Friday, June 19, 2009

Ethics in the fashion industry

Most of the stuff that gets written about ethics in the fashion industry tends to focus either on fur, or on its effects on consumers, and especially the damage it can do to the self-esteem and body image of young girls. Those who work in the industry tend to get pretty ignored by the ethics community. Outside of the well-publicised supermodel tantrum, or the occasional rumour of drug taking, the working lives of models are essentially off-stage and out of sight. Most of us probably assume that the fantastic clothes, the famous faces, the glamorous locations, and the stratospheric salaries make modelling one of the best jobs in the world.

However, the release of the documentary Picture Me, which is just hitting the festival circuit now, looks set to lift the lid on the darker side of the modelling world. Made by Sarah Ziff, a model turned documentary maker, and co-director Ole Schell, the film chronicles the high pressure, exploitative, and sometimes abusive environment faced by professional models. It also, perhaps more controversially, provides us with a glimpse into the highly sexualized, predatory pressures that models experience, even as young teenagers. The film is already getting noticed, probably because its maker is already a familiar face in the fashion industry. The UK's Observer newspaper ran a feature on it a couple of weeks ago which ended up on the cover of their magazine. The doc also won best film and best fashion film at the Milan International Film festival recently.

Ziff is clearly a true industry insider, having been discovered on the street by a photographer when she was 14, and then going on to become the face of numerous global brands such as Calvin Klein, Tommy Hilfiger, Dolce & Gabbana and Gap. In her time, she has worked for all the top designers including Marc Jacobs, Stella McCartney, Louis Vuitton, Gucci, and Chanel. Along the way, she obviously made a huge amount of money. But these experiences also provided her with extraordinary access to life behind the scenes of the fashion industry.... and an opportunity to tell the story of what goes on backstage in all its warts and all glory. By putting cameras in the hands of the models themselves, she was also able to give voice to those who, as the film’s myspace page puts it, ‘are often seen, but rarely heard’. As such, the film presents a sincere and engaging look inside the working life of models, documenting both the rewards and sacrifices that young women have to make.

In addition to Ziff and her fellow models, the film also features appearances and in-depth interviews with noted photographers and designers. By stitching these various accounts together Ziff and Schell create a frank account of various ethical issues confronting the industry such as age, anorexia, working conditions … and of course the exorbitant salaries earned by top models. It also brings to light the surprising lack of regulation and protection governing the industry.

In fact, the film itself is part of a nascent attempt by some models to bring greater visibility and protection into modelling. As the Observer article mentions, a handful have started writing behind-the-scene blogs chronicling their daily lives in intimate detail. A successful 2007 campaign by two models, Victoria Keon-Cohen and Dunja Knezevic, also led to the opening up of the actor’s union Equity to catwalk and photographic models for the first time.

We're hoping the film makes it and gets a wider release - it certainly should do given some of the star power behind it, even if it was made on a shoestring budget. It's not so much that no one knew there was all kinds of dodgy stuff going on in the modelling industry. But by putting it up there on the screen in such an honest and intimate way, Ziff looks to be making a valuable contribution to the debate.


  1. Thanks for calling attention to this fascinating documentary film.
    Your posting reminds me of an article I read recently in the Atlantic (May 2009) called, "Fashion in Dark Times," which has a somewhat-related discussion regarding ethics in the fashion world, and the direction of the industry in these changing times. You can check out the article here:

  2. Thanks for the link Meghan. Yes, the consumer and design side of fashion have certainly seen some developments too - or as it puts it in the Atlantic article a "values correction", though who can say that it will really be as final as Schwarz suggests. Fashion has a way of reinventing itself pretty quickly in a way that tends to be more like business as usual than radical overhaul. We'd like to be proved wrong though...

  3. Thank you for sharing this story. Everyone should read this post. Calling everyone on this industry. We should read this post. Fashion ethics is very important.

  4. My name is Khalia Wilkinson and I am a Health & Wellness Life Coach for the Fashion Industry. I goggled "fashion marketing ethics" for a hmwk assignment and came across this blog. I'm SO glad that I did! I have been looking for something like this. I believe that addressing the ethical/health concerns in the Fashion Industry like anorexia-nervosa is LONG overdue! Thank you for your insight; this motivates me to continue to press forward, shinning light on these "behind the scenes" issues and concerns!


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