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A Proposed Law Would Regulate Modeling Agencies. They Are Fighting It.
The Model Alliance says the bill would protect models' rights. A group of agencies calling itself the Coalition for Fairness in Fashion is lobbying to change it, Back Row exclusively reports.
Last week over lunch in Brooklyn, Model Alliance Founder and Executive Director Sara Ziff was wondering if she should personally drive a bus of models up to Albany for a press conference and meetings with lawmakers on Tuesday. This wasn’t necessarily something she envisioned doing when she started the Model Alliance to advocate for models’ rights more than ten years ago. “I think we need to hire a bus driver,” she conceded. “There are only so many hats I can wear.”
The trip was part of Ziff’s effort to pass the Fashion Workers Act, co-sponsored by Senator Brad Hoylman-Sigal who represents the Garment District, and supported by the Council of Fashion Designers of America. The Act would provide models and content creators with protections that Ziff sees as basic, essential, and maddeningly overdue.
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If passed before the legislative session ends on June 8, the Act would regulate how model management companies operate. It would require them to register with the Department of Labor, which would make it harder for scammers and human traffickers to ensnare creators with fake offers to become the face of Chanel. It would put an end to agencies having powers that Ziff and her supporters see as exploitative, including having models sign contracts that auto-renew without affirmative written consent. It would make granting agencies power of attorney optional. It would prevent agencies from charging models exorbitant fees, for things like model apartments and posting their photos on websites, that often put young women in debt to their management companies. It would require agencies to share contracts for jobs booked with models. And it would mandate that agencies protect models from harassment, discrimination, and unsafe working conditions.
“There is zero financial transparency, and there's also no obligation for the agency to act even in your interests,” said Ziff. “That's some Britney Spears shit. When we've been meeting with lawmakers, they're shocked. They've never heard of that before in any other industry.”
These financial arrangements, Ziff argues, beget sexual exploitation and human trafficking. “Just think about the most prominent people in the #MeToo movement, whether it was Bill Cosby or Jeffrey Epstein or Harvey Weinstein,” she said. “The common denominator is they were all preying on girls who wanted to work as models.”
Ziff had hoped the Fashion Workers Act would become law last year, but she credits her opposition, whom she describes as “almost exclusively the modeling agencies,” with successfully stopping it. A group calling itself the Coalition for Fairness in Fashion (a name Ziff said was “hilarious”), representing modeling agencies Next, Elite, True, Wilhelmina, One, and Ford, has been fighting the current bill. The group told Back Row that it’s not opposed to a bill, but that it could not support the Fashion Workers Act without amendments because it “does not adequately account for the economic realities of operating a model management company in New York” and could “create an environment which forces [model management companies] to close business.”
Ziff’s response: “If a management agency cannot function without exploiting their talent, then they don't have a working business model. Period.”
Yet the Coalition’s existence is a sign of how far Ziff has come since starting the Model Alliance in 2012. It’s also a reminder that the fashion industry has, particularly since 2020, made a habit of performative activism. Companies can publish images of diverse people on their websites and social media feeds and flaunt corporate codes of conduct all day long. But this is merely PR — there are no real consequences for violating them. This is why Ziff has been focused on legislation, which she’s learned that companies calling themselves diverse and inclusive often won’t support.
“The more you build power and make a difference, the more your opposition sort of gets organized and tries to destroy you,” she said. “It's gross when you see how the sausage is made. It’s not about what is the right thing to do in terms of passing a bill. It's like, who has enough money and influence to basically block something? So the agencies are doing their best. They're really going all out to make this go away. We are small, but we also have the truth and what is right on our side.”
Ziff does not see it as a coincidence that models are the common denominator in global scandals involving sexual assault and human trafficking. For instance, Epstein’s apartments in Manhattan housed models from the MC2 agency owned by Jean-Luc Brunel, according to a civil court filing. Brunel was found hanged in his jail cell in France last year after authorities started investigating allegations of rape and sexual assault, and questioned him about supplying underage girls to Epstein. Next’s co-owner Faith Kates had ties to Epstein, too, according to a 2019 report in the Daily Beast (Kates’s lawyer told the Daily Beast at the time that she had no business or financial relationship with him).
The Model Alliance hears daily through its hotline from working models trying to navigate the problems the Fashion Workers Act seeks to address. Associate Director Sydney Giordano, who became the Model Alliance’s second full-time employee alongside Ziff three years ago, runs point on the support line. “One of the most common issues we hear about is young models who are trapped in contracts that auto-renewed without their knowledge. A lot of times that's also paired with agency debt. So what we hear about is typically, ‘My agency contract just auto-renewed for another three years, I didn't realize it, and now they're saying that I owe them all of this money and I can't get out,’” Giordiano said. Though it’s not in the news as much these days, they also hear regularly about sexual misconduct. Complaints come from both unknown and established names.
Joey Hunter, former co-president of Ford who became director of the men’s division in 1969, is serving as a consultant for the Coalition and, after I reached out to all six agencies in the group, was dispatched to talk to me. He said the group has hired a lobbyist and organized last year in response to the Fashion Workers Act, which Ziff promoted at a rally in front of Next’s Soho office. “Don't get us wrong, we like the bill and we think there should be a bill, but nobody's ever consulted us about the bill,” he said. Asked if the group prevented the bill from passing last year, he replied, “I don’t believe so.”
The Coalition has issues with language throughout the bill, which it casts as overreaching or unclear, ranging from the requirement that agencies have a fiduciary duty to models it represents to the name of the Act itself (because “fashion workers” aren’t only models, and models don’t only work in fashion). The Coalition also fears being unable to recoup expenses from models for things like travel if the bill were to pass.
Hunter said, “Do you pass a bill for the whole car industry, or do you talk to each individual corporation and get their feedback on what's going on, what are your likes and dislikes?” Regarding power of attorney, he said, “Did you ever wait for model to come into your office? Who's busy, busy, busy, to sign a release or sign a deal, memo or sign anything?”
However, today, models don’t need to go to an office or physical mailbox to deal with paperwork — they can simply sign contracts on their phones.
Amazon Labor Union President Chris Smalls, who has supported the Model Alliance by attending and speaking at its rallies, said the point of labor organizing was in part to bring business practices into the modern era. “This is even more of a reason why her [Sara Ziff’s] fight is very important, because this can change the industry forever going forward,” he said. “The purpose is to adapt to society in the twenty-first century and get rid of these outdated laws.”
Ziff and the Model Alliance have a track record of fearlessness in an industry defined by obsequiousness to existing power structures. They also have a track record of getting legislation passed.
The Alliance pushed New York to pass the Child Model Act in 2013, which expanded the state’s definition of child performers to include models; this made it harder for brands to hire models under the age of 18 and much more likely that if they did, they would be appearing as a child instead of an adult. In 2018, California passed the Talent Protections Act, which requires agencies in the state to provide their talent with educational materials on eating disorders and sexual harassment prevention. And the Alliance was part of coalitions that passed the Garment Worker Protection Act in California, which mandated garment workers earn minimum wage; the New York City Freelance Isn’t Free Act, which created protections for freelance workers, like requiring companies to pay them in a timely manner; and the Adult Survivors Act in New York.
The Adult Survivors Act gave sexual assault survivors in New York outside of the statute of limitations a one-year window to file a civil case against alleged assailants. Under the act, Ziff has filed her own suit against Fabrizio Lombardo, a Harvey Weinstein associate who ran Miramax in Italy, accusing him of rape in 2001 when she was 19. The Act also enabled E. Jean Carroll to successfully sue Donald Trump, though the Model Alliance wasn’t much mentioned in coverage of the case. “We worked for three years to pass that bill,” Ziff said. “The work that we're doing at the Model Alliance extends beyond our immediate industry.”
The Alliance’s broader mission, Ziff said, “is and always has been to look at fashion's supply chain and to think about how we can be in solidarity with workers, whether they're working in a factory or they're walking down a runway.”
While the wins have been enormously rewarding, Ziff describes her work as slow and exasperating. Leading up to the Met Gala, she held a press conference and published an opinion piece in the Daily Beast condemning the event for honoring Karl Lagerfeld, who had a history of making offensive comments, like when he told Numéro magazine in 2018 that he was “fed up” with the #MeToo movement, along with practices that the industry was trying to adopt to stop sexual misconduct. “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 even!” he said.
The industry’s broader reluctance to take a public stance against Lagerfeld was emblematic of the frustration Ziff often experiences running the Alliance as her full-time job. “You saw how few people are even willing to acknowledge that disgusting comments by Karl Lagerfeld are a problem. If they can't even acknowledge that about someone who is dead, are they going to join us in Albany to be like, ‘Hey, I haven't been paid my earnings and my agent is trying to pimp me out to some creepy businessman’? No. People are scared about biting the hand that feeds them,” she said.
Ziff started working as a model when she was 14 years old, and said her experience in the industry was positive overall. In the aughts, she booked coveted work walking in runway shows for labels like Christian Dior, Louis Vuitton, and Chanel. (Ziff worked with Lagerfeld, whom she found “aloof” and more involved than other designers, though she never really knew him.) She also appeared in ad campaigns for brands including Banana Republic and D&G.
The thing is, she never particularly wanted to be a model, and finds it odd, in a way, that she’s become an expert on the profession. When she went to Harvard’s Kennedy School in 2015 to earn a master’s in public administration (she also holds a bachelor’s degree in political science from Columbia University), she thought she would stop working on the Model Alliance. “I was like, I can't do this anymore,” she said. She thought the Kennedy School would help her figure out another way to do advocacy work.
Yet she continued working on the Model Alliance’s initiatives, including a federal bill, from her dorm room. “If I'm really honest, I have many days where I'm like, it's complete insanity that I continue to do this,” she said, noting that her work has come with “pretty significant personal sacrifice.”
The Alliance is mostly funded by foundations fighting human trafficking (the public can also make donations). It’s not making Ziff rich.
Ziff, who has a two-year-old daughter now, is unsure of what the future holds for her personally. “As a parent, it's one thing when you're in your twenties and you're scrappy and you're just in it for the good fight. At a certain point with multiple degrees, I also need to make sure that I am being treated fairly,” she said. “I'm hoping that we can get this bill passed, and then we'll see.”
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