Model Alliance founder Sara Ziff is quickly becoming a force within the changing landscape of fashion and the entertainment industry at large. In the wake of the #metoo movement, Ziff has gained momentum to not only highlight the rampant sexual misconduct in fashion, but is also putting forth the RESPECT Program to create enforceable guidelines and new industry standards to revamp an outdated system that has turned a blind eye to, and even enabled, this abuse.
While walking at fashion week last season, I was delighted and impressed to see dedicated changing areas for models at one of the major NYFW venues.
The Model Alliance was directly responsible for this new implementation. Furthermore, the Model Alliance’s addition of supermodel Karen Elson to it’s board of directors, who joins industry heavyweight and advisory board member James Scully, has injected some renewed excitement within the fashion industry. Step by step, systemic change now seems within reach.
An impressive 100 models showed early support for the RESPECT Program by signing on in solidarity before the program’s public launch, including Milla Jovovich, Edie Campbell and Doutzen Kroes. Since it’s debut many more models have hopped on board to show their support.
In consideration of full disclosure, I must admit that yours truly was among these 100 early signers. You are reading, after all, my “Model Perspective”.
Brana Dane: What brought you to start the Model Alliance?
Sara Ziff: I started modeling part-time when I was 14. I’ve had a good career, but I also experienced some of the pitfalls of working in what remains a largely unregulated industry. I made a featured documentary about my and other models’ experiences – that good and the bad – and that film gave my peers and I a platform to organize for better working conditions. We approached established unions, but we were turned away. So we decided to start from scratch by forming the Model Alliance in 2012.
Brana Dane: How is the #metoo personal to you?
Sara Ziff: #MeToo is a movement that resonates with me personally because I’m a survivor of sexual harassment and sexual assault. Like so many others, I experienced things that no child, no person, should have to deal with. I was put on the spot to pose nude and semi-nude, even as a minor. I had to deal with invasive photography backstage when I was changing clothes. My then-agency was supposed to look out for my best interests, but on more than one occasion, I was put in compromising situations with men who had ulterior motives. When my friends and I reported bad behavior, our agents didn’t always see the problem.
Brana Dane: Tell me about the new open letter to the fashion industry and the #Time4RESPECT campaign.
Sara Ziff: In May, 2018, we announced the RESPECT Program at the Copenhagen Fashion Summit. RESPECT is a program that recognizes that we will not achieve genuine accountability in the industry unless we have enforceable standards, with real teeth. Over 100 models, including some of the leading names in the business, have signed an open letter to the fashion industry calling on agencies, publishing companies and fashion brands to join RESPECT. Every company says that it abhors sexual harassment and abuse, but they have yet to go beyond voluntary standards, which we know don’t work. If a company is serious about preventing abuse, it will make a meaningful commitment by joining the RESPECT Program, which is based on an approach that has a proven track record in other industries of rooting out bad behavior and upholding best practices.
Brana Dane: What type of support within the industry have you received?
Sara Ziff: The models themselves are driving this effort. That’s what makes it so powerful. The photographers Inez and Vinoodh have also been very supportive, as have numerous other industry creatives behind the scenes.
Brand Dane: How is the Alliance’s plan different than some of the other plans and campaigns popping up in the aftermath?
Sara Ziff: The other initiatives are all voluntary, whereas the RESPECT Program creates legally binding commitments from companies to uphold industry standards. And what makes the RESPECT Program credible and effective is, it’s being driven by the models themselves. As models, we know our working conditions better than anyone, and its our rights that are at stake, so we have the greatest incentive to make sure the industry upholds fair working conditions. The RESPECT Program offers an independent, confidential reporting mechanism, so that models and other stakeholders can bring forward their concerns without fear of retaliation. The independent monitoring body is then charged with investigating complaints and offering remedies. Companies that sign onto the RESPECT Program agree to respect the outcomes of investigations and follow corrective action plans to prevent abuse from continuing to occur.
Brana Dane: How can we effectively enforce these guidelines and implement them?
Sara Ziff: Independent enforcement is key. Standards without consequences for people who violate the standards aren’t meaningful. RESPECT offers binding commitments and independent enforcement. This approach has been used in other industries very successfully and has been held up by the UN as the gold standard to address human rights abuses in supply chains.
Brana Dane: In your opinion, what are the major obstacles in the life of a model?
Sara Ziff: Many models feel isolated and powerless to address poor working conditions that are normalized in the industry. That, combined with the short-term nature of the job, which often lasts just a few years, and the pressure to tolerate abuse, leaves models particularly vulnerable. There’s also little public sympathy for models, who appear to lead glamorous lives, when in reality most models do not make much money. Many models work in debt to their agencies and there is little financial transparency, which makes models more vulnerable to abuse.
Brana Dane: How is the Alliance working to address these?
Sara Ziff: We are really focused on getting the RESPECT Program off the ground! It offers a comprehensive solution that can no longer be dealt with using a piecemeal approach.
Brana Dane: What is your long-term vision for the industry at large?
Sara Ziff: My goal is to create an industry in which creativity and self-expression flourishes, and everyone can work without fear of harassment, discrimination, abuse or violence.
Brana Dane: What backlash have you faced so far championing for this change you believe in?
Sara Ziff: It hasn’t been easy, but this work is truly meaningful to me. I’ve gotten significant pushback over the years, but the tide is turning.
Brana Dane: What is the most difficult aspect of effecting change on a governmental level? What laws, so far, have you been able to help make in order to protect the rights of models?
Sara Ziff: In 2013, we championed the Child Model Act in New York State, which reclassified underage models as child performers who are now entitled to the same rights and protections as actors, singers and dancers. We’ve also introduced the Models Harassment Protection Act, which would extend protection against sexual and other forms of harassment to models in New York. Currently we have a similar bill pending in California to address sexual harassment and eating disorders. But changing the law is a long, slow process and we are working in a global industry.
Brana Dane: What’s next?
Sara Ziff: We’re planning meetings with models about the RESPECT Program and we’re talking to companies about signing on!
Brana Dane: How do take your coffee?
Sara Ziff: Cream and sugar.