What Goes on Behind the Camera by Charlotte Park
***Trigger Warning: Mentions of sexual harassment and assault******
When we look at the fashion industry through magazine covers and runway shows, our attention is drawn to the garment before the model. The clothing he/she wears is the star of the show and the model is only there to display it. But what goes on behind the camera? Every industry has its secrets, and fashion is no exception. Underneath that glamorous exterior, the fashion industry is unfortunately another center of exploitation.
The fashion industry is seldomly involved in scandals; however, when it is, it’s sad to say that it is usually because of the rampant sexual harassment and exploitation of its workers. The fashion industry is notorious for its dark side of predatory behavior. The abusers tend to be in positions
of power, and they target those who rely on the abuser’s influence for their success.
Recently, fashion designer Alexander Wang has been accused of sexually harassing and assaulting multiple models, including drug intoxication and r*pe. Wang has declined to comment on any of the accusations, but what’s disappointing (although not surprising) is the industry’s silence. In the past, the fashion industry has done little to ensure change and protection to its workers. Why isn’t Wang’s predatory history bigger news? Why hasn’t Wang’s company not demoted Wang from his high position at the company, or even discussed possible removal? And yes, while it is his brand, he is in a position where he holds great power that he has clearly abused.
Another big question I have is: why does the fashion industry continue to ignore when its predators are exposed? When the #MeToo movement rose with such vigor and passion in 2016, it gave victims the courage to name their abusers and within the fashion industry alone - one name, in particular, came to light: Terry Richardson. A well-known and highly influential photographer for Condé Nast, Richardson was accused of years of sexual harassment towards the models he worked with. In 2017, after receiving many protests from the movement and the public, he was fired and banned from ever working with Condé Nast and any of its other publications.
In 2018, two other fashion photographers, Mario Testino and Bruce Weber, were also accused of similar charges. The accusations led to the shutdown of Testino’s creative agency in New York, and they became blacklisted within the fashion industry; both photographers were fired from their respective magazines. Although they continue their work through other means, their careers have fallen out of the industry’s favor - no fashion brand or artist wants to work with them. This event shined an important step of accountability and a hope for reform in the fashion industry. So why should Wang, a leading fashion designer, be treated any different compared to these other fellow predators? Why aren’t more fashion magazines talking about Alexander Wang’s inappropriate behavior? Where is the responsibility? Accountability? In 2017, the industry promised it would take measures against these kinds of incidents - yet they remain silent as Wang’s incident comes about in 2021.
In the fashion world, reputation is everything; with far less job security compared to any other field, individuals working in the industry are even more vulnerable to these predatory acts solely because their career is in the hands of these powerful people. Models that have fallen victim to these predators and denied their advances can easily be labeled as “difficult to work with” by these predators in power, making it harder for them to work with other brands and magazines. Oftentimes, sexual violence is perpetrated by models’ own agencies; such was the case with Gerald Marie, the former president of Elite Model Management. For these reasons, sexual harassment and abuse within the fashion industry usually go unpunished. For the models that choose to speak out, their careers suffer.
In an industry that is widely known for its competitive and cutthroat nature, a single bad label can determine the lifespan of your career.
We need laws that protect models, artists, and other workers within the fashion industry, and have them enforced as much as its laws on brand trademark rights. There are more rules that protect designers from having their designs stolen than for the protection of the people that keep this industry thriving. However, nonprofit groups like the Model Allegiance fight to prevent the exploitation of fashion models (nytimes.com), showing there is some guarantee of protection through solidarity. In the last few years, brave individuals in the industry were able to expose and hold some high-profile figures within the fashion industry accountable for their abuse that had reigned for decades. People like Richardson and Weber have not only been held responsible for their actions, they were also removed from their positions of power, sparing other potential victims from being part of their terror.
The fashion industry has to do better. In an era of reform and reparation, it has to demand higher standards from its people.