Karen Elson Joins Model Alliance Board As It Embraces Fashion Industry's Trickle Down Effect On Women

Karen Elson Joins Board of Model Alliance.jpg

One of the industry's most prominent models Karen Elson recently joined the Model Alliance's board of directors. Sara Ziff and the Model Alliance came into existence in 2012 with the mission of promoting the fair treatment, safety, overall working conditions and mental health of models. More prominent now than ever, we note a new evolution in the group's mission that includes a need to embrace fashion's trickle-down effect and its impact in the larger population. 

This week Elson joined the Model Alliance's board of directors and its founding director Ziff in a chat in Rachel Comey's Crosby Street store. On hand were editors, agents and designers, along with a lot of young models, writes Vogue. 

Ziff and Elson reviewed the basic accountability steps that the industry is taking to address the 'job' of being a model. Fresh -- if not new -- commentary in the presentation focused on the trickle-down effect that the fashion industry has on women's self-images and the larger culture. Elson shared her thoughts:

"Let’s think about the trickle-down: We in the fashion industry have a responsibility for women in general—women who look at images in magazines and on billboards and feel inspired to look like us—and if we’re putting up a sick image of a woman who goes to the gym for two and a half hours a day and exists on 1,000 calories . . . we’re not putting forth a positive image. It’s feeding this bigger narrative, where women in the ‘real world’ look at this and feel shit about themselves. But fashion is joyful, it’s playful. The women and the models I work with are inspiring and brilliant. Let’s bring that to the forefront, on top of the genetically blessed, beautiful women they are. Let’s make it joyful.”

One of the young models without an agent asked Elson what to do if she is feeling compromised or fearful at a fashion shoot, knowing that she might not be booked again. Elson correctly answered the young woman with words meant to steel her backbone, while being sympathetic to the reality that the action could backfire. Basically, Elson is saying that young models must take a stand.  

“When things happen to me on set, the first thing I do is call my agent, but if you don’t have that, it’s tricky,” Elson added. “The only thing I can say is, if you’re in a situation where you feel compromised, it’s necessary to walk away. This is how these abusers [work]—they prey on a person who feels like their livelihood is dependent on it.” For models who have found themselves in similar situations, the Model Alliance has a grievance reporting service.

Model Alliance Moves to End Backstage Harassment At NYFW, Now Offers Private Changing Spaces

NTFW Daniel Sims

NTFW Daniel Sims

As New York Fashion Week moves into full swing, Model Alliance cofounder and executive director Sara Ziff talks with Vogue about the impact of the #MeToo moment on the industry. “Models have been dealing with these issues for decades, and this behavior has been an open secret, and now we finally have permission not only to talk about it but to act,” shared Ziff on the phone from the Model Alliance’s New York office. “I think a lot of people in our business want to do the right thing, but they haven’t had adequate support; we need to create the infrastructure and enact change so that there is accountability across the board.”

One of the first changes involves private dressing rooms for models backstage during the shows. Announced yesterday, the collaboration between the Model Alliance and Council of Fashion Designers of America adds a new layer of privacy behind the scenes. Previously, models changed backstage, often in view of photographers. 

This season those who want a more private changing space will have it. “This is one of several initiatives that we have wanted to spearhead for a while,” says Ziff. “It wasn’t until now, with the allegations in the fashion and entertainment industries, that it really felt like the industry was ready to take these concerns on head on.”

The discussion around privacy backstage is far from a new development, but it’s one that feels freshly relevant. The power imbalances between older, predominantly male photographers and young models play out in a microcosm during fashion month and has led to many feeling exposed as they attempt to do their jobs. “I believe a separation between privacy for models getting dressed and anyone filming or taking photos is a must,” shared British supermodel Karen Elson via email. Elson, who serves on the Model Alliance’s advisory board, has been vocal about the need for changes within the industry and the dangers of the lax security backstage. “I cannot tell you in my younger days how many times I would catch photographers taking photos of me getting undressed, or that I was standing in nothing but a nude thong for extended periods of time in a room surrounded by people, feeling extremely exposed.”

Uniting with the CFDA, IMG, and Pier 59 in order to make the project a reality, Ziff stressed that creating harassment-free environments requires the commitment of multiple parties. “I think we really need to develop a program in collaboration with all stakeholders: designers, agencies, media companies, and so on, to commit to promoting and ensuring dignity and respect in the workplace,” says Ziff, who has put forward a proposal to that effect to publishing companies, EEOC chair Victoria Lipnic, and Commission on Sexual Harassment and Advancing Equality in the Workplace chair Anita Hill. With New York being only one of many fashion capitals, Ziff aims to spread the message globally over time. “I have been in touch with Bernard Arnault and LVMH, and I know that they’ve been taking these concerns seriously. My hope is this will set the precedent for the other cities.”

Ziff is bringing a highly-professional approach to her initiatives, working with research partners at Harvard and Northeastern to survey the models' experience at NYFW and the degrees to which the models are/or are not continuing to experience harassment.