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Fashion Week’s Labor Problem Is Our Labor Problem

The modeling industry has long exploited and abused vulnerable young women. Will they be welcomed in a revived worker movement?

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In 1990, supermodel Linda Evangelista famously told a reporter that she wouldn’t get out of bed for less than $10,000. That same year, at the very height of what would become known as the golden age of the supermodel, the median annual income for a working model was $21,450, or about the amount it would take for Evangelista to leave the house two days in a row.

The twenty-sixth annual New York Fashion Week is in full swing, but as models flood the city to populate its tents and runways, many of them are no better off than they would have been three decades ago. Today, the median hourly wage for a model clocks in at three dollars below New York state’s minimum wage. By comparison, the opulence of Fashion Week is staggering: a $1 billion production in which designers preview their collections—the sartorial contributions to an industry worth over $2.5 trillion.

Fashion is hardly the only industry that does little to distribute its enormous profits. But the nature of modeling work is so nebulous, and the winner-take-all market for models’ labor so skewed toward the Giselles and Kendalls of the world, that we are rarely prompted to think of them as workers at all. Sara Ziff, founder of the nonprofit advocacy group The Model Alliance, has spent much of her career trying to change this. As a former model herself, Ziff is intimately familiar with the industry’s exploitative practices, a list that stretches from wage theft and misclassification, to pervasive sexual abuse and workplace harassment. In her words, “Models are some of the most visible and least protected workers out there.”

A few months after she graduated high school in 2017, Fabiana Montenegro moved to New York from her home town in Florida. She had been discovered on Instagram when she was sixteen, and signed an exclusive three-year contract with an agency that flew her out to the city, set her up in an apartment with other models, and started sending her to castings and test shoots, mostly high-fashion work. With a wide smile and dark, expressive eyes, Fabiana has what agents call an “editorial look.” During Fashion Week, she raced around to castings, sometimes ten or eleven in one day. But the days passed and she never booked a show.

In the weeks and months that followed, Fabiana went where she was told, but she soon noticed that the agency didn’t seem to care whether she booked a job or not. What’s more, her agents communicated less and less with her as time went on. When photographers or designers reached out to her on Instagram about potential work, she was required to tell the agency so that they could broker the job. She would often not hear back. If she did book a job, she had to take whatever they offered her, which was often nothing at all. “The agency never encouraged me to negotiate,” she told me. “They made it seem like it wasn’t allowed, like it was something that they would take care of.”

Ziff says that, from the beginning, models are discouraged to advocate for themselves: “For the most part models have no control over what jobs they work. Their agencies send them to castings, and often models don’t know whether the jobs will pay, what it will pay.”

Nouri Hassan, a 20-year-old model who has worked with big-name commercial brands as well as some up-and-coming designers, says that even without the agency’s explicit dissuasion, models just don’t have much leverage to demand more. “You feel totally replaceable,” she told me. “Like if I don’t say yes to this offer, they’re just going to drop you and find someone else who will.” This problem is particularly intense for models of color. They already face fewer spots in shows and campaigns, which further restricts their ability to bargain for rates and wages.

Then there is the problem of the payment itself. For both Fabiana and Nouri, much of their earnings come in the form of “trade.” Trade—being “paid” in clothes—is practically endemic to the industry, especially for girls just starting out in their careers. Nouri says that she’s been paid in trade more times than she can count.

“It’s the designers you wouldn’t expect to pay you in trade.” Nouri says. “You think, ‘They’re so successful, I’m going to make so much money from this job’ ... and then you see your rates in trade.” If the designer decides your rate for a week of shooting is $1,500, they’ll give you what they determine to be $1,500 worth of their clothing. For new, in-season, designer clothes, that can amount to a single dress.

Paying models in trade is one of the ways the industry both perpetuates and obfuscates the economic precarity of its workers. Ashley Mears, a professor of sociology at Boston University who studies the fashion industry and is a former model herself, put it this way: “You could think of models as earning ‘high lifestyle wages’—they get invited to high-end parties and events and dinners and they get to travel the world and work with culture-industry elites. But they are on the whole fairly economically precarious, if you think about the global pool of models trying to build a career from New York to Shanghai.”

It’s part of what makes models, as a workforce, so tricky to think about in traditional class terms. Ziff, for example, acknowledges that there are important differences between, say, an Uber driver and a model. Still, she sees many of the kinds of abuses that models face, financial and otherwise, as strikingly similar to those faced by other low-wage workers in the gig economy. Continual economic insecurity is one area of overlap. As Fabiana put it, “Free clothes and shoes are not going to pay my bills.”

As time went on and she struggled to book jobs, any money Fabiana did earn was immediately absorbed by a laundry list of expenses she incurred through her agency. First, there was her housing: the agency charged her $1,800 a month for a bunk bed in a two-bedroom Jersey City apartment with six other girls. (The market price for a 2-bedroom apartment in Jersey City hovers somewhere around $2,100 per month, meaning that, between the seven girls, the agency was likely turning a profit of about $10,500 a month.) Then there were charges for “comp cards” (the equivalent of a business card), Fashion Week “packets,” printing her portfolio, and all her flights.

These kinds of deductions are standard practice for agencies big and small. In a CNN investigation from 2016, models reported being charged for dermatology visits, walking lessons, web promotion, messenger services, and, for one woman, flowers given to her on her own birthday. Ziff says that, in most of these cases, models are made to believe that if they resist the agency, it will hurt their careers in the long run.

For Fabiana, the biggest burden was the cost of the cramped apartment. While she got along with the other girls, many of them were only 15 or 16 years old—“too young to take care of a home,” Fabiana says— fresh off the boat from Eastern Europe, and barely spoke English. Fabiana fell into depression and developed a severe eating disorder. Her parents sent her some money every month, but she says there were times when she had to eat “random stuff, whatever was available.” The bills piled up. Before long, she found herself in debt to her agency.

Around one in five models is in debt to their agency, according to The Model Alliance. Most of them arrive there by the exact same avenues that Fabiana did: an eternal cycle of deductions and expenses that are meant to position the model for success, but that end up snowballing as she works her way toward an evasive “big job right around the corner.” For some, the payoff never comes. Tethered to their contracts, these models are shipped off to “secondary markets”—places like Japan or Australia —to work off their debt to the agency. It’s an arrangement that many have observed is eerily evocative of indentured labor.

Fabiana’s sense that her agency didn’t particularly care whether or not she ever got work was not a figment of her imagination. At their inception, agencies in the United States operated as “employment companies,” which are legally bound to a few important conditions: they must obtain a license from the state, they can only charge up to a 10 percent commission fee, and, perhaps most importantly, they have an obligation to “procure or attempt to procure ... employment or engagements” for their clients. But in the 1970s, big New York agencies like Ford and Elite began to shift their corporate structures from employment agencies to “management companies.” As management companies, these agencies suddenly faced no cap on commissions, were exempt from obtaining a license, and were able to take advantage of something called the “incidental booking” clause. They claimed then, as they have ever since, that they are simply there to advise the model in her career, and therefore, actually booking her jobs is only “incidental” to their duties.

The transition from an “employment” to a “management” also allowed these companies to categorize models as independent contractors—a designation that harms countless workers in the gig economy. Independent contractors are notoriously excluded from federal and state labor laws, including minimum wage laws, anti-discrimination measures, worker’s compensation, and benefits.

For the last five decades, U.S. models have been treated as independent contractors—who, by definition, “work for themselves”—even though they must sign exclusive contracts that forbid them from taking outside jobs; even though most of these contracts give agencies power of attorney (meaning they can sign any legal documents on the model’s behalf); and even though models themselves have little to no power over what jobs they work and for how much.

Katie Olsen, who moved to New York from Houston to pursue modeling, eventually quit the industry over her frustrations with her agency, which wasn’t booking her jobs. Meanwhile, she had to watch opportunities pass her by because of the restrictions of her contract. “They’re not getting you any work and they’re not allowing you to work anywhere else,” she said. She estimates she booked about ten jobs in her first year as a model, and was paid an average of $700 per job. On top of that, she says, she couldn’t rely on her agency to turn over what little money she did make.

Absent any legal responsibility for the agency to pay its models, it can take ages for money to come through, if it ever does. Fabiana’s roommate, another model, only just got paid for a job she did in February. One of Nouri’s friends had to wait months to be paid in trade because the designer couldn’t schedule a time for her to come by the studio to pick out a piece of clothing.

As Katie was working up the courage to tell her agency that she wanted to leave, she got an email. It said that, due to a change in management, she, along with some fifteen other girls, had been “dropped,” and would no longer be represented. As an independent contractor, she wasn’t entitled to any advance notice, and she wasn’t eligible for severance.

There are other labor issues plaguing the modeling industry. In 2017, a study released by The Model Alliance, along with Northwestern University and Harvard’s School of Public Health, showed that 62 percent of models were told to lose weight by their agency or an industry professional. Of that cohort, over half were warned that they would have trouble finding work if they did not lose weight, and over 20 percent were told that they would be dropped by their agency if they did not lose weight.

But when this issue is raised, it isn’t framed as a problem of extreme working conditions for models or abusive employers. “Historically, these problems were seen as consumer issues.” Ziff explains. “People were worried, ‘Are we encouraging an unhealthy ideal in female consumers?’ rather than, ‘Is this model experiencing an eating disorder because her agency is measuring her every day and saying that she needs to lose two inches off her waist in order to work?’ It’s been important in my work to reframe these issues as labor issues.”

Then there is the pervasive problem of sexual harassment. Last month, the fashion blog Diet Prada revealed that photographer Marcus Hyde, who has worked with celebrities like Kim Kardashian and Ariana Grande, had tried to coerce a model into posing nude for him. On July 21, model Sunnaya Nash had responded to Hyde’s call for models on Instagram. Hyde replied that before he could agree to work with her, she would need to send him nude photographs of herself. If she didn’t, the photoshoot would cost her $2,000.

The incident triggered a slew of allegations from other models, who claimed that he assaulted them on set, touched them inappropriately, and made them undress without their consent. Several of the models recounted that, when they disclosed the abuse to their agencies, they expressed regret but continued to send models to work with Hyde.

The #MeToo era may give these kinds of accusations more weight and visibility. But it hasn’t changed the fundamental power dynamics of the industry. When exploitation is standard practice, when you are often the most subordinate worker in the room with no recourse to a human resources department, and when compliance and agreeability are prized above all else, modeling, like other low-wage work, fosters abuse.

All this is compounded by the fact that discomfort is part of the job description. For Fabiana, for example, the long arm of her agency stretched far into her personal life. “They had a lot of rules. They would always tell me how to dress. And they would always tell me—,” she stops and laughs, “I’ll never forget this. They would always tell me to ‘be mysterious but not all the way mysterious.’ I don’t know what that means. They would tell me to act cool and edgy in public even though that’s not really my personality. They would tell me that I shouldn’t go out to certain clubs, or that I shouldn’t go out with certain people.”

That models’ private lives have been recast as a kind of labor contributes to the devaluation of their work. “Models are seen as doing something they would be doing anyway and just getting paid for it,” explains the sociology professor Ashley Mears, “and modeling labor itself seems passive, like just sitting before a camera or strolling down the runway.”

In this way, modeling can be understood as part of a long history of undervalued, low-wage, and gendered work. Caroline Evans, a fashion historian at the University of the Arts in London, says that, far from being celebrities, the first models in fashion capitals like France more closely resembled sex workers. “You couldn’t say that they were professional prostitutes, but they were informally ‘kept women’ because they couldn’t afford to live,” she told me.

Still, they have always been something of an anomaly in the labor force. “She was always a really liminal figure.” Evans says. “She had these privileges that other workers like seamstresses in the couture house didn’t have ... but she was also thought to be not particularly respectable, tainted by these connections with prostitution, she was anonymous. She never earned anything.”

As a result of this ambivalence, the modeling industry has never really been integrated into the broader labor struggle. “Models,” Evans notes, “have never been popular with labor historians.”

This is not to say that the modeling industry has no labor history at all. In November 1995, The New York Times led their Metro Section with the line, “Blonde and statuesque with chiseled cheekbones, Donna Eller does not fit the stereotypical image of a union activist.” Fed up with mistreatment by agencies and industry bigwigs, Eller had founded the Model’s Guild earlier that year, a sort of proto-union that began to gain momentum as it successfully negotiated for health insurance and financial services for working models. But faced with the threat of blacklists and the overwhelming might of the agencies, the Guild struggled to find a foothold in the industry. It folded after only a few years.

Since then, several lawsuits brought by models against their agencies have sought to clarify the hazy legal boundaries of their work. They’ve challenged their classification as independent contractors, price-fixing among agencies, and the incidental booking clause. But little has penetrated the industry’s operations, and as a workforce that cuts across class from the one percent to the working-poor, models remain atomized. So much so, that, as Mears wrote in a Times op-ed in 2011, “When a class-action lawsuit brought by models against their agencies was settled at $22 million in 2005, the court couldn’t find enough models to claim the damages.”

The Model Alliance has been a refuge, and there is evidence that they are indeed pushing the industry to reevaluate its treatment of models. But it, too, has grappled with the difficulties of organizing. “For one thing, there’s no work site,” Sara Ziff says. “We’re working all over the world without knowing our schedules and without there being a place where we all congregate.” Ziff says that she’s approached other unions to include models in their membership, but with no luck. The classification of models as independent contractors makes unionization especially complicated.

At first blush, the luxury fashion industry would appear to have little to do with a resurgent labor movement that identifies “millionaires and billionaires” as its great antagonists. But as workers across the country rediscover the power and potency of organizing, it is perhaps worth pushing up against the traditional boundaries of the labor movement. Modeling is not a new industry, but it is one in which blatant exploitation has historically been a given. If that were to change, could we imagine that other industries, once thought to be out of reach, might also become battlegrounds for the left?

In the meantime, Fabiana will be walking in a show this Fashion Week, and she’ll be paid in trade. “It’s a big opportunity so I’m going to do it,” she says. “But it sucks.” She has left her agency, still in debt, and she’s working as a “freelance model” now, unsigned, which she prefers. She’s made some sort of peace with the demands of her profession. “I really do love it,” she says. “I love being part of such a creative industry. I just wish they would appreciate that. They need me to make their clothes look good. I’m part of the project. When they don’t see that, it makes me feel small.”