Stomping down a runway draped in unfathomably expensive fashion, illuminated by a potent combination of highlighter and spotlight, a New York Fashion Week model is glamorous, enviable and otherworldly. But the realities of the fashion industry are a harsh comedown. Models are workers, and their labor is the engine that powers fashion weeks around the world. According to testimonies and allegations that have been whispered for years, but were amplified under the “My job should not include abuse” hashtag and reported on extensively with the Me Too movement, they routinely face sexual harassment and abuse, often from powerful gatekeepers within the industry.
“If people really understood what goes on behind the glamour of the industry, they would be mortified,” model Abbey Lee told the Boston Globe in February. More than 50 models were interviewed for the exposé that Lee participated in. “Collectively, these models—predominantly females, although also males—made credible allegations of sexual misconduct against at least 25 photographers, agents, stylists, casting directors, and other industry professionals,” the Globe reported. “All of the accused men denied the allegations against them.”
Also in February, the Instagram account @ShitModelMgmt followed in the footsteps of other industries by publishing an anonymous list of alleged fashion-world abusers. She reportedly published the names of 290 alleged abusers.
“A few months ago, [@ShitModelMgmt] put out a call for followers to share their stories and her inbox was quickly flooded. She shared many of the messages she got in her stories, blurring out the names of accusers but not those accused,” The Cut reported. Citing death threats against her and her family, @ShitModelMgmt eventually took down the list.
And the fashion industry continues to enable and tacitly endorse accused abusers, in spite of a shiny new veneer of Me Too activism and women’s empowerment.
In fact, designers are actually shipping in abusers from other industries to sit in their front rows and perform at NYFW events. At Pharrell Williams’ recent Yellow Ball at the Brooklyn Museum, David Blaine, who has been accused of two separate sexual assaults, entertained the A-List crowd with illusions. (Blaine has “vehemently denied that he raped or sexually assaulted any woman, ever,” according to a statement from Blaine’s attorney, Marty Singer.)
Ron Jeremy, the porn star who has numerous sexual-assault allegations against him dating back over 30 years, and has been banned from adult industry conventions, even walked a NYFW runway. “Clad in a custom velvet suit, the famed adult industry personality walked in Nina Athanasiou’s presentation and posed for professional shots for Athanasiou’s Amore collection,” Page Six reported. “Following the runway show, Jeremy attended the after-party at the Lower East Side’s Leave Rochelle Out of It.” Athanasiou did not return the tabloid’s request for comment.
And as The Daily Beast previously reported, “In June, Ian Connor and A$AP Bari—two men who have been accused of varying degrees of sexual assault—took pride of place on the front row of two highly publicized Paris fashion shows. Twenty-five-year-old Connor was photographed at Virgil Abloh’s Louis Vuitton menswear debut while Bari, 26, turned up at Dior. The pair were both later seen at the first runway show for Alyx—a hyped brand run by Matthew Williams, a close friend of Abloh and Kanye West.”
“It took five days until any publication mentioned the problematic aspect of these front row guests,” The Daily Beast reported. “Refinery29 was the first to call out Louis Vuitton and Dior. (The article was taken down overnight but is now available.) The New York Times wrote raving reviews of both shows, calling Connor ‘an Instagram phenom’ but failing to mention any allegation against him.” (Over a dozen women have accused Connor of rape.)
In addition to the Ian Connor and A$AP Bari incidents, Roman Polanski was also spotted at Miu Miu’s resort 2019 show in June—a month after the director, who pleaded guilty to unlawful sex with a minor, called #MeToo “collective hysteria.”
On top of all the problematic fashion show attendees, when Bruce Weber and Mario Testino were accused of sexual assault and harassment (the two esteemed photographers denied the allegations), Anna Wintour responded by putting Condé Nast’s relationship with the frequent collaborators “on hold for the foreseeable future.” “Not exactly Time’s Up—more like Let’s Give It Time,” New York magazine remarked, adding that, “Unlike their counterparts in the entertainment industry, fashion’s celebrities leaped to the defense of the accused.”
Then there are comments like those made in April by Chanel’s Karl Lagerfeld, which reveal the truly abhorrent and backwards beliefs held by some of the fashion world’s most powerful players. In a spirited defense of accused stylist Karl Templer, Lagerfeld pronounced, “I don’t believe a single word of it.”
“A girl complained he tried to pull her pants down and he is instantly excommunicated from a profession that up until then had venerated him,” he bemoaned. “If you don’t want your pants pulled about, don’t become a model! Join a nunnery, there’ll always be a place for you in the convent.”
Lip service has certainly been paid to taking real action. A February 2018 Glamour article on the ways in which Me Too reverberated through that season’s NYFW quoted James Scully, “a top casting agent who has worked with brands including Carolina Herrera and Stella McCartney.”
“Brands are finally prioritizing inclusive casting, he explains, while having open dialogues surrounding the fair treatment of models this fashion week, something made possible by the #MeToo movement.” These initiatives included the Council of Fashion Designers of America (CFDA) updating its Health Initiative to include sexual harassment, as well as a partnership with The Model Alliance to create safer worker environments for models backstage at fashion shows.
Still, a good deal of coverage prioritized surface gestures over substance, mining the shows for #MeToo allusions and angles. There were many examples to choose from. And while there’s certainly something to be said for addressing the current political climate through art, or centering survivors in a fashion show, these headline-making moments came and went, leaving behind an industry that is still clinging to the status quo.