A New Alliance Steps Up to Protect a New Generation of Models

Hiroko Masuike/The New York Times

Sara Ziff, left, with models at a workshop this year.

Sara Ziff was a 14-year-old student at the Bronx High School of Science when a fashion photographer “discovered” her as she was returning to her family’s apartment in Greenwich Village.

Within months, she was modeling for Calvin Klein and Seventeen magazine, but she soon encountered some compromising situations. When her modeling agency sent her to a photographer’s apartment for a shoot, he told her to take off all her clothes. At age 15, she was sent to another shoot where drugs flowed freely and she was ordered to pose against a backdrop of explicit images from an adult magazine

Now, Ms. Ziff, 31, is seeking to help the next generation. Ms. Ziff — who still works as a model and recently graduated magna cum laude from Columbia University with a bachelor’s degree in political science — has founded an unusual labor organization for fashion models. It aims to prevent abuses like agencies cheating models out of pay and coercive contracts dictating that 15-year-old models not let the circumference of their thighs or waists grow.

Its motto could be “5-foot-10, Size-Zero Workers of the World Unite.”

In its year of existence, the group, the Model Alliance, which is backed by big-name models like Coco Rocha and Milla Jovovich, has already registered a major victory. In October, New York’s governor, Andrew M. Cuomo, signed a bill the alliance championed that significantly increases protections for child models by, among other things, requiring agencies to provide a chaperone whenever models under age 16 are sent to a fashion casting or shoot.

The Model Alliance hopes to succeed where a previous union for models fell short. In the 1990s, Donna Eller, a model with the Wilhelmina agency, created the Models Guild, which, backed by a major labor union, sought to unionize models. But after an initial splash, the glamorous guild fizzled, as modeling agencies resisted the idea of unionizing and many models worried that agencies would blacklist them for union ties.

Eager to lure models to her new group, rather than spook them, Ms. Ziff says the alliance is not seeking to unionize agencies or bargain contracts. Instead, it is vigorously promoting a longtime labor strategy — strength in numbers — to press for better conditions. In that sense, it resembles a host of new, innovative labor efforts, like the Freelancers Union and the fast-food workers’ movement, which have sprouted up in an era when unions are in decline. At a time of high unemployment when many workers are on the defensive, these groups have become laboratories struggling to reinvent and reinvigorate labor advocacy to advance the cause of particular groups of workers.

Ms. Ziff, who has been a face for Tommy Hilfiger and Stella McCartney, acknowledges that models’ concerns are often met with little sympathy. “A common comment we hear is, ‘You’re being paid to look pretty. Just shut up. You don’t have a real job,’ “ she said. “My response is: Modeling is a job, and we deserve basic protections like any other worker, and it’s all the more important when you realize that it’s an industry that relies heavily on children, often just 14, 15, 16 years old.”

Ms. Ziff first entertained the idea of unionizing models when she and her then boyfriend, an New York University film student, were making a documentary about models. That film, “Picture Me,” released in 2009, shows Ms. Ziff and other willowy models at parties and fashion shows, but it also highlights their 18-hour days on runways in New York, Paris and Milan. One American model tells of a famous photographer who urged her to remove her clothes and perform a sexual act — and of being in perpetual debt to her agency because it billed her for flights to Europe, for models’ apartments and for preparing and distributing her photo book.

After the documentary’s initial screening, where numerous models told their own stories of abuse, Ms. Ziff became convinced that something needed to be done. That was when she first met Susan Scafidi, director of Fordham University’s Fashion Law Institute, who offered to help — but balked at any talk of unionizing.

“Founding a union makes a strong oppositional statement that scares off people,” Ms. Scafidi said. “All of our conversations have been about how do we make change happen.”

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