Model Alliance Debuts at Mercedes-Benz Fashion Week

February 16, 2012 Updated: February 20, 2012
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A model walks the runway for the St. John Fall 2012 fashion show. Models of different ethnicities often face blatant discrimination and can now share their perspectives of the modeling industry in the Model Alliance online forum. (Arun Nevader/Getty Images)

Models were on display recently at Mercedes-Benz Fashion Week in New York—but on runways only.

In a proactive move to protect models in an industry that often leaves them vulnerable, the Model Alliance assures models that someone has their backs. With a newly drafted Models’ Bill of Rights in place, the alliance aims to enhance the vitality and moral standing of the fashion business as a whole.

And designer Diane von Furstenberg, president of the Council of Fashion Designers of America (CFDA), is on board.

In fact, she recently worked with the alliance during Fashion Week, a high-profile global fashion event that just ended on Thursday, Feb. 16, to implement a rule that clears the backstage area of photographers and non-essential staff when models have to change clothes, according to an article in The Huffington Post.

Launched to coincide with Fashion Week, the Model Alliance was founded in 2011 by Sara Ziff, a former model who started her career at age 14, with the support of fellow models and the Fashion Law Institute at Fordham Law School. It establishes specific guidelines protecting models’ basic rights like fair labor standards, as well as enforcing financial transparency and redress for issues of sexual harassment, among others.

According to Ziff on the Model Alliance website: “Our goal is to work with progressive modeling agencies to give models in the U.S. a voice in their workplace and organize to improve their basic working conditions in what is now an almost entirely unregulated industry. How the industry treats its models influences the ideal presented in the magazines, and these images have a powerful, far-reaching effect on women in general.”

Restoring moral codes and bringing the humanity back to the modeling industry seem to be on the forefront of their agenda.

In an article on’s Today Style, Susan Scafidi, director of the Fashion Law Institute at New York’s Fordham University and an alliance board member, said: “Models have won the genetic lottery. They are tall, they are beautiful, they get paid for walking.”

Added Scafidi, “But they are human beings, they are not coat hangers.”

While the mission statement does “encourage a safe and healthy work environment that protects models’ mental and physical well-being,” some bloggers on the website hope that the alliance will eventually advocate more resolutely over issues like eating disorders.

Some fashion shows in Spain and Italy have already refused to hire models unless their weight remains a healthy standard, based on the Body Mass Index or BMI, which measures models’ weight and height.

Since 2007, the CFDA has formulated a health initiative to address these concerns, and is updating it this year to state that models must be 16 or older to walk the catwalk.

Since many models embark on their careers in their teens, the Model Alliance also supports the enforcement of existing child labor and contract laws.

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Sara Ziff, founder of the Model Alliance (Stephen Lovekin/Getty Images for Picture Me)

“When you’re talking about a labor force of kids, which most of them are, that should be a red flag,” Ziff says on the Model Alliance website. “Minors often putting in long hours without rest or meal breaks, and dropping out of school to be able to work for free: There are so many levels of wrong there.”

Though the group has mainly received positive feedback, some people are still unconvinced of its ability to be effective.

One post from the mother of a model states on the site: “Kudos for writing this charter of rights, but models will still be expected to work unreasonable hours, have photo shoots in the back of sweatshops, and be ripped off by their agencies. The business is run by people who will never see your charter; people who will listen to a model’s demands and then hire a girl who won’t complain.”

The overwhelming attitude, though, is that change needs to start somewhere, and that this forum is a great place to begin.

“Correcting these abuses starts with seeing models through a different lens: not as dehumanized images, but as workers who deserve the same rights and protections as anyone else,” Ziff says on the website.

A recent response posted by a woman named Sarah on Feb. 12 agrees: “I think that this beyond anything is a reasonable start. I have worked as a model for 15 years, I’m now 30 … Where do I sign up?!”