Fashion Model/Filmmaker Launches Workers' Rights Organization for the Modeling Industry
The writings of famous American radical and leftist community organiser Saul Alinsky are not the first things that come to mind when thinking about the plight of models working in the New York fashion industry.
Sara Ziff is aiming to change that.
Ziff, a New Yorker who has walked catwalks for Prada and Calvin Klein, will next week launch a workers' rights organisation aiming to improve the lot of a section of the American workforce usually more associated with glamour than poor working conditions: the modelling industry.
Ziff, 29, gives lie to the prejudice that models are just pretty faces. She has studied at Columbia University in New York, where she specialised in political science and came across Alinsky and other heroes of the American anti-poverty and workers rights' movements. "I think that Alinsky's Rules for Radicals made a very big impression on me," she said. "There is a sense that fashion is frivolous and a lot of people don't understand models wanting to organise for for better labour conditions. They probably see the profession as a privilege," she added.
So here comes Ziff's brainchild: the Model Alliance. It will start its membership drive from its launch date of February 6, aiming to sign as many as 1,500 models working in the New York industry.
Its aims are simple. They are to protect working models from exploitation, especially from sexual abuse, and to improve the lot of its members in terms of pay and working conditions. It has drawn up a "Models' Bill of Rights".
Model Alliance is even in talks with several groups about a scheme to help models get decent healthcare coverage, reflecting an all too common concern of American workers, whether building cars in Detroit or picking tomatoes in Florida.
Ziff, however, is adamant that the Model Alliance is not a fully-fledged model's labour union. Perhaps that is wise given the widespread hostility in America's corporate world to labour organisations. "We are not a union. We are a non-profit group working with the industry trying to establish basic rights," Ziff said.
Indeed, the picture Ziff paints of the average life of a working model is a long way from the glamourous life that many people would imagine. Instead it is a job of long hours with often little pay. In fact some models are expected to work for free and others are paid in clothes, not cash. They are hampered by being usually treated as "independent contractors", which gives them few workers' rights, and it goes without saying that many are very young and vulnerable to exploitation.
The net annual income for a model is just $27,000 a year. "People are blinded by the glamour of the industry. People are not aware of the age of some of the people. Some of them are very young, working without chaperones, and sometimes working for free," Ziff said.
A particular problem in the modelling industry is sexual abuse. "Sexual assault – I would not say it is common – but it exists," said Ziff.
Ziff has exposed it already via a documentary she made in 2009 called Picture Me. The film revealed seedy goings on in the world of high fashion, including sexual advances by photographers and other senior industry figures, often on very young girls.
On the Model Alliance's website models are encouraged to talk about their problems with the industry via personal testimonies: an innovation that Ziff puts down to her understanding of Alinsky. "He emphasised the importance of storytelling and how it is a very kinetic activity. So we use first person experiences. We are giving models a voice," she said.
One model, Dana Drori, describes being 15 years old and feeling uncomfortable as a much older male photographer asked her to take off her clothes. Other problems have nothing to do with sex. Another model, Jessica Clark, worries that she has been "complicit in the commodification of myself" through the use of her non-white ethnicity as a selling point for work.
"Throughout my career, my agents and I have used my ambiguous ethnic heritage to our advantage and profit," she wrote.
Ziff says the response she is getting from senior figures in the industry has been supportive. In part, this is because Model Alliance is seeking a deliberately non-confrontational path and also because, at least when it comes to the issue of guarding against sexual abuse, it is hard to be against it.
It has won support from big names, such as Diane von Furstenberg, who heads the Council of Fashion Designers of America. It is also working closely with the Actors' Equity Association and the American Guild of Musical Artists to set up an grievance reporting system whereby models can relate problems of abuse and exploitation. Both Equity and the Guild are members of the AFL-CIO, America's largest federation of trade unions, giving Model Alliance a link to the broader American labour movement.
Ziff is thinking big too. If Model Alliance works in New York and helps improve the lot of its members she wants to take the organisation nationwide. "In a perfect world, that's what would happen" she said.
Yet despite Ziff's best efforts, there is still something different about a workers' rights movement organising itself in the fashion industry of the Big Apple. When Ziff kicks off its membership drive next week it won't be with a march through the streets. Or a bake sale or pancake cook-off to raise much-needed funds. Instead it will be with an evening cocktail soiree at Manhattan's swish and trendy Standard Hotel.