Omerta and Silence in the Fashion Industry

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Photography by Bruce Weber

Mario Testino photographs Diana for Vanity Fair Magazine

Omerta – Silence in the World of Fashion

The fashion industry is like the Mafia. We have all taken an oath of omerta – silence in the face of criminal activity. We need to break this oath now. On Sunday 13th January the New York Times did exactly this and ran a story which rocked the fashion world. Mario Testino and Bruce Weber, two outstanding and talented photographers, were accused by 13 models, of sexual abuse. I was asked to comment on this story by Sky News and you can see the interview above. There have been rumours and rumblings in the fashion community for some time re the above photographers, butto read this in The New York Times, brilliantly covered by Vanessa Friedmann, Jacob Bernstein and Matthew Schneier was a shock. The reason for this shock was not the allegations, but the fact that for so many years the fashion industry has been beholden to no one and nothing save a great photo and the consequent selling of clothing. The end justified the means. What happened on set, stayed on set. There is no doubt at all in my mind that the entire industry needs a strong wake-up call, and we all need to look at ourselves and see what we can do and, most importantly, what we can say to make the industry one that we can be proud of.

Post Weinstein, there is a feeling that things are changing, and as women, we all welcome this change. As we have seen, abuse is not limited to the female sex and any abuse anywhere is sickening. So what is to be done? There are a few strong voices speaking out about the fashion industry and needs for guidelines to be set out, , one being Models Alliance, run by ex-model Sara Ziff http://modelalliance.org/ who are doing an outstanding job of organising a voice and changing the law in the US, and being a go-to place for models and people within the industry to turn to.  James Sulley, Edward Siddons and Caryn Franklin have also spoken out, most recently on BBC Radio 4, a recording of which you can listen to below. While I salute all these great people for being in the front line and calling out abuse and disrespect, I cannot help but think that all of this, Modelâ€s Alliance work apart, relies on self-regulation and the very people who are perpetrators of abuse are not self-regulating, they are motivated bypower and are amoral. What we need is a body with teeth, entrenched in law. We need a union and possibly the best way forward is to join an existing one.

How does abuse happen in the industry?

It’s really very simple. Agents want their artists and models to work with big photographers who can get the huge campaigns which pay the most. Brands wish to work with photographers who can translate their brand DNA into incredible imagery which shifts clothes off the rails. This is where the mafia part comes in as it’s a case of you scratch my back and l’ll claw yours and no one will ever talk about this. No severed horses heads appear in bed, but for the few who complained, they were ignored at best and blacklisted at worst. A small but destructive group of photographers start believing they are God’s anointed ones, their egos become huge to the point where they think they are above everything and everybody, they behaved badly without any consequence and some really believed they will not actually need to die. I have to state that the majority of photographers are great to work with and professional, but the slimeballs do exist and have been allowed to do so through our silence.

But what would really work, right now, to stop this abuse of young models and people working within the industry? Let’s take a look at what works elsewhere. If you have an accident at work, or if something happens which is outside the law, employees can seek the protection of the law. Therefore it follows that if an agent sends a model or stylist or makeup artist into a situation whereby they know that the photographer is likely to be abusive they should be sued. They are agents, not pimps. Likewise the client. Many big brands have used photographers like Terry Richardson on shoots. Having worked in the industry most of my adult life, I know that on advertising shoots, the client is generally present, and if not, they are represented by the art director. Why use photographers who are serial offenders? They do so because these photographers can communicate the DNA of the brand’s image which then sells their clothes and its all about the money. One highly visible successful court action would stop a great deal of bad behaviour overnight and trust me, the majority of board directors, the CEO’s and other captains of industry only care about what goes on during a shoot when it hurts their brand or hits their bottom line.

To take a huge name to court is intimidating for most people, and not to say expensive given that agents, brands and photographers will have indemnity insurances which cover legal fees. Therefore the lack of money and protection for industry workers is a huge mitigating factor. More so is the fact that to take a brand or agent to court is to commit financial suicide. You will not work in this industry again and as much as people would love to speak out, there is the mortgage to pay. However, I believe that should such a case come to light, big swathes of the industry would privately contribute to any Crowdfunding, GoFundMe or JustGiving page so that it could be possible for an individual to take on a big company. But what is needed is a union which protects all its members and which is compulsory within the industry.

There are some green shoots. Along with Ms Wintour, Vogue Magazine have created a new code of conduct for their shoots. The initiative was spearheaded by Mr Sauerberg and Jonathan Newhouse, chief executive of Conde Nast International, which will also adopt the code which includes no alcohol on set, nudity to be detailed and agreed prior to the shoot, and that models are not left alone with photographers and any other crew. They will also not work with models younger than 18 years old. Hearst Magazines also have taken action. Two of the biggest companies in the business have also taken action, with Kering and LVMH stating there will be zero tolerance of any abuse on their shoots, and this in fairness to them, was initiated prior to the Weinstein scandal.

While I welcome any change for the good, I cannot help but think that this is all too convenient, based on self-protection and much too late. Anna Wintour has been the figurehead of Vogue for many years. She must have known or heard that things were not as they should be, and there has been a culture of turning a blind eye for too many years. If she genuinely did not know, then she is not in control of her business. Ms Wintour thus belongs to the old guard and I think she should fall on her Prada heels and leave the industry. This applies to all of us who say and do nothing. Omerta does not wash in our brave new post-Weinsteingate world.