A room full of models was asked a question: Who has been caught off guard by a request to pose nude in a photo shoot?
Every hand in the room shot up.
The #MeToo movement galvanized Hollywood after sexual misconduct allegations emerged against Harvey Weinstein in October, prompting a flood of change, from new guidelines to prominent firings.
But in the fashion world, a similar sea change remains elusive.
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“Models put up with so much crap and models are silent,” designer Norma Kamali explained. “We don’t ever want them to speak.”
The faces of fashion, however, will get a chance to make their voices heard at this year’s New York Fashion Week, which begins Thursday and ends Feb. 16.
During the second night of NYFW Friday, models will hit the catwalk in a special #MeToo fashion show and end their powerful struts with emotional accounts of sexual abuse and rape.
“It’s not just going to be a bunch of women walking the runway; there’s a twist to it, show organizer Myriam Chalek told The News. It’s going to be very emotional… Some (women) are actually going to speak for the first time about their experiences.”
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The 30-year-old designer’s show is one of the only NYFW events to address #MeToo a movement insiders say is long overdue in an industry that has preyed on young women and men.
Comedian and actress Sabrina Piper is among the models wholl take the stage and share a disturbing story in her case, being raped by an ex-boyfriend. The 21-year-old said she hopes the #MeToo fashion show will encourage others to speak up.
Kamali, an outspoken voice of feminism in the industry, launched the website “Stop Objectification” eight years ago as a platform for women like Piper to recount their own experiences.
The designer, 72, said the number of stories her site has received since Weinstein’s downfall has skyrocketed.
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“(Abuse) will still happen, but it certainly isn’t going to happen in the same way it has in the past,” she told The News. “The secret’s out I would really be surprised by anybody who had the nerve to attempt to in any way take advantage of male or female models who are vulnerable.”
While many share Kamali’s belief that the fashion world is making strides in bringing about change, women connected to the industry say numerous abusers remain a part of the fashion world, hindering a full embrace of #MeToo.
Men in the business, commonly photographers, are given seemingly free reign to ogle and objectify the young and the beautiful in various stages of undress many who are as young as 13.
Kelly Cutrone, publicist and founder of People’s Revolution, is also doing something very different inspired by the #MeToo movement, and President Trump’s “s–thole” comment: a voodoo fashion show.
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“This is the first time and probably last time a voodoo ceremony will happen in the middle of fashion week,” Cutrone told The News.
Her show will feature designers XULY.Bt, MIMI PROBER, and Hogan McLaughlin in a collaboration featuring the ancient feminine in original African forms, led by New Orleans voodoo priestess Sallie Ann Glassman.
Ewa Budka, a model/artist walking in this weekend’s Christian Siriano fashion show, said she chose to work with the designer because he makes models feel respected, something she calls “rare” in the fashion industry.
“I think every model would be able to right now post a #MeToo (story),” Budka told The News.
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“Basically the whole fashion industry is built on selling a processed image of your(self). From the psychological point of view, it can be very destructive for young women and men who need guidance during their development.”
Budka, who started modeling a week shy of her 18th birthday, is part of a group formed by model Cameron Russell and others called A Model Mafia, which serves as an outlet for models to connect and share their experiences, particularly young girls who come to America on their own to pursue modeling.
Lily Cummings, 29, a former model and current photographer who’s worked with brands like Uniqlo and Mercedes, said the rumors about male photographers abusing women are prevalent, and that teens are often targeted because of their inexperience.
“Their knowledge of sexual boundaries is straight out of junior year of high school,” she told The News, adding that she’s heard countless stories of inappropriate flirting and unsolicited “d–k pics.”
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Carolyn Kramer, a former agent with Elite Model Management, places the blame not just on predators, but on agencies pushing their youngest and most vulnerable models out into the circuit with little or no protection.
“There are no laws. Nothing. Zero. A 15-year-old could work 13 hours a day without a parent, without a guardian, and be exposed to behavior that is so inappropriate for any person to have to be witness to,” said Kramer, 58, who recalled seeing Elite founder John Casablancas conduct a live-in relationship with a 15-year-old model.
In 2013, legislation was passed in New York State, called the Child Model Act, to protect those underage.
Casablancas, who launched Elite in 1977, was labeled the “the Body Snatcher” by tabloids, and is the subject of the Netflix documentary “The Man Who Loved Women.” He famously dated one of his models, Stephanie Seymour, when she was 16 and he was 41. When he was 51, he married a 17-year-old model.
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Casablancas’ predatory behavior with young models was well-documented, and in 1999, became the subject of a BBC documentary that framed Elite as an organization pimping out its underage models. He died of cancer in 2013.
Elite has since changed the way it operates, with women now predominantly at the helm. The agency is focused on empowering “the talent we represent so that their voices can be heard,” a statement from the company reads.
IMG Models, one of the world’s largest agencies, has had longstanding protections in place for models, including curfews and chaperone requirements for underage clients.
The agency also prohibits photographers from asking models to pose nude, semi-nude or in lingerie or swimsuits without previous written consent in advance, according to documents obtained by The News.
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But, as Kramer explained, similar protections arent in place at every management company and agency, allowing abusers to slip through the cracks.
“I think a lot of people have been keeping this (secret) because of the power of photographers,” model-turned-designer Lindsay Jones told The News.
Jones is one of many models to accuse prominent photographer Terry Richardson of sexual assault. Fellow fashion photographers Bruce Weber and Mario Testino have faced similar allegations.
“Everyone felt uncomfortable saying anything because they were getting away with it forever (it was an) uncomfortable place for agents as well,” Jones said. “They were sending young people sometimes without parents.”
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Though Kramer is outspoken now, the vocal condemnation comes from a place of guilt. She said the flood of allegations against Weinstein made her realize shed been “complicit” through the years.
Kramer said she received a call from a former client in October, who then visited Kramers Massachusetts home to reveal a long-kept secret that she’d been raped as a teen model by a prominent photographer someone who is still active in fashion photography.
“The saddest part about it that experience was that I was the first person she told she had been keeping this to herself her whole life,” Kramer said. “Here he is, one of the biggest photographers in the industry, who God only knows how many woman and possibly men he has abused.”
Sara Ziff, founder of Model Alliance, an organization that helps models and members of the fashion industry report complaints and seek out legal options, has been working toward changing that ethos.
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It’s clear that this is a pervasive problem and in some cases it goes beyond simply being caught off guard and asking to take nude or seminude photos, Ziff told The News. In some cases it’s quite sinister and borders on human trafficking.
Ziff added that her six-year-old organization has received one sexual complaint per week since the Weinstein scandal erupted.
Ahead of NYFW, Ziff spearheaded a major change to the typical runway routine: For the first time, all models will have private changing areas backstage.
The Model Alliance also recently issued a proposal for sexual respect in the industry that included new protocols for filing complaints and methods of raising awareness.
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Show organizer Chalek knows her big display on the fashion week runway Friday night might not change things overnight, but believes awareness can lead to change.
“I have a fashion platform that I can use and if I can use it to share the stories of women who have been victims and are survivors of sexual misconduct and sexual abuse … then of course I will do it,” she said. “It’s my duty as a woman.”