Adwoa Aboah at Gurls Talk festival in New York, via @gurlstalk
Even more than a monumental rally for evasive sexual harassment protocol, the #MeToo movement has taught the fashion industry a valuable lesson about creating safe and supportive work environments. Thanks to the brave voices of models and assistants who came forward to demand an end to exploitation and unethical behaviour, we are finally starting to look out for one another and not just focus on our own career trajectories. In an industry where hierarchy is taken very seriously and often used to justify toxic work environments, the #MeToo moment has forced even some of the most established fashion companies to listen to their employees’ voices and reevaluate the importance of community in the industry.
#MeToo first reached the industry in the fall after the first allegations against legendary photographers Bruce Weber and Mario Testino. Following publication of stories from models Mark Ricketson and Jason Boyce about forced touching by Weber while on set, the flood gates for stories of unacceptable treatment in fashion businesses were opened. Model and activist Cameron Russell began the #myjobshouldnotincludeabuse campaign, sharing close to 80 harrowing, anonymous stories of abusive behaviour and trauma in the fashion industry. The common thread between many of these stories were that they mostly happened to models, interns, and styling or photography assistants, jobs that are often filled by young women under 25 who are underpaid, overworked, and desperate to work, making them vulnerable targets for unchecked exploitation. Models, interns, and assistants are not only at the very bottom of the fashion hierarchy, but they also often operate alone and spend a lot of time liaising with strangers who have more power than them. Long and intense hours also put a strain on personal relationships, resulting in a lack of a solid support group when distress arises. What’s more is that within the industry itself, there is a pervasive attitude of competitiveness that positions assistants and interns as competitors rather than colleagues or partners.
Responding to the cry for change from within the industry as well as a scathing exposée by the Boston Globe’s Spotlight team, adding names like Patrick Demarchelier and Victoria Secret’s Greg Kadel to the list of alleged sexual abusers, policy changes have been implemented almost industry wide. From Condé Nast banning accused photographers, or installing mandatory private changing areas for models at New York Fashion Week, sweeping policy changes have been implemented to address the crisis. Whether this is just publicity or rhetoric (much like BMI restrictions have been used to unsuccessfully curb eating disorders at fashion week) is yet to be seen, but the proposed initiatives are a drastic change in course from an industry that has knowingly allowed predatory behaviour to continue for decades.
#MeToo has also been a chance for organizations like The Model Alliance, Model Mafia, Gurls Talk, and Women in Fashion to gain traction and amplify their messaging. It has been part of a powerful reminder, embraced by these collectives, that we are stronger united than divided, and that no one should go through their career feeling ostracised or alone – especially if they are being mistreated. Power in numbers - particularly for women and minorities – is an empowering antidote to traditional structures where authority is concentrated among wealthy, white industry veterans. These organizations are using their platforms to share stories and rally around people who need and deserve more support. Organizations like Gurls Talk, the brainchild of Adwoa Aboah that advocates for young women, has even hosted two IRL “Gurls Talk Festival” events; the latter, held in New York this month, featured panel talks on #metoo, mental health, and race. Women supporting women isn’t just a trend – it is a radical subversion of structures that have benefitted from keeping women small, unheard, and isolated.
In contrast to the sometimes shallow “diverse” image that the industry has commercialised in recent memory, #MeToo has required a more personal reckoning with behaviour that we have all experienced – whether sexually exploitative, or emotionally, financially, or verbally – and commanded structural, not just superficial, action. The call for putting women and minorities behind the scenes and not just in front of the camera has been repeated time and time again, and with the ousting of the old guard of predatory white dudes, there is finally a host of vacant spaces demanding to be filled by the vibrant women, people of colour, and all who have put in their time fighting to make the industry more inclusive. Caring isn’t just cool – it’s critical. Creativity is so much stronger when it is collaborative, not only because of the plurality of ideas, but because people feel safe taking chances and risks when they are in the right community.
Next steps for the fashion industry in continuing with the zeitgeist of solidarity and togetherness are to keep thinking of how our actions affect those who don’t have visibility and power – from unpaid interns to the women and children who make our clothes, almost always in unacceptable conditions. Fashion’s reckoning with abuse has to go further than looking out for the women that we see on covers and in campaigns, and in order to be effective, must also reach those whose stories and names we don’t know.