On Monday night, the fashion world will gather for the Met Gala, the annual ritual of celebrity opulence that our current social revolution has not yet harpooned. The theme this year is the evolution of American style, an exploration not only of the work of historically significant designers like Charles James and Halston but also of the dressmakers and tailors who toiled in obscurity on their behalf. The egalitarian dabbling would seem to begin and end there, however, given that the party’s dress code this year is “gilded glamour.” Guests, according to Vogue, whose editor Anna Wintour famously presides over the event, have been asked to “embody the grandeur — and perhaps the dichotomy — of Gilded Age New York.”
The period’s relevant “dichotomy,” of course, is that some people lived like the Astors while many more were forced to send their 9-year-olds off to factories from squalid tenements. Come costumed as if you are on your way to Newport; come dressed as an orphan whose destitute parents have just died of cholera. Contradiction, born as much from obliviousness as it is from greed or power tripping, is the insidious habit of the image-making business. This has been obvious most recently as magazines, advertisers and other marketers of lifestyle have aggressively traded on a sense of social attunement while often keeping to internal practices entirely at odds with any stated commitment to progressive values.
The latest effort to bridge this gap comes to us at the hands of the Model Alliance, an advocacy group that has fought for fair treatment across various levels of the fashion industry. At issue is the matter of how management companies booking and handling models, stylists, and hair and makeup artists are overseen. Because they do not fall under the monitoring purview of New York’s web of regulations related to employment agencies, there remain many opportunities for exploitation. A bill to protect people in these fields, known as the Fashion Workers Act, is working its way through the New York state Legislature. It was introduced March 25, the 111th anniversary of the Triangle Shirtwaist factory fire, which set in motion many fundamental workplace reforms.
As the recent effort to unionize writers, editors and others at Condé Nast revealed, the reality of life in fashion media is typically different from the public perception.
“I’ve been a model for 25 years, and there have been countless times when I’ve flown across the globe and have no idea what I’m getting paid,” said Karen Elson, who has appeared on more than 30 magazine covers and who is involved with the alliance. “If in this point in my career I have to wait nine months to be paid, what is happening with someone who is just beginning? You almost need a trust fund behind you if you’re starting out now. And if you don’t have that, you have to work to the bone. You may have a Vogue cover, but your bank account may be zero.”
This is because models often work in debt to agencies, which retain power of attorney, giving them the ability to receive payment and otherwise manage aspects of their clients’ financial lives. After taking their commission, agents frequently add dubious fees, even charging for sent emails in certain cases.
Sara Ziff, founder of the alliance and a former model who went on to graduate from Columbia University and Harvard’s Kennedy School, recently wrote about an experience she had years ago in which money was taken from one of her paychecks to help finance an agency head’s art purchase. Management companies often also double as landlords, housing models in dorm-style apartments, for which they might add surcharges to market rent.
The alliance runs a support line, Ziff said, and most calls are about scam agencies soliciting nude photos, harassment and late or nonexistent payments.
“I don’t think it’s anyone’s priority to establish work protections for models. But when you connect the dots and see how vulnerable this workforce is, it becomes incredibly clear,” she said. “I don’t think it’s a coincidence you’re talking about a largely female, immigrant workforce.”
This is not to suggest that men in the industry have operated at any great advantage. A decade ago, Alex Shanklin, who now works in real estate and construction in Houston, was making a modest living as a model in New York.
“I never struck it really big, but I always kept my head above water,” he said. At a certain point, as fashion imaging moved from art to commerce to an explosion of digital content, that became harder to do. It was in 2012 that he noticed that paying his bills became more challenging. The agencies seemed “shadier” in his view. “Maybe the money got tighter,” he said, “but things changed.”
In his case, the indignities also piled up. “I can tell you as a Black male model in New York, there were times when I was told to my face, ‘We’re not taking any more Black guys.’ There were brands that would do a great job of inclusive representation, but when it came to agencies, they discriminated against people of color for years,” he said. Shanklin left New York in 2013 not long after he noticed an underwear ad with his body affixed to someone else’s face. He was certain that his agency had been compensated for that, he said.
“I felt mistreated and that something happened behind my back that I hadn’t known about,” he said. “More of the same.”
Modeling agencies have seemed relatively quiet about the potential passage of the Fashion Workers Act. The Council of Fashion Designers of America has expressed support for the bill, but presumably there will be pushback in some quarters.
In the meantime, those committed to a more equitable fashion world, those who cannot afford the many tens of thousands of dollars it costs for a ticket to the Met Gala, have an alternative — the People’s Ball. Sponsored by the Brooklyn Public Library, it invites New Yorkers “to dress up in the clothes that make you feel your most beautiful and authentic and walk the runway.” It’s free and already at capacity.