When Sara Ziff was scouted by a fashion photographer, at age 14, in her hometown of New York City, her career path was fated—only not in the way one might assume. After a lucrative start modeling for brands like Tommy Hilfiger, Calvin Klein, Prada, and Balenciaga, Ziff and her then boyfriend, Ole Schell, released the documentary film, “Picture Me.” The film followed Ziff and her model colleagues around the world backstage on jobs from fashion shoots to runway shows, revealing the exploitative and predatory side of the industry.
In 2012, Ziff founded The Model Alliance, a non-profit research, policy, and advocacy organization to promote “fair treatment, equal opportunity, and sustainable practices in the fashion industry, from the runway to the factory floor.” We chatted with Ziff over Zoom three weeks into the New York shelter-in-place order to discuss the ongoing mistreatment of women in the fashion industry, how activism can lead to legislative wins, the Model Alliance’s successes, and what gives her hope in this unprecedented time.
Frontlash: Thanks for talking with us, Sara. I’d love to start at the very beginning—can you tell me how you got started in modeling?
Sara Ziff: I was 14 years old and was scouted by a photographer while I was walking on the street in New York City, where I grew up. I come from a very different background than fashion. My parents are academics: my dad is a neuroscientist at NYU and my mom's a lawyer. [Modeling] was a very alien world to my family, but I was flattered to have the opportunity to model and so, while my friends were doing babysitting jobs, I started taking jobs working for Seventeen magazine, and did a runway show for Calvin Klein. I started working pretty quickly and my parents were concerned it was interfering with school so they made me dial back until after I had finished high school. So I didn't begin in earnest until I was 18.
What is the Model Alliance?
The Model Alliance is a non-profit research, policy, and advocacy organization that I founded in 2012 with the support of other models and others in the industry after making a documentary called “Picture Me,” which I filmed over several years and which started out as a personal project. My then boyfriend was a filmmaker and so we got in the habit of filming our lives and that footage became the basis for this feature-length film, which was painted as an exposé. It wasn't really intended as an exposé, but it did shed light on some of the problems in the industry that I've gone on to work to address like sexual harassment and assault, pervasive pressures on models to go to extremes to lose weight, and financial concerns, nonpayment, those kinds of problems.
So, the short of the long is, I made the documentary which then gave me this platform to not only work to expose problems but address them and so that's how I came to form the Alliance.
Was it difficult to get other models and other members of the industry on board? What was your pitch to them?
I think I went into it really naively. I had no idea what a huge undertaking it would be. I had approached established unions and asked them if they would extend membership to models and when it became clear that that was not an option, I decided to start from scratch. At the time, I was a student at Columbia University. I was doing my undergraduate degree in political science and had taken classes on the history of the labor movement and community organizing so I was thinking first in terms of unionizing the industry, and then when I learned more, started to think more creatively about organizing, and various legal avenues to trying to achieve similar goals.
That's a question that I often get from models and it can be kind of frustrating, because for almost a decade now, I've heard models saying, "We need a union." And I think we just need a big disclaimer on the Model Alliance website that explains why there isn't a union and why the Model Alliance is the next best thing.
Something I've been thinking about a lot, this being an election year that maybe actually you could speak to, given what you just said, is compromise. You said you didn't know what an undertaking this would be, what have you learned, if anything, about compromise from this undertaking?
I think doing this work has certainly helped me develop a thick skin and it's been very much an uphill battle and has involved, if I'm honest, a lot of compromises for me, both personally and professionally. It has not been easy, to say the least. You can imagine there are strong, powerful, vested interests working against you. Companies are most concerned about their bottom line and if they think that giving people certain rights or protections or recognizing the rights and protections that they already have but that are being flouted, if that's going to cost them financially, then, unfortunately, they'll go to great lengths to try to stop you. And I've certainly experienced that.
I think it's important and for someone in your position who for almost a decade has been fighting for something that you very strongly believe in…. I think it's important to know what that really looks like.
I mean, I could certainly share examples but I think many models would be surprised to know what agencies have pushed back against. For example, when we were working to pass the Child Model Act, the first piece of legislation which we championed, agencies and clients were pushing back against that. They didn't want New York state to extend basic labor protections to child models. So we're talking about things that you wouldn't think would be controversial have certainly been controversial. And so, you can imagine when addressing things like sexual harassment or lack of financial transparency, there's been pushback at every level, even with protecting kids.
You once described modeling as a “labor force of kids,” can you explain what you meant by that?
Sure. I mean, I myself started modeling at 14 years old and even as a child, which you are at 14, I was put on the spot to pose nude and was put in very adult situations, even walking down a runway for Calvin Klein. Those brands are marketing clothes to adult women, but often they're using children to market their clothes, their products. And so, I think age is certainly a factor because although you're dealing with what appears to be a very glamorous, privileged workforce, you're actually dealing with people who are very young and in some cases, just kids.
You mentioned it briefly a moment ago and I want to highlight it, too, because this is another issue that I think might take people by surprise. In 2013, you wrote, "But I have experienced first hand the inappropriate demands that no child, no person should ever have to deal with. Sexual harassment, long working hours without meals, rest breaks, or even monetary pay, pressures to pose nude, forfeit high school education, opaque bookkeeping and wage theft." I feel like the general public is now more informed about sexual harassment in fashion and entertainment, but this idea of wage theft, I think, would take people by surprise. Could you explain what you meant by that? And this is from 2013 but is that something that still happens today?
All of the problems that I spoke about are still going on. So wage theft is a problem, obviously, that's not just unique to the modeling or fashion industries. It happens, I'd say, in every industry. But basically, it's when you are not paid the money that you're owed. And that could be because of opaque bookkeeping. In our case, we [models] have very little insight into our finances. We do not contract directly with our clients, whether that's a magazine or a clothing brand. We have contracts with our modeling agencies, exclusive contracts with agencies that exert a lot of control over our working lives.
We count on our agencies to negotiate our rate and pay us the money that we're owed and unfortunately, some agencies are better than others and many models will wait months or even years just to get a paycheck. So there's certainly a lot that I could say about payment, financial concerns but it's a common problem across the board.
That lack of regulation in the industry really opens the door for so many young people, especially girls, to be taken advantage of. We're trying to prevent that. We're not just trying to raise awareness. We're actually taking steps to prevent these abuses from happening in the first place.
We've discussed plenty of problems, but I also want to discuss some of the wins. You mentioned the Child Model Act. I'm wondering if you could tell us a little bit about the Child Model Act and then any other legislative, advocacy or research wins that you've had that you're proud of.
I am really proud of the passage of the Child Model Act, which was our first legislative victory that was in New York state. We had looked for laws on the books and found that child models, models under 18, were not covered under labor law, even in New York, which is the center of the fashion industry. So I thought that was important, and it extended just basic protections to models that are already afforded to other performers, like maximum working hours, having a chaperone on set if you're under 16, trust accounts so that a certain percentage of your earnings are set aside, and so on.
In California, we also passed the Talent Protections Act that requires agencies, talent agencies, not just modeling agencies, but all agencies representing all performers, to provide information about sexual harassment and how to report it. Modeling agencies, in particular, are now required to provide information on eating disorders and [provide] resources. That bill wasn't perfect, but we managed to pass it in light of the Me Too and Time's Up movements. It had gotten pushback in the past from agencies that had killed it before in previous legislative sessions. So that was a win.
A whole other part of this work that I'm also passionate about is when we launched the Model Alliance, shortly after, I became aware of the torture and murder of Aminul Islam, who was a labor activist in Bangladesh who had organized workers in a factory that made clothes for Tommy Hilfiger, which I had worked as a face of. I realized that, as I was trying to do this advocacy work on this side of the industry, I knew very little about working conditions in developing countries like Bangladesh. So, back in 2012, I traveled to Dhaka and linked up with Kalpona Akter, who is probably the most prominent labor activist in Bangladesh's garment industry, and we have collaborated for many years since then.
The Model Alliance held a protest just after the Rana Plaza factory collapse, which was the deadliest disaster in the history of the garment industry, and we worked with other labor groups to encourage fashion brands to sign onto the Bangladesh Accord. Looking at the supply chain has been a whole other piece of this work and I think that awareness has grown and we've seen more and more people on the creative side of the fashion industry become interested and concerned about garment workers' rights but we were doing that work before it was getting the attention that it deserved.
Most recently, we introduced the RESPECT Program. The RESPECT Program is a private sector initiative that would create enforceable protections for models and other creatives working in the fashion industry. A lot of the advocacy that we've done has been around addressing sexual harassment, in part because I think the media has been interested to cover that, but the RESPECT Program would address a whole range of concerns. And again, when a lot of people talk about the need for models to have a union, although we're not able to unionize because, under federal law, we're prevented from doing so, The RESPECT Program gives us legally-binding agreements with companies to create enforceable standards with real teeth.
Companies that join the RESPECT Program would get recognition for creating a gold standard with us and they would also have insight into what's happening on their watch. So, I think because in the fashion industry, you're dealing with an industry where there's no HR, right? A lot of people are working as independent contractors and there are no standards and even if there are purported standards—various companies have codes of conduct—nobody knows what those standards are and they're not really standards, because nobody's enforcing them. The RESPECT Program would.
The program uses an approach called worker-driven social responsibility, as opposed to corporate social responsibility. What we've seen is a lot of companies will roll out corporate social responsibility initiatives that really are little more than a press release. They're not meaningful. They may have a code of conduct that is not actually informed by the workers themselves, the people who have the most insight into what's happening on the ground and what changes are needed. So, in contrast, the RESPECT Program uses a code of conduct that is informed by and for the models themselves. For CSR, often these codes are never enforced, in contract, the RESPECT Program uses legally-binding agreements with companies to then uphold these standards.
It sounds like you're really focused on creating a culture of accountability.
I think that's true and it's taken a lot of time. Part of it has been, I think, raising awareness. Even just at the beginning, it was about helping people understand that we're [models] doing a job and that we deserve rights and protections like anyone else who works for a living. The perceived glamour of the industry has been a big hurdle, because there's, I think, a sympathy gap there. But once people begin to realize, oh, we're dealing with a labor force of mostly kids that sexual harassment is … it actually goes way beyond sexual harassment, we're talking about, in many cases, trafficking and other very serious human rights abuses, then I think people start to understand the need for addressing these problems.
Also, as you know, it's an aspirational business and there are many more people who want to work as models than are going to get legitimate modeling work. That lack of regulation in the industry really opens the door for so many young people, especially girls, to be taken advantage of. We're trying to prevent that. We're not just trying to raise awareness. We're actually taking steps to prevent these abuses from happening in the first place.
What advice, if any, could you give to others who care deeply about an issue like you do, whether it's labor reform or sustainable fashion or garment workers or whatever it may be, what advice can you give on the next step to take? How can they get involved and make a difference?
In my experience, the best work comes out of organizing. It comes from first telling your story and understanding that if you have faced an injustice, that you're probably not alone and finding other people who share your experiences or concerns and then organizing your peers to change the status quo. Nobody ever does anything alone. You really need to bring together friends, colleagues, other people who want to work together to make a difference. It sounds cheesy, but we are stronger together. I found that I've really drawn a lot of strength from the other models who are involved with the Alliance and who have helped us build this organization and make tangible change in the industry.
What's been the most surprising thing you've learned from your work with Model Alliance?
I guess I was surprised at first to learn that people don't do the right thing even if they're aware and they can. Often it has to be harder not to fix the problem than to maintain the status quo and so people don't change out of the goodness of their heart. They change because there's a whole lot of pressure on them to change and unfortunately that takes time and it takes a lot of awareness-raising and a lot of voices.
What is giving you hope right now?
We're speaking during a time of global mourning for the state of the world. It's a tough time for everyone right now. At the same time, sometimes I think it takes a crisis for people to wake up and often things get bad before they get better. Even in my own experience, I have found that if you're comfortable, you're probably not doing something right. You need to stir up the pot and you need to go through, sometimes, some painful experiences for other people to listen. I think it feels like we're going through that collectively right now with respect to this crisis, but I think that we will see positive change come out of that. And for my own work, I think that sometimes challenging times bring people together.
Even in the last week, I've seen how our leadership council, which is the group of models who help organize and lead the direction of our work, they've really come together and helped with raising awareness for models' rights for filing for unemployment insurance claims. It doesn't sound hopeful, it's a tough time but at the same time, it's been really encouraging to see how our community has rallied together to support each other. So, I do feel hopeful, even at a time like this.
Photos By: Reed Young
Words: Laura Jones
Editor: Sonjia Hyon