On the first day of the most recent Paris Fashion Week, the world was confronted with a rather gruesome image of the fashion industry. 150 models allegedly locked in a dark stairwell for over three hours by casting agents Maida and Ramy who went out for lunch — the incident was publicised by top casting agent James Scully who condemned the mistreatment on his Instagram. You'd probably imagine models waiting to be picked to walk for Balenciaga (the brand has swiftly dropped the casting agents who subsequently denied the accusations) as incredibly glamorous and successful, but the reality of 150 bodies cramped in darkness showed the job can be demeaning and degrading, jarring with general public perception of what modelling is like. The scandal exposed the tip of the iceberg in the fashion industry's frequent abuse of models — yet the will to speak out might finally signify the much-needed change.
While the autumn/winter 17 season had its lows, it also had some bright moments. Somebody snapped a note at the Issey Miyake show backstage which read: "Message to beautiful models: Be fresh, strong, energetic and sparkling! Let's have a great show!" Finally, in 2017, models are starting to be perceived as living breathing humans, and this change doesn't only concern fashion — it is vital in terms of today's feminist struggle.
Model labour is one of the foundations of the fashion industry — but paradoxically, while constantly exposed on the catwalk and through countless photoshoots, models often remain invisible. Taken for granted and treated as props, models become most visible when they fall. From people calmly photographing Bella Hadid's fall at theMichael Kors show in 2016 to the enduring obsession with Naomi Campbell tripping in Vivienne Westwood platform shoes in 1993, this is a perfect metaphor for a model's position within the fashion industry and wider society. If we look back at scandals involving models in the past, we would mostly see cases of personal vices — Kate Moss accused of taking cocaine, Naomi Campbell assaulting her housekeeper — as if a redemption for all their beauty and success. The uproar which followed the Madia & Ramy accusations was a completely different story.
The image of a fashion model is the one of a great significance to contemporary consumerist culture: she is a dream, an unattainable ideal, a paragon of beauty — and consequently a symbol of oppression for many women who strive all their lives to be like her and inevitably fail. This is the reason, perhaps, why models have never been enough of a focus of the feminist movement — although they could definitely do with some support. Often starting out as teenagers or young adults, they face pressures on mental and physical health, sexual harassment and abuse of work rights. Fashion's consumerist attitude towards models' bodies often mean a planned obsolescence at the age of 25. Now think again and step back to see the larger picture: this is exactly what most women face every day around the world — ageism, racism, vulnerability and invisibility of their labour.
The attitude to models' bodies and labour could be traced throughout the profession's history. Modelling started inside the 19th century's Paris couture salons. Showcasing clothes on people had the benefit of presenting it in motion, although essentially models acted like live mannequins. In the 20th century, when fashion photography became mainstream, the industry truly boomed, producing the first supermodels: Lisa Fonssagrives in the 1940s, Dorian Leigh and Suzy Parker in the 1950s and London's game-changers Twiggy and Jean Shrimpton in the 60s. Uber-successful models manifested their eras' beauty ideals, and the ones of 80-90s still influence pop culture today. Naomi Campbell, Linda Evangelista, Tatjana Patitz, Christy Turlington, and Cindy Crawford fooling around in George Michael's Freedom! '90 is perhaps the ultimate supermodel moment. Every supermodel who's entered stardom since then — Kate Moss, Gisele Bündchen, Heidi Klum, Cara Delevingne, Bella Hadid — is treated according to the rules of celebrity culture. But the role and status of a supermodel in contemporary society is changing: today they choose to be activists fighting for those who continue to work in total anonymity and obscurity, who are seen and not heard.
Today's supermodels are the faces of struggle for equality and diversity, showing that every body comes with history — a history of pain, struggles and challenges. Hanne Gaby Odiele came out as intersex earlier this year, and is now a major advocate for the rights of the group. "The more people share their story, the more the world understands and accepts intersex people, this is why I am speaking out and sharing my story," she told i-D. Celebrated transgender model Hari Nef became the face of the struggle for trans visibility both in the fashion industry and beyond. Often asked about the so-called "trans moment" in fashion, what she said in an interview with The New Yorker summed up the currently situation perfectly: "There isn't a trans moment. If anyone's having a moment, it's white cis men."
London's rising star Adwoa Aboah is another role model for an emerging generation of girls. She has spoken openly on the experience of depression and addiction, and runs Gurls Talk, a community and support network for women to share and discuss issues they're facing every day. Model, artist and photographer Myla Dalbesio tirelessly promotes diversity in terms of body types — she first got exposure after a heated discussion about whether woman sized 12-14 should be called plus-size — and launched a platform Our Stories, Ourselves, a place for women to speak out openly on the most pressing issues in Trump's America and beyond.
"Our Stories was a reaction to our frustration and dissatisfaction with the ways in which women are talked about and treated," Myla explained over email. "We wanted to create a safe space for women to continue to tell their stories and have their voices heard."
The wave is rising: not only is the necessity to battle misogyny and mistreatment within the fashion industry a pressing issue, the problem is much broader than that. The models' body in the public eye becomes a battleground — but the battle is fought for every woman.
Text Anastasiia Fedorova