Is Sexual Harassment Rife in the Fashion Industry?

In fashion, sex menaces exist - and in some cases thrive. As many in the industry start to break their silence, Lisa Armstrong looks at the fallout

Model Cameron Russell has used her Instagram account to share harrowing stories from models around the world. Picture / Getty Images

In the continuing fallout of the Weinstein affair, it was inevitable that the fashion industry would begin to engage in some collective throat clearing. 

Sure enough, Cara Delevingne, who had written on her Instagram account about several encounters she’d had with Harvey Weinstein at the start of her acting career, declared this was only the beginning.

“In every industry,” she wrote,”... men abuse their power using fear and get away with it.” The inference that she was pointing the finger at fashion was inescapable.

It prompted Cameron Russell, a successful model who has walked in shows for Victoria’s Secret, Louis Vuitton, Versace and Chanel, to post the following on her Instagram account: “A brave model asked that I share her words here because the photographer still works in the industry.”

She went on to collect the painful experiences of other models, promising to post them anonymously. “We need a way to begin breaking the silence. We are not talking about one, five, or even 20 men. We are talking about a culture of exploitation and it must stop.”

Is Russell correct? When you write about fashion as I do, usually from a desk in London, often from the front row, you do so from a highly privileged position - one with distance. True, there are still a few high powered men and senior figures renowned for their, let’s say, tactile approach to female journalists, but I’ve never heard of any threatening antics.

For the mostly very young female models, it’s a different story. Sex menaces exist, and in some cases thrive.

In 2014 the internet blew up with allegations of the gross, exploitative, downright abusive behaviour of Terry Richardson, a hugely successful, influential and powerful photographer (with Gucci campaigns and many a Vogue shoot under his belt).

Model after model came forward with harrowing accusations of how Richardson had demeaned them and in extreme cases; they alleged that he coerced them into having sex with him. The industry was outraged. Some labels refused to work with him, Terry Richardson claimed the allegations were false... and then nothing. There was plenty of conjecture about out-of-court settlements but no legal action. Just this summer I saw him at a party for a big fashion label in New York.

Sexual harassment - and worse - is much more of a problem for male models who have to contend with (some) male photographers preying on them - or blacklisting them. No one wants the latter.

Many male photographers and stylists wield huge clout and some of them can make or break careers.

And abuse can come in many forms. In February this year, following an incident at Balenciaga, where 150 models were reportedly left waiting for over three hours on a dark staircase while the casting directors reportedly went to lunch, James Scully, a casting director-turned-whistle-blower, promised to name and shame bullying, cruelty and discrimination wherever he saw it.

READ: James Scully's Radical Idea for the Fashion Industry

Balenciaga subsequently severed dealings with Gregori Boina and Rami Fernandes, the two casting directors, and Scully’s post was shared by thousands of industry professionals.

The stairwell incident may sound relatively minor when you consider the allegations being made against Weinstein, but it’s still symptomatic of the insidiously low regard for individuals who are deemed vulnerable and powerless.

WATCH: James Scully makes a brave, bold and emotional plea for reform within the modelling industry:

Conversely, the fashion industry has a peculiar regard for extreme personalities, until they cross an invisible line. But since no one can specify where that line is, excessive behaviour is often not just tolerated, but almost celebrated.

Some top models have got away with diva tantrums for years. When model Trish Goff described an uncomfortable incident where Weinstein groped her after a fashion party, she told the New York Times: “The horrible thing is, as a model, it wasn’t that unusual to be in a weird situation where a photographer or someone feels they have a right to your body.”

Breaking her silence on the Weinstein scandal, Anna Wintour, creative director of Conde Nast, said last week: “Behaviour like this is appalling and unacceptable...” adding “we all have a role to play in creating safe environments where everyone can be free to work without fear.”

Fashion thrives on extremes, be they physical or moral. Nothing must be allowed to stand in the way of a great picture or a fashion-moment of a show. It’s art, isn’t it?

Except that actually, it’s commerce - and the consumers don’t generally respond to ill-looking, under-age models (despite repeated undertakings not to use models under 16, some shows do).

So perhaps commerce will finally begin to right some of the wrongs of the fashion industry.

As English model Edie Campbell said on Thursday: “The question of consent is a particularly tricky one when it comes to fashion. When we go on set, we enter into an unspoken contract: for that day we give our bodies and our faces over to the photographer, stylist, hairdresser, make-up artists. We give up ownership for that day. The power imbalance is huge, and the duty of care to that model is even greater.”

- The Sunday Telegraph

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