In the 1980s and ‘90s, fashion models were superstars. In the 2000s, they became nameless automatons. Now, finally, they may to be finally turning into just plain working women. That’s thanks in part to the Model Alliance, an organization that advocates for worker’s rights for these beautiful — but often underpaid and exploited — women and girls. The group launched just seven months ago, and already it has claimed prominent supporters and a handful of victories, including Marc Jacobs’s assurance that he planned to — gasp! — actually pay the models walking in his runway show this week. Model Alliance founder Sara Ziff, who began working as a model at 14, talked with me yesterday about why it’s so hard to generate sympathy for models, how she hopes to see the industry change, and whether she regrets working as a model at such a young age.
Ziff’s path to organizing began when she was 18, and she began dating a filmmaker who encouraged her to start carrying around a hand-held camera and documenting her experiences. Their footage became the 2010 documentary “Picture Me,” which portrayed an unglamorous view of a glamorized industry. “Shows like America’s Next Top Model have almost nothing to do with the realities of working in the business,” Ziff told me. “So for the first time, myself and other models were not just the subject of scrutiny, but were telling our own stories and showing what goes on behind the scenes, both good and bad.”
Through “Picture Me” — and her own studies at Columbia University — Ziff made connections with legal experts and union leaders who pushed her to move from observer to organizer. The Model Alliance launched in February of this year, and its membership includes top models (as in, actual current top models, not “next” top models) Coco Rocha and Doutzen Kroes. And it’s not just models who have come on board. Ziff, whom New York magazine has called the “Normae Rae of the runway,” says that the group has support from agents, designers, and other parties, too. “We have a long way to go, but there’s real support for this, and we’re at a time where people are ready.”
Tell me what prompted you to found the Model Alliance.
I founded the Model Alliance after working for over a decade as a model. I first started my career in New York when I was 14. I was scouted in the street by a female photographer. I think the average girl who’s stopped and asked if she wants to be a model would have second thoughts if it were an older male photographer or scout, but the fact that it was a woman made me feel it was legitimate and that I might want to pursue it.
It was more like an after-school job, and something I would do during holidays. I really stated my career in earnest when I finished high school at 18. That’s when I really started to do runway work and travel internationally for shoots and shows and do ad campaigns. I was face of brands like Calvin Klein, Tommy Hilfiger, Kenneth Cole, and Stella McCartney. I was pretty lucky in my career, but I also saw first-hand how little protections were in place for kids in this business. Kids and adults, but particularly children.
So what does the Alliance do?
We can’t engage in collective bargaining as unions do, but we can do everything else. One of things we’ve done since our launch in February, last Fashion Week, was raise awareness of the fact that a lot of designers in New York don’t actually pay models for their work walking down the runway. A lot of people are surprised by that because they’ve heard stories of supermodels not getting out of bed for less than $10,000, but that was the ‘80s and ‘90s. The economy has changed for everyone, models as well.
It’s almost become standard practice that you’re expected to work for free, particularly for prestigious brands. That usually leaves young models in debt to agencies. Technically they’re not working for free, but they working for “trade,” so, for clothes. You might got a handbag or a tank-top with marker on the back saying “sample.” It’s unwearable. And you can’t pay the rent with a tank top.