When will the fashion industry have its #MeToo moment?

As more industries out the abusers and sexual harassers, why has the fashion industry not had its own day of reckoning?

Hollywood had its day of reckoning as the #MeToo movement reached its peak and women (and men) came out in their droves to publicly name and shame their harassers in the media and on their social media platforms. With some stories of abuse dating as far back as the 80's, it was clear that the film industry had long covered up decades of horrific behaviour and in turn those that perpetuated that abuse. As Harvey Weinsteinfaces life imprisonmentfor rape and sexual assault charges against a total of three women and victims like Terry Crews have their day in court, it has become abundantly clear that what was done in the dark is slowly entering the light.

As we applaud the film industry for throwing off its shroud of depravity, we look at other industries and question why they have not done the same. One industry that comes to mind is the world of fashion, an industry quite literally built on objectification.

Mounting allegations

Though there have been allegations of abuse, mostly against photographers, there have been no serious repercussions or legal action taken and it seems that the fashion world has continued regardless in the face of a mounting danger to young and vulnerable models in an industry that allegedly preys on them from tender ages.

Why, we must ask ourselves, have these people gotten away with it for so long and what exactly is that is stopping victims coming forward, naming and shaming their abusers?

Well, let's start with a man who is at the very top of the hierarchy when it comes to the fashion industry. Karl Lagerfeld, the creative director of both Chanel and Fendi, is as talented and revered as  is odious when it comes to his views on the #MeToo movement.

Karl Lagerfeld controversy

In a recent interview with Numero magazine, fashion designer Karl Lagerfeld said he’s ‘fed up’ with the #MeToo movement and criticised models who complained about being groped. ‘A girl complained he tried to pull her pants down and he is instantly excommunicated from a profession that up until then had venerated him,’ Lagerfeld said of Interview Magazine’s Creative Director, Karl Templer, who stands accused of sexual assault. ‘It’s unbelievable. If you don’t want your pants pulled about, don’t become a model! Join a nunnery, there’ll always be a place for you in the convent. They’re recruiting.’

Therein lies the problem, Karl implies that in some warped way, being a model means giving people free access to your body. In one statement, he has removed models of their agency and implied that models are simply objects to be done with what one wishes.

When the numerous sexual assault allegations against photographers such as Bruce Weber, Mario Testino, Terry Richardson, and Patrick Demarchelier were reported, top publications including Vogue vowed to end their working relationships with them.

Right on cue, the Council of Fashion Designers of America (CFDA), the organisation that controls the calendar for the New York Fashion Week released a statement regarding sexual harassment in the fashion industry.

‘The CFDA firmly believes that everyone in our industry deserves the right to feel safe and respected,’ chairman Diane von Furstenberg wrote. ‘We have zero tolerance for unsafe environments and strongly encourage everyone in the fashion industry to report abuse in the workplace.’

However, all three photographers and numerous others continue to work and have their photographs published in high-profile magazines. When will the fashion industry finally put its foot down?

Fashion is all about business and Chanel and Fendi are industry titans that have the power to make or break advertising revenue for many magazines. That's why veterans like Lagerfeld can confidently advocate for pulling models' pants down and not face any consequences.

Protection for models

Models, who are often underage or don’t have proper advocates, have long experienced harassment behind closed doors, with no repercussions. It’s been an open secret in the industry for decades but has never actually dealt with.

Supermodel Coco Rocha has spoken quite candidly about her experience of abuse in the fashion industry. She said, “Nearly 10 years ago I started speaking out about abuses in the fashion industry, and at the time I was either sidelined or ostracised for doing so. I complained to the press, I complained to those in power, I complained to the public through my social media. I wasn't the only one who wanted change, other models stepped forward years ago and completely lost their careers as a result. I was lucky to hang on to mine, though at times by no more than a thread.”

Thanks to organisations like the Model Alliance, people are working to ensure that models are protected and that there are laws in place to enforce that. One the organisation's website, their vision clearly states:

As the faces of the fashion industry, models are in a unique and powerful position to inject a new labor consciousness into fashion—one that encourages fair treatment, equal opportunity, and more sustainable practices in this highly influential, global industry.

By organizing a dynamic group of models, industry stakeholders, and academics, we aim to foster a mutually supportive eco-system of industry leaders who will harness their distinct strengths to promote greater transparency and accountability in the fashion industry, both at home and abroad.

Speaking on the bill signing of the 'Stop Sexual Harassment Act, Model Alliance founder Sara Ziff said:

Too often, models have been treated as objects, and not as legitimate members of the workforce who deserve to be treated with the same dignity, respect and basic legal protections other workers enjoy under employment laws. And this is the reason I founded the Model Alliance.

Models often find themselves in a legal limbo between what’s covered under the law or not; for example, whether modeling agencies are considered employment agencies or whether models themselves are even considered employees deserving of the same equal treatment as other employees.

While industry watchdogs such as Sara Ziff have taken a stringent stance against the abuse of models, powerhouses such as Conde Nast and Hearst take no real accountability as they continue to tacitly support industry giants such as Lagerfeld.

Time to make a stand

The fashion industry should be a place where creativity and freedom of expression flourishes and ideally, where everyone is treated with dignity and respect. It should also hold its people accountable for their actions.

Although the fashion industry is imagined as a utopia for women, behind the glossy veneer hides an industry doing nothing to address sweeping claims of sexual misconducts which does more to harm women and men than help them.

Even so, with high-profile models like Coco Rocha and Kate Upton and organisations like Model Alliance pressing for change, the pressure is mounting.

Will the industry finally reinforce its claims of feminism and advocating for inclusion or will it continue to ignore and enable the abusers?

The time is now, but we are still waiting...


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