Each Fashion Week, the modeling industry recruits a crop of fresh, new faces from around the globe to walk in shows by some of the world’s most renowned designers. Their stories epitomize glamour: in a matter of months, the new talent, plucked from obscurity, can suddenly find themselves in the company of celebrities, attending high-profile parties, and being given loads of incredibly expensive clothes.
On the surface, free luxury merchandise sounds like a pretty sweet deal. But it’s not that simple. The clothes have often been the only way models are paid for their professional services. Insiders call this form of payment “trade,” and it’s leading some models down a path of debt, forcing some to hawk the clothes on eBay and in consignment shops to recover the cash.
For models, walking on the runway may be the easiest part of the job. In the week leading up to a show, they shuffle between designers’ studios for multiple fittings, where garments are tailored to their bodies. On the day of the event, they sit for two to three hours of on-site prep, getting their hair, nails, and makeup done in addition to run-throughs, or rehearsals, before the 15-minute presentation.
For all those services a model could be “paid with a tank top or a beautiful dress ... The quality of the trade can really vary, and in some cases it may never be delivered,” says Sarah Ziff, a model-rights activist and co-founder of the Model Alliance, which seeks to standardize working conditions in the modeling industry.
The idea is that models walk in runway shows not to make money but to gain exposure before an audience that typically includes editors, stylists, and photographers who are constantly scouting talent for photo shoots. “The logic is there is work that you do for prestige, and then there is work that you do for monetary pay. So traditionally top designers in New York, even big, established brands, have paid their models in trade for the shows,” Ziff says. “Those jobs are seen as good exposure that helps you get other jobs that are paying jobs.”
But the trade agreement can easily snowball for models who take on work solely for prestige. Appearing in the Alexander Wang show might land a model editorial spreads in Dazed & Confused, Purple, or Self Service, which are famous for generating career buzz along with beautiful photos that models can use in their “books,” or portfolios that they bring with them to castings. Still, there’s a catch.
“Magazines don’t pay 99 percent of the time,” model Crystal Renn tells The Daily Beast. “But taking on one of those jobs means that you are being given the best hair team, the best makeup team, and the best photographer, which will give you beautiful pictures to have in your book.”
As the equation typically goes, those castings can add up to a glossy book filled with high-caliber images. That’s when the big money could come calling: an advertising campaign for a luxury brand or, even more lucrative, a cosmetics or mass-market lingerie brand such as CoverGirl or Victoria’s Secret.
Such success can take time, however, as supermodeldom doesn’t usually come overnight. As she’s waiting, a model can accrue a good deal of industry debt. “When you are a new model and coming to New York for the first time, and let’s say you are from Eastern Europe or Brazil, you are paying for that [flight] out of pocket,” Ziff says. The agency “charges you for everything. They might front the money if they believe in a new model and think she will be able to recoup the costs. If you live in model’s apartment, that’s a fee. Printing your book is a fee. Taking a car to and from the airport is a fee.”
Often those expenses aren’t explained in advance, adds Ziff: “Models might rack up tens of thousands of dollars in debt without really even knowing.”
Mired in debt, some models turn to consignment shops and sites like eBay to recover cash. “I do hear of girls saying, ‘I’ve sold this and that to a consignment shop,’” Renn says, noting that she has never sold items she received through trade.
Renn says she only takes trade jobs in specific circumstances, though she doesn’t fault some designers for doing it. Young designers especially, she says, “don’t have money, they aren’t in the plus yet, but they have this great product, and they need a great girl to help elevate their brand to be like the big designers.”
Still, some large fashion brands are known to take out full-page ads in Vogue but only pay their models with clothing or very minimal payment. “Let’s say a huge designer calls you for a job that will only pay trade even though they probably have a lot of money. But there are brands that just by doing it, you almost make up the money because you have jobs lined up and huge projects that follow it,” Renn says. “The problem is when you are only a runway girl and only trade follows.”
Ziff is more blunt: “I do think that there is a moral obligation to pay people for their work, even if it were just covering their basic costs. When you are not being paid any money, then you are paying to work, and that is wrong.”
But there may be a light at the end of the tunnel. Last season, for the Spring/Summer 2013 shows, more designers began to pay models in cash. “We found that a designer like Alexander Wang has recently started to pay his models for his shows, and I think that’s a huge step up,” says Chris Gay, president of Marilyn, an agency that represents Naomi Campbell and Adriana Lima. “Not only has Alexander Wang gotten to a position where he was a very young talented designer, but he has also become a young talented designer that’s successful, and with that success he has rewarded the models that had been working with him.”
Gay adds that “designers in New York are making more active steps towards paying models in more ways than just paying them in trade. Certainly there are some designers that still do it, but I still think that it’s imperative for designers to stop paying in trade and that models should be compensated financially.”
Rag & Bone and Marc Jacobs also have joined the paying ranks, BuzzFeed reported last month, joining Donna Karan, Oscar de la Renta, Calvin Klein, and Michael Kors. Of Jacobs, Gay says: “I think that’s a big thing, because he is obviously a leader in our business.”
According to BuzzFeed, Proenza Schouler, Narciso Rodriguez, and Anna Sui are still holding out, though a representative for Proenza Schouler on Monday told The Daily Beast, "in fact we paid all models who worked with us for the Fall Winter 2013 runway season." When paid, a model might take between $1,000 and $2,500 “for bigger shows,” says Ziff—a fee that’s drastically cut when the agency subtracts its 20 percent standard commission. It’s not a lot, but Gay says, “It’s a step in the right direction.”
Editor's Note: This story has been updated with a comment from Proenza Schouler.