My Job Should Not Include Abuse
"I am writing to you on an important matter. Condé Nast would like to no longer work with the photographer Terry Richardson. Any shoots that have been commissioned or any shoots that have been completed but not yet published, should be killed and substituted with other material." On Monday, October 23rd, at 8:14 am, James Woolhouse – Condé Nast’s Executive Vice President – sent this message to his staff via email. In the midst of the Harvey Weinstein scandal and at the height of the #metoo movement on social media, the parent company of Vogue, Vanity Fair, GQ, and Glamour finally decided to cut ties with the 52-year-old photographer who has repeatedly been accused of sexual misconduct by models.
Tod's SS18, picture by Gio Staiano.
This action prompted praise from some in the industry as a first step to end abuse within fashion – but it also drew criticism for being "too little, too late". To me, it felt mostly – even if Mr. Richardson’s contract arrangements had been in dispute for some time with Condé Nast – an attempt from the publisher to protect its magazines as the Weinstein scandal drew closer and closer to home (reporters were starting to inquire into the Hollywood mogul’s close working relationship with Anna Wintour. From there, to exposing why the group had kept employing Richardson regularly, even after the sexual exploitation allegations of 2014, and all hell breaking loose, there was only a step).
Terry Richardson’s case might be the most high-profile one within the fashion industry, but it is by no means exceptional. Abuse – sexual and otherwise – is rife here. Within five minutes of asking, via social media, for help with this piece, I was confronted with 15 emails and calls of people wanting to tell me about their experiences. Models, editors, stylists, assistants, and PRs generously and bravely opened up to me and overwhelmed me with a flood of horror stories.
There was the celebrated Italian womenswear and haute couture designer who once locked away an intern for a whole day because "she was ugly". The model who remembered how, at a legendary French maison, the team had bandaged her breasts during a fitting because the acclaimed designer "does not like boobs," and how casting director Maïda Gregory-Boïna once spent a whole casting making fun of her looks and her walk. The editor whose boss justified her demotion by coldly stating: "you are like last season’s it-bag. I really wanted you, but now you no longer fit my wardrobe, so I’m putting you away". The niche magazine Editor-In-Chief who forced his team to go on a vegetarian diet, and another Italian designer – at the helm of a luxury French brand until recently – who systematically inquired, "are you totally sure you need that one more forkful?" upon seeing members of his team eating. The PR who witnessed male model prostitution during fashion week castings. And the male model who was forced to strip to his underwear in front of casting directors when there was no nudity whatsoever involved in the job.
Paul & Joe SS18, picture by Gio Staiano.
But almost as bad as the stories was our own reaction to them: "I have no crazy stories, really," a model said to me before recalling the time when an editor of Italian Elle refused to put her in a shoot or even to talk to her because she wasn’t white. The truth is abuse and harassment have become normalized in fashion. "You go in expecting it. You are told you’ll have to work day, night, weekends, and holidays, often for no money at all. You know you’ll endure berserk bosses, you’ll be yelled at, belittled, treated like an object. And you’ll put up with it for the glamour and the dream of working in fashion," said my friend.
"We put up with so much crazy shit for no reason whatsoever," pondered another one of my friends over tea. "And as Michel Foucault said, screaming is not even necessary, as long as fear and constant surveillance are fully internalized. That’s what happens in fashion. It’s like the court of Louis XIV, or a totalitarian regime. There are a million ridiculous rules that no one understands, yet we all play by them. Most of the time I feel like I’m at some sort of Mad Hatter’s tea party." "Fear" is the key word, and it is omnipresent. Proof: every single one of the people who confided in me chose to do so anonymously, out of fear of retaliation or becoming unemployable in the industry. It is that fear which encourages harassment and abuse. And according to James Scully – the casting director whose name was on everyone’s lips last February when he revealed abusive and discriminatory behaviors towards models at Lanvin and during a Balenciaga casting by Maïda and Rami – it’s getting worse. "I’ve been in this business for 30 years and I’ve watched the level of cruelty escalate over the last six or seven years," he said on an interview with British Vogue.
Fausto Puglisi SS18, picture by Gio Staiano.
"In the old days, if a girl didn’t want to do a job, if she felt sexually harassed, she could say, ‘No, I don’t want to do this.’ Now it’s ‘Either you do my show or you don’t work again.’" "It’s got to do with the way the fashion industry is evolving. There’s too much product, and too much competition. Too many underage girls suddenly thrown in a world of booze and parties in Paris, living in model apartments and getting as little as 100 € a week of pocket money. And so they will feel compelled to make hasty decisions, like choosing a job solely for the money or going to fashion week after-parties with shady nightlife characters because it means a free meal," a model friend said to me.
But none of this is new, and we keep accepting it for fear of seeming rude or, God forbid, "difficult." We also keep excusing it, celebrating the culprits because – as Jo-Ann Furniss recently said in an interview with 1Granary – we "forgive talented people anything," as if we were suffering from some sort of collective Stockholm syndrome ("Oh, but he’s a genius," a designer at a major Paris house once told me after admitting the creative director repeatedly humiliated her for her choice of clothes and appearance). We also keep putting up with it because money. "The minute money is at stake, everything else disappears. Business always comes before people, it’s a no-brainer," a PR who has worked for several major firms in the industry cynically told me. He had a reason to feel cynical: in this Trumpian era, how are we to expect any changes for the better? Nothing I have said in this piece is new; and nothing will come as a surprise to anyone who has worked in fashion. The predators and perpetrators will continue to do their thing, safe in the assumption that they are "talented" and raking in the cash. Until we no longer tolerate it. Which is why being aware of it, talking about it, and knowing most of us feel the same way about it is a good first step towards saying it, loud and clear: our job should not include abuse.