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The less than glamorous reality of New York's Fashion Industry



Image courtesy of Reed Young


DOMINIC HALL-THOMAS, HOST:

There are just weeks left to pass the Fashion Workers Act, a new bill hoping to regulate New York’s fashion industry. Its focus is on models. They may seem to be living enviable lives, but many models aspire to the same labor rights as the rest of us. 


CLAIRE DAVENPORT, HOST:

This bill has been in the works for three years. Currently, there’s no union for models. No real HR protections. Its authors say that as some of the most exploited employees in the business, the bill would offer workplace protections and financial transparency. Marine Saint asks those who've seen the less than glamorous reality of the fashion industry what would change with the new law.


MARINE SAINT, BYLINE:


A few streets away from 5th Avenue’s luxury flagship stores, the model turned documentary filmmaker Shaina Danziger greets me in the parlor of an apartment. ((bring up ambi of entering apartment and introductions)) The space has a hippy style- wooden shelves and an orange plush sofa

It’s the office space for a fashion magazine where Danziger often works. Before transitioning behind the camera, Danziger was a model for 11 years. She strutted many catwalks and graced the glossy pages of Vogue, Harper’s Bazaar and French Playboy to name a few. Her first experiences showed her how few professional protections there are for models. 



SHAINA DANZIGER:


And every contract I ever signed with an agency, I just signed it, gave it back to them. Cause if you question anything, they won't sign you. You raise questions, you stop working.


SAINT: Danziger is part of the Model Alliance, the non-profit campaigning for this bill. They say this type of harmful behavior would be less common if the Fashion Workers Act was in place.


DANZIGER: Because there will be recourse for models. Models would be able to report bad behavior to the Department of Labor, and agencies would be penalized.


SAINT: Under the new bill’s requirements, models would be able to file complaints without the fear of retaliation - like being black listed by their manager. If a management company did retaliate they’d likely be fined which is consistent with the way other employers are treated under New York state law. The bill aims to also protect models on set, something Danziger works hard to do. 


DANZIGER: It's just the most basic of things. It's like if someone is changing on my set, like there's a designated changing area. So they're not changing in front of. All of the crew.


SAINT: Is that not always the case? 


DANZIGER: In modeling, never. At least when I was modeling, especially backstage at shows. You're just in a massive room, changing with every other girl there. And everyone imaginable is walking through.


SAINT: The new law would allow models to have a chaperone and requires clients to protect their safety with a “zero tolerance policy for abuse”. But it’s not just backstage where models may be vulnerable. This workforce is predominantly made up of young immigrant women- often aged just 16-18 years old.  And sexual assault has long been a rampant issue. When the model alliance was crafting this legislation they kept this dangerous problem in mind. Ashley Grace is a former model and actress turned child and adolescent development professor at California State University. 


ASHLEY GRACE:


So many of Harvey Weinstein's victims were young models. And this bill would protect those people — would have protected those people — in so many ways. 


SAINT: Agencies often front expenses. For expensive international flights, test shots, housing. But there can be a lack of transparency which means that young people, often teenage girls, can unknowingly rack up debt with their agencies charging them inflated or mysterious fees.And unless they’re supermodels, their paychecks are likely modest. This means they can end up owing their agencies more than they earn.  But its authors say the new legislation would prevent agencies from deducting any fees beyond their agreed upon commission. And it would provide a commission cap for agencies of 20%.


GRACE: The financial elements of this bill would have allowed for some of these young girls to not have been in the financial desperate state that ended up in the situation where they were going to dinner with somebody or a meeting with somebody, for the promise of bettering their career if they had fair pay in the first place.


SAINT: Grace says the Fashion Workers Act could have protected her when she started out. Grace was sexually assaulted aged 19 at a photographer’s apartment on a fashion shoot.


GRACE: That moment, safety changed for me in my entire life. And I never questioned before that I would be in situations where I would be in danger because I kind of just trusted the people that were sending me places. And once this horrifically traumatizing situation happened to me, everything changed and I couldn't, I could no longer feel safe.


SAINT: This bill is the first of its kind. And it’s ambitious. However there are still loopholes. Former model turned lawyer Kaitlin Puccio is a specialist on modeling contracts. 

She says if passed, The Fashion workers act would at least start to regulate the industry.


KAITLIN PUCCIO:


And there is power in numbers, so if models would refuse to sign contracts that were so oppressive, that could get them into so much trouble - that would have a major effect on agencies because agencies don't make money without models working. And that would force the agencies in some way to reconsider how they're treating models. 


SAINT: Many of the past models I spoke with while reporting this story said that because of the airbrushed ads and glossy layouts we see, there’s a misconception about how they’re treated. But in the end, they’re subject to the same workplace problems as the rest of us. They hope the bill progresses to a vote in the state assembly next month. Marine Saint, Columbia Radio News.


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