Stories of burnout – and worse – are rife in a modeling industry filled with vulnerable mid-teens. So isn’t it time for the fashion world to commit to working with models old enough to vote?
Pasha Harulia was 15 when strangers began reaching out to her on Instagram, asking if she was interested in modeling. She wasn’t – but at her mother’s urging, she agreed to give it a shot.
Originally printed in the November 2018 issue of Vogue Arabia
Weeks after signing with an agency in her native Kiev, the then-16- year-old was en route to Paris, booked for the Balenciaga show. “I didn’t even know what Balenciaga was,” says Harulia, who is now 19. “People told me it was good.”
After Paris came Tokyo, where Harulia shared a models’ apartment with several Russian girls, the youngest of whom was 13. It was an intense few months, much of the time spent in a van that shuttled the young models to castings. “I had some fun,” she says. “But mostly I was thinking about the money.” Guangzhou, China, was different. Modeling for e-commerce sites, she says she’d sometimes shoot up to 100 looks a day. “It was like, how do you say it – like someone wiped the floor with me,” Harulia recalls. “And then threw me away.”
How did we get here? How did the fashion industry become so reliant on the labor of teenagers? What’s striking about Harulia’s story is how typical it is. Cara Taylor began modeling at 14. Imaan Hammam was 13 when she was spotted near an Amsterdam train station. Andreea Diaconu was an unusually tall 11-year-old when scouts started circling. These girls are a few of the lucky ones; resilient Harulia signed with blue chip agencies in New York and Paris and walked for Miu Miu in March for the FW18 collection, but many of the roommates with whom she shared flats in unfamiliar cities were discarded or burned themselves out – “broken from the inside,” as she puts it.
Fashion has long valorized youth. But the churn of “new faces,” as rookie models are known, has become relentless. Vast numbers of them cycle through the industry at hyperspeed. “It’s not like all these kids are destined to become stars,” notes Angus Munro, a casting director who works with designers including Rick Owens and Isabel Marant. “It’s more that the business model has become, let’s throw a bunch of spaghetti at the wall, and maybe one noodle sticks and books the Prada show.” No one designed the system to work this way. But can we change it?
Early this year, in the wake of #MeToo revelations, Condé Nast, publisher of Vogue US and many other magazines, issued a new global vendor code of conduct. Responding to stories about models both male and female being propositioned and even assaulted, Condé Nast established provisions aimed to ensure that all its editorial shoots are safe working spaces – harassment-free zones with private dressing rooms and allowances for model approval of both poses and clothing. Another set of provisions addresses the age of models: In recognition of the unique vulnerability of minors thrown into a career where they have little control and where abuse has been all too commonplace, the code of conduct stipulates that no model under the age of 18 will be photographed for editorial (unless he or she is the subject of an article, in which case the model will be chaperoned and styled in an age-appropriate manner).
Consider cover star Naomi Campbell. The ne plus ultra of supermodels, Campbell was just shy of 16 when she launched her career in the mid-1980s, when there were but a handful of twice-yearly fashion shows – a model could stay in school if she wished. Agencies signed very few names and invested in their long-term success by being selective with their bookings. Thus Campbell and her peers were sought-after. They developed close working relationships with designers, who would rigorously fit the variety of looks handpicked for them to wear on the runway. “It used to be, the fittings would take forever,” remembers David Bonnouvrier, cofounder and CEO of DNA Model Management in New York. “Now the girls are cast to fit the dress.”
“It’s a numbers game,” agrees Chris Gay, co-CEO of Elite World Group; it includes The Society Management, which represents Kendall Jenner, among others. “Brands want 40, 50 girls in a show, leaving less opportunity for designers to spend time with each talent. There’s no time for long fittings. But you know who fits those tiny samples?” Gay shakes his head ruefully. “Teenagers – girls who haven’t finished growing yet.” Bonnouvrier and Gay are hopeful that designers and casting directors will embrace the change. “Let’s get back to believing in models and developing them,” Bonnouvrier says. “Let’s get back to a model being a muse and not a coat hanger.”
If you want to understand why very young models became the runway norm, you have to look at the evolution Gay and Bonnouvrier have observed – from show samples’ being fitted to variously proportioned young women to models being matched to size 0 samples. And to understand why the fix isn’t as simple as, say, cutting larger samples, you have to tease out the other factors at play, from the rise of the internet to the fall of the Iron Curtain. It’s a systemic problem.
Around the time Campbell locked arms with fellow supers Linda Evangelista, Christy Turlington, and Cindy Crawford to sing along to George Michael’s “Freedom! ’90” on Versace’s runway, tectonic social and political changes were afoot. Sir Tim Berners-Lee had just built the first world wide web browser; celebrities were beginning to displace models on the covers of fashion magazines; and the breakup of the Soviet Union had left millions of people scrambling for a foothold in the emerging new world order. The desperate poverty throughout the Eastern Bloc, as the fashion industry would soon delight in discovering, meant there was a seemingly endless supply of tall, high-cheekboned, often undernourished girls who saw modeling as their ticket out of chaos.
“That was a turning point,” admits Angela Missoni of the influx of models from Eastern Europe and the former Soviet republics. “You know, the fashion sketch – it was always about elongation, exaggeration of the silhouette. Suddenly there were all these girls who looked like the sketches. If I think back,” she says, “that’s probably when the sample size dropped. It wasn’t that we wanted to make them smaller – it was just that the girls showing up at castings were smaller. So we adapted.”
Sample sizes weren’t the only thing that shrank: Paychecks did, too. In economic terms, models from the East – and later, Brazil – flooded the market. Designers no longer needed to shell out thousands of dollars to the women walking in their shows, so instead of hiring a few to quick-change in and out of several looks, it became standard to cast dozens, who would each wear one. The catwalk’s uniform army was born.
“These are children trying to understand and fit into an adult world,” observes Maria Bruce, LMHC, a New York-based licensed psychotherapist who specializes in working with high-achieving adolescents and adults, including athletes, dancers, and actors. “The teenage brain is sensitive to overload,” she explains. “And some of the possible psychological consequences of dealing with stressors include low self-esteem, obsessive-compulsive disorders, anxiety, and depression.” Issues with body image form their own special subcategory of model ailment. Despite efforts throughout the fashion industry to address the problem, eating disorders such as anorexia remain pervasive. Models are most vulnerable, Bruce notes, as they cross the threshold out of puberty and find that size 0 samples no longer fit.
It’s a moment Karen Elson remembers well. “I was a late bloomer, and at the same time went on birth control to control my acne,” recalls Elson, the flame-haired beauty who led the wave of idiosyncratic faces that crested in the late 1990s. In 1998, the same year she was honored at the VH1/Vogue Fashion Awards as Model of the Year, 19-year-old Elson turned up at Milan fashion week 5kg heavier than usual. Elson recalls that she was canceled from a major show and wound up sitting out the rest of the season. “Somehow that leaked to the press,” she says with a sigh. “It was on the news – that I was too fat to walk in Milan. I mean… that’s just wrong.”
Myriad young models are flushed out of the industry when their adult curves emerge. Others continue to work but don’t do shows. Hammam is one of fashion’s current superstars, and she has the kind of healthy, toned body many women aspire to – but says she exceeds what some say is the regulation 34-inch hip and so is rarely spotted on a catwalk. “So many times I’d do fittings for shows and then they’d cut me at the last minute,” she says. “I tried to work out, eat healthy – but at a certain point, I had to say, enough. This is who I am.”
“Sometimes I look at shows and think, Who are we talking to?” comments Gay. “These clothes are for adults – grown women. Are we trying to project an image they can relate to, or are we, as an industry, just entertaining ourselves here?”
Attitudes are starting to shift at some established European houses: When Natacha Ramsay-Levi debuted her first collection at Chloé last year, she caused a minor stir by opening her show with model Sophie Koella. The 19-year-old was willowy, to be sure, but she also had noticeable curves.
“Sophie’s the perfect natural beauty, which is the whole idea of Chloé,” Ramsay-Levi says. “But with her proportions, you have to build the clothes for her. You can do that with a few looks, but you don’t have time to do that with 50. So I don’t know – maybe we need smaller shows. Maybe we need to create space in the show calendar so that designers have time to do proper fittings.”
Ramsay-Levi makes an essential point: Unless and until the underlying dynamics of the fashion-show economy change, the conditions they’ve created will remain in place. Modeling will go on being a commodity business, with one new face easily replaced by the next. There will be exceptions, of course – Gigi, Kendall – but as Gay notes, “You can’t make policy around the exception.” The 18-plus runway initiative has the opposite aim: Jam the gears of the machine so it’s forced to rebuild itself.
A generational shift is already under way. Millennials are demanding a culture of openness from brands, and so the trend is toward a runway that welcomes all colors, creeds, ages, and shapes. Streetwise labels such as Hood by Air and Vetements ignited fashion’s street-casting movement, and many other brands have followed suit, exalting the individuality of models by casting from their own communities for their shows and campaigns. New codes are materializing. They’re updating behind the scenes, too.
“The age of models is just one component of a big conversation,” agrees Stella McCartney. “If you have a business that employs people, you have to be mindful of their conditions of employment – period. There’s no reason fashion should think it’s above that.”
McCartney goes further. Viewing the fashion industry through the lens of sustainability, she sees it as one piece of a very large puzzle. “We live in a disposable culture,” she says. “With so much on offer, what’s even desirable any more? Something new is always coming through: new models, new clothes, new TV shows, new stuff of all kinds. How do we hit the pause button?”
A shift to using models 18 and older on the runway won’t solve every problem. Teens will continue to be signed but agencies will need to invest more time and resources in their models’ development, particularly as they adapt to the demands of video and social media. “That’s changing the game,” says Gay, who points out that the qualities these new modeling platforms reward are ones that tend to come with maturity. “A model needs to be dynamic, someone you want to have a conversation with.” The ability to communicate, Gay likes to say, is the new hip size.
Karlie Kloss believes that world is emerging even as we speak. “I’m optimistic about this industry,” she says, “because everything I’m seeing points toward more inclusivity and more opportunities for models to have their own voice. When I started modeling at 15, maybe I was mature for my age – but still, I was 15,” she says. “Over the 10 years I’ve been in the industry, I’ve changed – my body’s developed, as any woman’s does, and my mind has developed, too.” And that, Kloss says, makes her a better model than she was in her teens. “It’s not about fitting a bill; it’s about what you bring to the table, what kind of image you project to the world. It’s not just being seen – it’s being heard.”