Fashion Industry Figures Out How to Comply With New Child Model LawsSusan Scafidi in Cosmopolitan, September 12, 2013
A new bill passed by congress advocating the rights of teenage models hasn't even been put into effect, but it's already changing the way the industry works.
The phrase "child model" conjures images of cute toddlers in a Crew Cuts catalog. But the truth is, many of the teenagers who walk the runway at New York Fashion Week and grace high-fashion advertisements are technically children, too. (When you think about it that way, it is a little creepy, right?)
However, unlike other child performers — from the Modern Family kids to the latest Disney star — models in New York City, the hub of this country's fashion industry, have never been protected under the current labor laws.
"Too often, child models are expected to choose between modeling and their education. They often work long hours without meal or rest breaks and try to navigate their careers — and a foreign city — without a responsible person looking out for their best interest," said Sara Ziff, founder and executive director of the Model Alliance, a non-profit that aims to protect the rights of models. "Some designers pay in ‘trade,' not monetary compensation, and agencies charge unclear, unexplained expenses to the model's account which leaves many models in debt."
When you put it that way, the shining lights, beautiful dresses and glamorous makeup of the runway don't seem that appealing. But that might be changing. In June, the New York State legislature passed a bill that gives models the same protection as other child performers. The legislation will require employers, i.e. fashion brands and magazines, to provide models everything they would have at school and more. That means: nurses on the premises; a "responsible person" supervising them on set (or backstage); more breaks during work; and a separate, restricted bank account where at least 15 percent of the model's earnings are transferred (kind of like a trust fund).
While the bill passed unanimously through the state legislature, it's yet to be signed by New York's governor, Andrew M. Cuomo. But that's merely a red-tape formality — after all, what governor wouldn't want to sign a bipartisan bill to protect children? And the industry is already prepping for its implementation. In July, the Council of Fashion Designers of America (CFDA) and the Model Alliance held a meeting where modeling agencies, show producers, and casting directors were encouraged to voice their concerns and also figure out exactly what they needed to do in order to follow the rules.
The result is that many employers are already complying with the future law — and in some instances, going above and beyond. "One top casting director told me that she's only seeing models who are 18 and older this season," Ziff said. "[But] to be clear, the pending child model legislation doesn't ban models under 18. It recognizes that models who are minors are vulnerable and need protection, just like other child performers working in New York. It seems that just by introducing this legislation, some industry leaders have become more sensitive to this issue."
"Maybe there was eye rolling and resentment at first, but what is interesting to me is that an industry that is notorious for being independent — and by that I mean lax about rules and regulations — is really stepping up and being cooperative," said Fordham law professor Susan Scafidi, founder of the Fashion Law Institute and a board member of the Model Alliance. While there may not be nurses backstage just yet, designers and agencies are at least applying for the permits they'll need to work with underage models. "The Model Alliance has given models the courage to speak out — and lots of lots of models have been willing to do that. Someone who speaks out is now part of a chorus that you simply can't ignore. You can no longer marginalize someone as just a crazy bitch."
But while there's an overall positive attitude that things are changing, some industry insiders are still ignoring the rules until they do indeed become rules. One busy model we spoke with said that, during the past two weeks, there was only one casting where they asked the girls to write down their age. And not once has she been required to provide a birth certificate or a photo ID. "They're still using an 'honor system' of sorts in regards to the ages of the models," she said. "They aren't enforcing the new policies."
A designer confirmed the model's experience. "We tend to not go for the babies anyway, but our casting director didn't ask for ages and we didn't enforce any of those regulations," she said.
For younger designers who can barely afford to put on a show, hiring a nurse or a babysitter for under-age models is out of the question financially. (Those who, in the past, have offered clothes for payment rather than cash are going to have a difficult time finding the budget to hire the models, let alone providing them with all these extra benefits.) Which means that, when the bill is made a law, designers on a budget will either have to stop hiring models under the age of 18, or seek outside assistance to provide these services. Violators of the law stand to be fined $1,000 the first time, $2,000 the second time, $3,000 the third time and so on. So if an employer violates the law 50 times, they'll have to pay $50,000. While many agencies have plenty of models on their rosters over the age of 18, they might not be sent to castings as often as the younger girls. Once the law goes into effect, that could all change. "A lot of designers are expressing the preference to use slightly older girls," Scafidi said.
That's where the CFDA and other big fashion organizations like Mercedes-Benz Fashion Week and Made Fashion week might have to step in. Just as Made provides designers with an affordable venue space and hair and makeup support, they could be prompted to hire a "model supervisor" or two. The CFDA has already taken several steps toward this, most notably its guidelines that suggest designers not hire models under the age of 16 for shows.
But there's also the issue of the models themselves. Just like any child performer, there are plenty of stage parents in the mix who want their daughters to walk the runway as badly as their agents, if not more so. "There will be a lot of unhappy parents," Scafidi said, who expects a stage mom here and there to attempt to slip her under-age daughter through the casting cracks. "Castings are hectic and even at the agency level, it's not always possible to check the exact age of a girl from Latvia who is carrying her sister's birth certificate," she said. "Compliance won't be perfect, but it never will be. Most people will do their best to follow the law."