Is 15 Too Young to be on the Runway? The CFDA Thinks So!

Models - particularly those on the runway - seem to be getting progressively younger. Cindy Crawford, the industry icon, started modeling when she was 20. Hailey Steinfeld the face of Miu Miu's Fall/Winter 2011 ad campaign is 14 years old. Thylane Blondeau, the 10-year old that was featured in French Vogue this summer, started in the biz at age 4, walking in a Jean Paul Gaultier show.

For the Council of Fashion Designers of America ("CFDA") I think the last straw was the Urban Outfitters underage model scandal. If you're not familiar, photographer Jason Lee Parry shot Hailey Clauson, a 15-year old model, in March 2010 for an unnamed Los Angeles-based magazine. "She is posed in a blatantly salacious manner with her legs spread, without a bra, revealing portions of her breasts," according to the complaint that Clauson filed against Parry. Urban Outfitters then plastered the image on t-shirts and other items without the model or her parents' approval. In August, the model and her parents filed suit against Parry, the retailer and two other retailers, claiming they never approved their use of the pictures and seeking more than $28 million in damages.

The CFDA subsequently introduced guidelines for New York Fashion Week as part of its Health as Beauty and Diversity campaign to ensure the safety and legality of models in the industry. The guidelines, which are not legally binding, recommend that designers require models to produce a valid ID the day they walk the runway proving that they are at least 16 years old.

You may recall that the CFDA's attempts to put a floor on the age of models haven't been entirely successful in the past. Last year, CFDA president, Diane von Furstenberg, encouraged designers to forego hiring models under age 16. However, according to reports, after her show last season, DVF discovered that 15-year old Hailey Clauson was one of the models who hit the runway. DVF subsequently issued an apology and is reportedly determined not to let it happen again. In late August, DVF and CFDA CEO, Steven Kolb issued a statement saying, “The casting agents for the Diane von Furstenberg show will be [carding models on the day of the show] and we encourage others to do the same." It also noted that all top model agencies had pledged not to send models under 16 for shows.

So, why did 15-year old, Valerija Sestic, walk in more than a dozen shows at NYFW alone this season? Sestic, a Swiss blond of Croatian descent, walked for some of the industries biggest names: Oscar de la Renta, Donna Karan, Tory Burch, Prabal Gurung, Marc by Marc Jacobs and Rodarte. And where is she now? Milan, for the Spring 2012 presentations of Italian designers, including today's D&G show, which is rumored to be the last before Dolce & Gabbana folds its lower end line into its main collection.

Just today, the agent representing Sestic admitted to The Wall Street Journal that the model is, in fact, only 15 years old. A spokesperson for Tory Burch says that Sestic's agency, Women Management, lied that she was 16 to meet the CFDA's new model age requirement. Women Management president, Dejan Markovic, says, "This is never going to happen again from our company. I take full responsibility," she said. The company's website lists Sestic's birth year as 1996.

We will have to wait and see how many more shows Sestic walks in between Milan and Paris fashion weeks. It will also be interesting to see if the CFDA takes any further measures to enforce the age standard in lieu of legal requirements that dictate the required minimum age of runway models.