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By Porter Wells
February brings ice, wind, and an avalanche of silk-swathed runway models to New York City. But the glitz and glamour of New York Fashion Week’s twice-yearly shows have long camouflaged an invasive atmosphere that models endure backstage.
That’s why this year, for the first time in NYFW’s seventy-five year history, the Council of Fashion Designers of America and research and policy organization Model Alliance have collaborated to provide private spaces for models to change outfits between walks on the runway.
“Models have raised concerns about invasive photography and lack of privacy while changing clothes backstage,” Model Alliance said. The changing rooms will “ensure a safe and respectful work environment at New York Fashion Week.”
Models are generally not protected by federal or state anti-discrimination laws because of their status as independent contractors. Those laws only protect “employees,” leaving models with few avenues by which they can redress improper behavior.
The Models’ Harassment Protection Act, introduced to the New York state Assembly by Assemblywoman Nily Rozic (D) may eventually close that loophole. Until then, separate changing rooms are a low-cost way designers may voluntarily protect their models from prying eyes and overeager camera lenses.
No single company produces New York Fashion Week. This year, IMG Fashion, the CFDA, and Spring Studios have combined forces to stage the event in New York City. More than seventy designers have descended upon Tribeca and the Chelsea Piers to showcase their Spring/Summer 2018 collections.
The backstage environment of a fashion show is “always so frenetic,” fashion model and Model Alliance founding director Sara Ziff told Bloomberg Law. “There are models, make-up artists, hairdressers, show producers, security guards, agents, backstage film crew, photographers, and random hangers-on. Everyone has a camera and, typically, there is no real separation between the space to change clothes and the rest of the venue, which is set up with tables, mirrors and chairs.”
Models have simply become accustomed to stripping down in the open to just a pair of underwear while staff and visitors mill around, photographers take pictures, and anyone can make comments about a model’s physique.
“Essentially, it’s a hostile work environment that has been normalized,” Ziff said. “I have never met a model, myself included, who didn’t complain about it.”
Media requests to event venue Spring Studios and Pier59 were directed to IMG Fashion. IMG Fashion and the Council of Fashion Designers of America did not immediately return requests for comment.
As independent contractors, models’ options to redress improper workplace behavior are limited. Without protection from federal or state anti-discrimination laws, models could bring a civil suit for the tort of assault, or they could file a police report and seek criminal prosecution, Professor Elizabeth Cooper of Fordham University School of Law told Bloomberg Law.
But even then, the question remains of who to sue.
A model’s legal relationship is with their modeling agency, Cooper explained. The modeling agency then works with outside clients to select models for projects. As a result, the relationship between a model and the client is amorphous, often not even written down.
“And if they get assaulted or harassed by someone who isn’t even an employee of the client, then the question becomes ‘who is responsible?’” Cooper said. “Can they sue the modeling agency? Are they supposed to sue the client, with whom they don’t have a legal relationship? Or are they stuck suing the individual?”
Cooper said the legal distinction between an independent contractor and an employee can distort the larger issue of sexual harassment in the workplace. Regardless of your employment status, “the law has to be updated to recognize that this bad behavior shouldn’t be permitted.”
Model Alliance, founded in 2012, advocates for models and promotes fair labor standards for the fashion industry.
The organization put its weight into child modeling in 2013, working with New York State Senators Jeffrey Klein and Diane Savino to re-classify child models as “child performers,” a group subject to the oversight of New York’s Department of Labor. Runway and print models under the age of eighteen now have the same statutory protections enjoyed by child actors, athletes, and dancers.
The Models’ Harrassment Protection Act is a joint effort between Model Alliance and New York Assemblywoman Rozic. The bill, introduced in October 2017, would make it “an unlawful discriminatory practice for a modeling entity, whether it be a management agency or company, to subject a model to harassment, regardless of their status as an independent contractor or employee,” according to Rozic’s announcement.
The bill would make it easier for models to file harassment complaints, Cooper told Bloomberg Law. She leads the Legislative and Policy Advocacy Clinic at Fordham University’s Law School and worked with Model Alliance and Rozic to craft the bill.
“Pursuing a modeling career should not be taken as implicit consent to being sexually harassed,” Ziff said. “Modeling is a job. When we go on shoots, we go to our workplace.”
When asked how she sees the decision to create private changing areas changing the backstage culture of the fashion industry, Ziff was hopeful. “I hope this is just the beginning of creating a culture where the models are treated with dignity and respect, and not as clothes hangers.”
New York Fashion Week’s February 2018 schedule runs from Thursday, February 8, to Friday, February 16.
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