The Genteel
December 13, 2017
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Louis Vuitton Fall 2013 RTW Runway. Source: vogue.com.

There are few careers that begin around the age of 15 and end some ten years later. While it sounds like an unusual pattern, for models and the companies whose products they advertise, youth is prized. For any industry employing individuals below the legal age of adulthood, there are inevitable complexities that must be overcome; yet for models, whose early years will likely flourish in front of a lens, these issues are even more complex, often including tackling the topics of drug use, potential exploitation, sexual harassment, and unhealthy dieting.

As such, protection of minors wanting to work within the modelling industry has become of paramount importance - particularly for Model Alliance, an organisation that fights for models' rights. This month, their efforts will finally be rewarded. On November 20, New York legislation will expand labour laws to protect underage models and treat them as child performers, a status that is already afforded to actors, singers and dancers under the age of 18.

Claire Cormeau in Flare Magazine in 2005. Source: bwgreyscale.com.
Claire Cormeau in a 2005 editorial for Flare
Magazine, aged 16. Source: bwgreyscale.com.

The legislation will also mandate the number of hours an underage model can work, along with enforcing requirements for on-set tutors and supervisors. "So far, it's been very much a self-regulation thing within the fashion industry," says Ashlee Froese, Fashion Lawyer at Gilberts LLP in Toronto and the owner and operate of canadafashionlaw.com, when speaking with The Genteel.

As she continues, "What we've seen in the last couple of years is a grassroots movement within the modelling industry to create better rights and awareness of the issues of these children. [The New York modelling and fashion industries] realised that modelling is in fact comparable to dancing, stage performance, musicians… it's been elevated to the same status as other entertainment [and] creative industries, which is great."

Froese explains that since the fashion industry is run entirely by adults, when minors get involved in such work, abuse of power can occur; this is often left unreported by models or gets entirely disregarded by agencies, as Model Alliance found within their 2012 industry analysis report.

Meanwhile, Claire Cormeau began modelling at 16 and travelled to New York City for shoots. "I was given guidance by my mother agency in Calgary on how to walk and how to pose in photographs," says 25-year-old Cormeau when speaking to The Genteel. "They told me I needed to think like a businesswoman, which I had no clue how to do at that age. There was a lot of guidance given on how I should look, but less so on how I should survive in the city."

Although Cormeau says it was significantly easier to keep the body measurements required of her at 16, she says there were instances of long hours and unpaid work: "I would start working at 9 a.m. and finish at 3 a.m. This was for 'creatives' to build my portfolio, or even for an advertising campaign, which I never got a cent for."

They told me I needed to think like a businesswoman, which I had no clue how to do at that age. There was a lot of guidance on how I should look, but less so on how I should survive in the city.

It is such working conditions that New York's new labour law will now prohibit. "The employer is going to have to obtain a work-related certificate of eligibility," says Froese, when discussing the model-hiring process. "They are reducing the hours [models] can work and mandating when they can work and how often they can work. They have to be able to have a significant break from the job."

When speaking about this legislation with Julia Rubin at Teen Vogue, Coco Rocha noted that it is "definitely changing fashion history right now." Indeed, it certainly seems that way; however, not all are in favour. 

Myles Sexton is a model, designer, and make-up artist, who began his career in the fashion industry at age 17 in front of the camera. Although he says he was often asked to take his clothes off or was overlooked for jobs after refusing to do "certain things," he thinks having a good head on his shoulders allowed him to follow his dreams at a young age.

"I don't think there should be a law that stops [models] from doing something that helps them get further with their dream," says Sexton, who is now 22, when speaking to The Genteel. "I think [the legislation] might stop certain things from happening, but also, if this law is only in New York, then all of the models in Europe are going to take over because they are going to be able to do [nudity]… I think there are going to be negative effects [and] positive [ones]."

While this law will currently only affect the fashion industry in New York, as Sexton states, the city's climate is so influential, that it is likely this change will gain global traction.

Carole Reynolds, who has been a modelling agent for 27 years and is now the agency director of Sutherland Models in Toronto, offers a comparison between the state of modelling in New York and Canada's largest city: "I think we do have a different industry in Toronto," says Reynolds to The Genteel.

An image from Myles Sexton’s first photo shoot, at age 17. Source: Erin Nicole Photography.

An image from Myles Sexton's first photo shoot, at
the age of 17. Source: Erin Nicole Photography.

As she continues, "We are able to work around our girls' schedules, and we have a smaller industry where we can tell the client: 'she is only 16, her parents are going to be at the shoot, it can't be in the evening, after dark'...whereas in the U.S. market, they don't have the same control, because it's so much bigger and there are so many clients all over the world, and they might not know their clients the way we know ours...It really wouldn't change the way we do business now if that law came up here."

It is not certain whether the international fashion industry will follow New York's legislation, but it does seem that this is a step in the right direction for the North American fashion hub. It will no doubt hugely impact New York Fashion Week in February, encouraging designers to hire models who are aged 18 and over. While this might slow down the careers of younger models, it will more importantly ensure that those who hire underage models are in full compliance with child labour laws.

"The naysayers that say that protecting 13-year-old children is prejudicial to their career has perhaps a very narrow concept of what the real issue is," says Froese. "Maybe now you'll see models that are adults modelling products that are meant for adults. So I think [that] is a very positive development for the fashion industry as a whole."

Related: Vogue's New Rules: A Futile Effort?

Related: Kiddie Couture

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