In light of a few recent, controversial cases, Sophie Lioe explores the growing debate over models’ rights and the efforts to increase awareness of their existence

Being a fashion model is all about glamorous parties, free designer clothes and not being able to help being beautiful, right? Unbeknownst to us mortals, the modelling industry does in fact have a dark side. We’ve all heard about the constant pressure to be skinny and the wrath of bitchy fashion world individuals, but we may not be so familiar with stories of sexual harassment and the constant disregard for child labour laws. Modelling is one of the most unregulated of all employment industries, meaning there is a huge risk of vulnerable young models being taken advantage of. It is for this reason that fashion model Sara Ziff, aged twenty-nine, who has been working in the industry since the age of fourteen, has set up the Model Alliance, a unique workers’ rights union specifically for the modelling industry. Although there does seem to be a tendency to dismiss the problems and rights of those who work in this exclusive and glamorous world as frivolous, in Ziff’s words, “There’s nothing funny about a work force that is overwhelmingly young, female, and impoverished, working for some of fashion’s wealthiest, most powerful brands.” The power imbalance here is strikingly clear. The announcement was made ahead of New York Fashion Week in February and was endorsed by top models such as Coco Rocha and Doutzen Kroes. The initiative is supported by the Council of Fashion Designers of America (CFDA) and has been welcomed by industry professionals across the world.


The establishment of the Model Alliance came only a few months after news broke that the clothing store Urban Outfitters were being sued by the parents of a sixteen-year-old American model for twenty-eight million dollars. Hailey Clauson, who was fifteen at the time, is proving to be a bright new star in the industry, walking for the likes of Calvin Klein and Diane Von Furstenberg. The images that her parents are suing over, however, are described in the lawsuit as “salacious” and the photographer, Jason Lee Perry, was never given the permission to publish them, and so Urban Outfitters were never allowed to splay the images across their t-shirts. The issue of models’ rights comes to the fore here – was she being taken advantage of by big hitters in the industry who were preying on her vulnerability and using her lack of experience solely for the purpose of getting that perfect image?

So why then did her parents agree to the shoot and attend it; surely they would have presented their worries at the time and prevented any images which they deem as inappropriate being made? Whatever the reason for this, the age of the model involved is the point in question; should there be more stringent guidelines when it comes to the age of models and the editorials for which they are booked? Age limits have been introduced by CFDA for fashion weeks in order to protect the exploitation of underage workers; no one under sixteen can walk in a runway show. Coincidently enough, Clauson was the subject of controversy in this regard after it was exposed that she was walking in fashion week runway shows before her sixteenth birthday; she was even walking at shows of CFDA President Von Furstenberg. An increase in the stringency of guidelines and rules for the modelling industry has undoubtedly modernised the occupation and provided it with much-needed regulation, but whether these rules will be honoured by companies and individuals is still in question, and it appears that perhaps the industry is only changing on a superficial level.

The Model Alliance is a project not unlike that created by British supermodel Erin O’Connor in 2007 – a place set up for models during London Fashion Week known as the Model Sanctuary. According to O’Connor, the project was set up “in response to concerns of model health and negative portrayals of the industry in some corners of the media, the initial aim of the Model Sanctuary was to increase access to health guidance and support and, in general, to benefit models in a way that will be useful to them during their career in fashion.” Clearly, rights awareness is on the rise and an increasing amount of emphasis is being placed on the wellbeing and welfare of those involved in this high-pressure job.

So while whether the Clauson family will win their court case against Urban Outfitters and Perry remains to be seen, the question of whether this is a models’ rights issue or merely a copyright war is still unanswerable. What is certain, however, is that the modelling industry is finally catching up in regard to employment rights. What is normally cast behind the flashing lights and mystique that goes with such a glamorised industry is now being brought into the spotlight, to the advantage of all those who could so easily slip through the cracks and find themselves at the bottom of one of the most extreme hierarchies in any creative industry.