When New York Fashion Week begins Thursday across the Big Apple, all eyes will be on some of fashion’s leading designers’ looks for next spring and summer — and the models who will be wearing them.
But behind all of the fancy clothes and pretty faces are women and men looking to make a living and a name for themselves. And where there are dreams there are schemes. It’s not uncommon for models in highly competitive fashion markets like New York City to be subjected to long hours, harassment or struggles getting paid with few legal protections in place to regulate the industry.
There are models reaching beyond the runway to help create better working conditions that are more in line with standards in other entertainment industries. Sara Ziff founded the Model Alliance (www.modelalliance.org) as a platform for pursuing these types of changes. It’s also a discreet grievance and reporting service that models with work-related problems can contact for guidance. The not-for-profit has garnered support from other working models, including supermodel and television personality Coco Rocha, and has professionals with backgrounds in academia and law on its board of directors.
“I started working as a model at age 14,” says Ms. Ziff, who’s appeared in runway shows for Prada, Calvin Klein and Stella McCartney, as well as in ads for CK1, Banana Republic, Kenneth Cole and Gap.
Today she mostly models for catalogs.
“Although most of my experiences were positive, occasionally I experienced surprise nude shoots, 18-hour work days without meal breaks and difficulty getting the money I was owed from my agency. I realized that these problems are systemic, and I wanted to improve the industry for the next generation,” she says.
One of the most vulnerable groups of models is those younger than 18. In 2013, the Model Alliance worked with New York state on the passage of the Child Model Act, which affords children who model the same protections as other child performers.
It was “one of the biggest developments in a century, bringing a whole new group under legal protection,” Susan Scafidi, academic director of the Fashion Law Institute at Fordham University, told media last year.
In February at New York Fashion Week, the first since the law was signed, there were very few underage models featured on the runway.
“Although we don’t suggest that models under 18 should be banned from the runway, we do think that adults should model clothing that is marketed to adults,” Ms. Ziff says. “When I was a minor, I worked without protection and experienced some things that no child should have to deal with. I’m really happy that other models in New York will be less likely to experience the same pitfalls.”
Labor protections for children are determined on a state-by-state basis, so young models in other parts of the country still are working in unregulated conditions.
“This is something the Model Alliance aims to address,” Ms. Ziff says.
The industry presents challenges and pressures for male models, too, especially because there are fewer opportunities for men.
“I always tell people you have to be aware of a lot of scams,” says 27-year-old Jarvis Powers, who’s been modeling for about four years.
He moved from Washington, D.C., to Pittsburgh to attend Robert Morris University and worked in information technology security at Highmark while pursuing a modeling career locally and in New York City, including stints at New York Fashion Week. He recently relocated to Atlanta but still travels to Pittsburgh and New York for work.
“There are people who try to take your money, and there are people who expect other services from you,” such as sexual favors or involvement in a lifestyle of partying or drug use.
He attributes part of his success to sticking by his faith, family and morals when he encounters these kinds of situations.
“That’s going to help you in the long run,” he says.
In Pittsburgh, the fashion scene is less cut-throat for up-and-coming models.
“It’s not part of our world here in Pittsburgh or in the tri-state area. We’re in a much more conservative market,” says Deb Docherty, founder and owner of The Docherty Model and Talent Agency with locations Downtown and in Cleveland.
As luxury department stores like Saks Fifth Avenue have closed in the city, she’s seen some of the opportunities for models dwindle. In recent years, however, events such as Pittsburgh Fashion Week have provided a platform for new models to get experience. The fifth annual Pittsburgh Fashion Week at the end of the month will feature nearly 350 models during the week, says founder and executive director Miyoshi Anderson, who’s been a model for more than a decade. A few years ago, she started the iModel System, a program in which she works with aspiring models to spruce up their skills.
There are benefits to starting off in a smaller market before branching out, Mr. Powers says.
Working in Pittsburgh “helped basically train me. It helped me learn and get comfortable doing small shows. Then it just prepared me for handling it more on a bigger stage. In New York, they don’t have time to teach you certain things. Either you’ve got it or you don’t.”
Sara Bauknecht: email@example.com and on Twitter @SaraB_PG.