There can’t be many industries as vulnerable to bad behaviour as fashion. It’s a culture that welcomes informality, embraces eccentric personalities and is undaunted by the most intimate topics (the photographers and designers who’ve used sex as a central theme for their work are too numerous to list). Its calendar includes intense periods of work peppered with late nights. Its social events are fuelled by booze and often other substances, too; its staff routinely dine and party together. Its photoshoots and shows are awash with young people – many of them teenagers – in various states of undress; a preoccupation with the body is its bread and butter. Its senior figures (the creative directors, the editors, the famous faces) enjoy enormous influence and privilege; its junior staff sometimes work in exchange for free clothes or less and, in some environments, are expected to be invisible.
As in every walk of life, most of those working in fashion are basically well-meaning; nevertheless you can see how it’s a high-risk environment. No wonder then that it’s one of the industries that reeled the most dramatically in the wake of the #MeToo movement, when people around the world began to speak out on social media and beyond about abuse and inappropriate behaviour in the workplace. The storm, in fact, had already been brewing.
Conversations have always rumbled on about exploited models and badly behaved designers but, in February 2017, the casting agent James Scully took to Instagram to report that 150 models had been left for three hours in a dark stairwell while casting directors went out for lunch. The directors disputed this version of events, but the incident led to Kering and LVMH – the two most powerful conglomerates in fashion, with McQueen, Dior, Louis Vuitton and Saint Laurent under their umbrellas, among many more – releasing a joint charter in September 2017, agreeing on rules to protect models’ wellbeing. The charter didn’t go as far as some people might have hoped – it banned brands from using models smaller than a size 6, for example; miniscule, when you recall that most are at least 5ft 10in in height – but it was the first, small step in a positive direction.
Then, after the Harvey Weinstein reports erupted, an email emerged from Conde Nast US (which publishes American Vogue) informing staff that they should no longer work with Terry Richardson. Disturbing accounts of the photographer’s behaviour, including coercing models to perform sex acts, had been circulating for almost 20 years; finally, it seemed, the fashion industry had received the push it needed to let him go.
The next major revelation came in January, when The New York Times published an investigation into the photographers Mario Testino and Bruce Weber – two extremely high-profile men who had previously worked with the most prestigious magazines and designers. Fifteen male models alleged that shoots with Weber had involved unnecessary nudity and sexual behaviour; 13 male assistants and models reported receiving unwelcome advances from Testino. Both of the photographers’ careers still appear to be on hold.
The reaction to these events has at times been a deafening roar, with thousands of voices from inside the industry expressing righteous indignation. There have been individual champions like the model Cameron Russell, whose #MyJobShouldNotIncludeAbuse hashtag encouraged people to share stories of harassment; another valuable figure has been Edie Campbell, who, this September, argued on Radio 4’s Today Programme that models should be given privacy while getting changed (mind-bogglingly, this is not on offer at most shows, where journalists and photographers often wander into open changing areas). Instagram accounts including @ShitModelMgmt and @FashionAssistants have also at times operated as portals through which survivors can speak anonymously.
As in every walk of life, most of those working in fashion are basically well-meaning; nevertheless you can see how it’s a high-risk environment
Several formal organisations have gathered steam, too, including the Model Alliance, launched by Sara Ziff in 2012, and the Humans of Fashion, founded by Kristina Romanova and Antoniette Costa in New York in February. Costa has herself experienced harassment and has been through the legal process of seeking a restraining order. “It made me think that if you’re a teenager from a different country who doesn’t have family here, perhaps doesn’t have the money to afford an attorney, how scary it must be when a problem arises.” Through the app, Humans of Fashion connects anyone in the industry, whatever their gender or job, with free legal advice and/or time with a therapist.
That’s not to say that every reaction has been a positive one. While many designers support the principles of #MeToo (Maria Grazia Chiuri of Dior notably often speaks about feminism and launched a women-focused mentoring programme in March 2017), others have seemed entirely uninterested. In recent months, Roman Polanski (found guilty of unlawful sexual intercourse with a 13-year-old), Ian Connor (accused of rape by multiple women), Chris Brown (whose lengthy history of assault includes an attack on then-girlfriend Rihanna) and 6ix9ine (who pleaded guilty to the use of a child in a sexual performance) have been guests at the Miu Miu, Louis Vuitton and Philipp Plein shows respectively. In April, Karl Lagerfeld was quoted in Numero magazine as saying, "I read somewhere that now you must ask a model if she is comfortable with posing. It's simply too much. From now on, as a designer, you can’t do anything ... If you don’t want your pants pulled about, don’t become a model!”
There’s also the problem that fashion tends to have a short attention span; it deals in passing trends, but resists fundamental change. “I’ve been in the industry for 37 years,” says Caryn Franklin, professor of diversity at Kingston School of Art and former co-editor of i-D magazine. “I know from experience that things crop up as an exciting new vision but the fashion industry in particular requires novelty, and in pursuit of that novelty it doesn’t always hold on to important cornerstones of practice.”
She tells me she’s been heartened by recent efforts by the British Fashion Council, which last December announced the Models First Initiative to encourage best practice and give models and agents a point of contact to report abuse. Its Positive Fashion platform also offers guidance to brands on treating staff with respect. Education is important, Franklin adds: “We must encourage young creatives to prioritise ethical practice themselves and take these ideas into industry, otherwise we’re not joining up the dots and that’s what needs to happen.”
Costa agrees. While the past year has dramatically raised awareness of the most pressing problems, she says, serious conversations need to happen between stakeholders in the industry to ensure that new ways of working are adopted: “If you don’t have the infrastructure and sustainable steps to actually keep this going and make a difference, then what is all the awareness for?”
If there’s a pinpoint of hope to move towards, it’s that while the fashion establishment has developed bad habits, there is a younger, more “woke” generation coming through. At the recent Graduate Fashion Week, Franklin recalls, graduates were asked to share what matters to them about working in the industry. “All the answers boiled down to three things, which were sustainability, diversity and happiness – including safety and lack of exploitation.” It paints a sunny picture of what could be fashion’s future but, to achieve it, we’ll need more than a hashtag.