Karen Elson wants the modeling industry to change. “I’d like it to not be this archaic, woman-hating industry anymore,” she said. The 39-year-old English model has just been elected to the board of directors of the Model Alliance, the nonprofit that fights for fair working conditions for models. In honor of her appointment, Elson, Model Alliance founder Sara Ziff, casting director James Scully, and a mix of fashion insiders gathered at designer Rachel Comey’s Crosby Street store in SoHo last night for an open discussion about the modeling industry.
Elson’s first priority is accountability. “There’s been this huge wave of silence in the fashion business,” she said. “In the 20 years I’ve been a model, I’ve witnessed a lot of negative things. They never get talked about; they just get brushed under the carpet. No one is formally held accountable, and it’s never been independently dealt with. For me, personally, I think it’s high time it was.”
Call it the Harvey Weinstein effect—since October, the Model Alliance, of which Chromat’s Becca McCharen-Tran, Scully, and models Kenza Fourati and Madisyn Ritland are all members, has received “more complaints involving sexual harassment and abuse than we really know what to do with,” said Ziff, who formed the organization in 2012.
Since October, when the disgraced American film producer was accused of sexually harassing, abusing, and/or raping more than 50 women over the course of his career, there’s been a reckoning of sorts. Famed fashion photographers Terry Richardson, Mario Testino, and Bruce Weber have all been banned from Condé Nast and dropped from ad jobs after similar allegations from models surfaced. What’s more, the publishing giant unveiled a new code of conduct for photo shoots, requiring models to be at least 18 years old (if they’re under, they need a chaperone), no alcohol or drugs on set, and prior consent from models if nudity is involved. Cameron Russell posted messages from anonymous models who had their own tales of abuse, with big-name faces like Edie Campbell, Lily Aldridge, and, yes, Elson following suit.
For the past six years, the Model Alliance has been instrumental in enforcing changes within the industry, proposing legislation (like the Models’ Harassment Protection Act, which closes potentially dangerous loopholes that exclude models from employment protections), conducting industry-wide studies, introducing a model support line, providing free legal advice, and enforcing certain guidelines on and off set to protect models (an example: requiring private changing areas to be available backstage during fashion shows). “We need meaningful and lasting change,” Ziff said. “Legislation, while important, is not the only way to tackle this. Voluntary standards, codes of conduct, and industry guidelines are nice first steps, but unless people can report their concerns without fear of retaliation, and if there’s no due process to investigate complaints, we’re not going to change the culture.”