The selection of models that walked in the February fashion month shows was quite impressive. Some of the biggest names in modeling joined in-demand newer faces on the runways in New York, and while a lot of the models who walk for the various Fashion Weeks are based in Paris, London or some other European city, they travel to New York, many of them just for the castings and shows, before jetting off to the next local (London for most of the girls). Frankly, it is surprising that they make the stop in New York at all, as most are not paid.
While much has been publicized about the newly-enacted New York state law that put in place special arrangements/precautions for models under age 18 (largely thanks to the valiant efforts of the Model Alliance), one thing that has largely gone without remedy: wages. Unlike London, Milan and Paris, New York's major fashion counterparts, the vast majority of designers in New York "pay" their models in trade. This means that in lieu of actual monetary compensation, models are given clothing or accessories. More specifically, they able to select from what Refinery29 referred to as a "a free-for-all at a pile of clothes after the show, or a gift card to shop the brand's own products, sometimes restricted to pieces from several seasons ago." Aside from the few models who travel to New York for free (as one of the few big name designers, who actually pay, picked up the tab on their airfare), it doesn't necessarily make sense for them to take part in NYFW.
Aside from the "exposure" that may result from walking in shows and the chance that they will be booked for an NYC-based brand's ad campaign, there really isn't much money to be made from New York Fashion Week. Unless: you are cast in one of the paying shows (think: Oscar de la Renta, Donna Karan, Calvin Klein, Michael Kors, Lacoste, and a few others). Unfortunately, however, most models just barely break even in New York.
In addition to not being paid for shows, models aren't paid for a bunch of the other stuff they do, too. Sara Ziff, founder of the Model Alliance, explained not long ago that in addition to not being paid for most fashion shows in New York and New York alone, models do not get paid for castings, fittings or travel, nor are they paid overtime for shows. Because models are characterized as independent contractors under U.S. law, they are not subject to the basic employment laws, including minimum wage requirements.
Former model Jenna Sauers wrote for Jezebel a few seasons ago: "Not paying runway models is bad enough. But designers not paying their looks models — the girls [and boys] who spend hours in the studio, doing the unglamorous work of trying on all the garments produced for the collection in however many combinations the designer and stylist deem necessary, performing the emotional labor of working swiftly, professionally and smilingly while a stressed-out design and production team inch closer to killing each other, all absent any explicit promise that their behind-the-scenes efforts will translate into a booking for the much more prestigious runway gig — that's news to me."
Sauers was writing in response to the fact that until quite recently, Marc Jacobs, whose brand is owned by luxury conglomerate LVMH, did not pay his models. This became general knowledge when model Hailey Hasbrook blogged about how she worked over 30 hours for Jacobs during New York Fashion Week in 2012 without being paid. Hasbrook told WWD that she was "paid" in trade: a bag, dress, jacket and shoes. To this, Marc Jacobs initially tweeted: "Models are paid in trade. If they don't want to work w/ us, they don't have to." The designer has since started paying his models. Alexander Wang and Rag & Bone followed suit, as of S/S 2013. According to a piece by Amy Odell, Rag & Bone pays their female runway models in the hundreds of dollars and offers trade in addition. (Note: not every model makes the same rate. More in-demand faces can command more, and girls are paid more than boys). Narciso Rodriguez, Proenza Schouler, and Anna Sui reportedly still do not pay their models.
Some of the models I spoke to (girls, who will remain unnamed) weren't terribly opposed to trade. One girl told me: "I personally like trades. You get really cool clothes which are valued at more than $1000, which is the show rate [for a major NYC show]." The boys, however, didn't exactly share the same sentiment. One said: "I don't come out for the shows. I'm not paying for flights, accommodations, etc. for a pair of shoes." Another told me: "Yeah, New York, where the money is, doesn't pay." One thing that I heard from quite a few of the models that I spoke to, girls and boys: many of them just sell the clothes in exchange for cash. One male model shed some light on this, saying: "I have heard of a lot of models selling the clothes for really low cash to vintage designer stores." And a girl told me: "If you don't like the clothes you get, you can sell them and get more money." Or ... the designers can just pay them.
In an attempt to even the playing field for its models between New York and its international Fashion Week counterparts, Ford and Wilhelmina, two major model management companies in New York, have both independently stopped permitting models to walk in shows for which they are not paid. And I really commend these agencies for doing so! This is a solution to an extent, but its flaws are obvious. One being: other models at agencies (or model management companies, I should say) that allow their models to walk in shows for trade will be cast in the Ford/Wilhelmina models' places, and still, the models are not being paid. So, is the problem actually being solved?
This leads to a common question that arises in the discussion of pay vs. trade; why don't all of the major agencies in New York come together and refuse to allow their models to work for anything but monetary compensation? And while I won't bore or burden you with the technicalities of why this is not likely to happen, the simplest answer is this: that would essentially create a union, and unionizing the modeling industry would pose a myriad of problems of its own. One issue, for instance, stems from the fact that each model is treated as an independent contractor, subject to particular jobs under particular pay rates and terms and conditions negotiated by their agents. These rates and terms and conditions vary quite widely. Thus, standardizing a wage or several classes of wages would be nearly impossible, and in some cases, illegal, per federal and state price fixing laws. However, that doesn't mean nothing can or should be done.
So, what about the designers that aren't Michael Kors or Calvin Klein? I'm talking about the brands that aren't exactly brand new and that have some room in their budgets to pay the models. Some pay, but of those that do, most pay pretty modest amounts, which is perfectly legal as models are independent contractors. Big brands may pay female models between $800 and $1,000, whereas smaller shows will pay around $150. The latter rate is generally the same for girls and boys. Considering that models are expected to attend a fitting prior to the show day, and arrive about two hours before the start of the show (which lasts about 15 minutes) or presentation (which tends to last between one and two hours), that $150 rate is not very substantial if we are taking time into account, but I suppose its a start.
Maybe now that the Model Alliance has managed to break ground on protecting underaged models, their next project will be securing actual monetary payments for models in New York. It seems they are already testing the waters to some extent by way of The Freelancer Payment Protection Act. While this bill would not force designers to pay models, it will protect models and other freelancers in New York from "deadbeat clients" and from wage theft by their agencies.
*This article was initially published in February 2014.