she's the face of Guess, barely an adult and yet fashion's ideal of the female form.

I ask her if the lady lurking over us is her mother (who is a character on the Real Housewives of Beverly Hills, which I have never seen). No, apparently this is a Maybelline executive who tries to cut us off after I start asking Hadid about child labor in the fashion industry. But then, in Hadid's estimation, she wasn't really working all those years as a child doing Guess campaigns. “I didn’t actually start modeling until I moved to New York about two years ago,” she says.

This is the mentality of fashion: dialed so young, almost no one even notices anymore, a fact that jars me when I attend a show for hip Japanese designer Kaal E.Suktae at Chelsea Piers. Inside, as I find my assigned seat, ambient music plays, a loop of a child singing slightly off key in Japanese. We sit for a half-hour ("fashionably late" in action) before the first model presents herself. The show features felt applications of cartoon characters and a fully merchandised set of Girl Scout-inspired silhouettes—par, unfortunately, for Japan, fashion, and their co-appetite for young girls.

A stint in Japan is virtually a rite of passage for the most childlike models. Not until June of last year did Japan outlaw child pornography. Japan's justice minister, Sadakazu Tanigaki, told Parliament: “We must fight against a tendency of looking at children as sexual objects, and allowing them to be taken advantage of, sexually and commercially.” The law, though, left manga and anime free to depict nude children. Also exempt are so-called “junior idols” and “rorikon”—i.e., “Lolita complex”— magazines that photograph or draw pre-teen and teenage girls in sexually suggestive poses.

As I watched a troupe leader latex shirt pass by on a girl I’m happy to say looked to be over 18. Japan, like New York, is starting to make progress against the exploitation of minors. This year at Fashion Week I notice that age is trending: models tend to look at least 19, 22, 24. Will it last? Or is it just fashion pretending to play to the trend, before reverting to the laissez-faire pedophilia propaganda fair?

By Saturday I’m hearing reports about a new designer who's all of 7 years old, being described as adorable and sassy on the runway. But taking one step back, we can see a very little girl being objectified, turned into a commodity. And I talk with a model who walked in the VFiles show who said several models were underage—including the 17-year-old, braces-wearing Sahara Lin— some without chaperones. I knew it couldn’t last.

Any fashion executive noticing a child's nipple in a porn would blanche. So why is child nudity, or the implicit promise of it, fair game for runways and ads? A 24-year-old in a scout uniform is the same fantasy, albeit legal. The problem goes beyond fashion. Tongue-in-cheek, maybe, Ilana Wexler is nonetheless onto something when she says in the show "Broad City": “All Hollywood media is porn, and all porn is kiddie porn. We live in a rape culture. We just do.” Despite legislation, perhaps fashion's lawless state remains an anarchic place within us, where everyone is young and beautiful and anything goes.