Image: Vetements

If there is an image synonymous with Vetements, it is one of model Angie Sherbourne seated on a riser in the brand’s studio, her fiery red hair peeking out of a black overcoat, the brand’s famed lighter-heeled boots on her feet. Her hands are resting in a prayer position on her forehead, her lollipop-red tongue sticking out defiantly. Sherbourne was barely 19 years old when the photo was taken in 2014 in Paris by Oliver Hadlee Pearch. She says she pocketed less than $1,000 in cash as part of the deal and was told the image would only appear in the budding young brand’s debut lookbook. It was her first “real” modeling job.

Fast forward to 2019, and that very same image of Sherbourne is still being used by Vetements, which, at 5 years old, has found fans in Kanye West, Kim Kardashian, Selena Gomez, Rihanna, and Beyonce, among other big-names, and whose creative director Demna Gvasalia is moonlighting as the head of Balenciaga.

The Fall/Winter 2014 lookbook, in which the image first appeared, was re-released by the brand in 2016, and with it, Sherbourne’s photo. Beyond that, the image has served as part of a large-scale marketing campaign “around the world,” says Sherbourne, adorning the interior walls of brick-and-mortar stores and the outward-facing windows of others from outposts in Russia to shops in Japan. Still yet, it serves as Vetements’ profile photo on Instagram.

While Sherbourne asserts that all of these uses are outside of the scope of what was originally agreed upon, a formal contract dictating the permissible use(s) of the image was never signed, in large part because she was friendly with the Vetements designers at the time, and also because the deal was done strictly between her former booker (acting outside of his official capacity at Metropolitan Models) and Vetements. Such a scenario, which Sherbourne says came at Vetements’ request,  is not entirely uncommon if a brand and model are working on a “friendly” basis and/or if the brand is looking to pay less than the agency’s established rates.

Sherbourne insists that she did not know she even necessarily needed a contract. Modeling “was very new to me. I had no clue of my rights, or what a normal rate for modeling was.”

Regardless of whether a contract was signed or not, Sherborne alleges that all of the parties verbally agreed that the image would be used exclusively for a single-season lookbook, and not as part of a years-long, global marketing campaign.

Yet, a year after the photo was taken, Sherbourne saw it “in the window of Opening Ceremony’s shop in Tokyo.” Less than two years after that, her booker at Success Models in Paris (who has requested to remain nameless) says the agency “found out that posters [with the image of Sherbourne] were in the shops all over the world.”

“I reached out Vetements to ask them to provide me with a financial proposal for the usage of this picture,” Sherbourne’s booker says. “After many emails went unanswered, I called their office in Switzerland, where someone told me that they had absolutely no intention of paying Angie as she was a ‘friend’ of the house, and that since no agreement had been signed, they can use the picture for as long as they wish.”

She further notes that an individual from the brand “insisted that Angie should be happy to have her image associated with Vetements and that she would get a lot of jobs because of it.” In reality, however, Sherbourne’s booker says Angie has actually been turned down for many jobs because she is being perceived as “the ‘face’ of Vetements.” Many brands have said she was simply “too Vetements” to appear in their campaigns.

“We haven’t heard from [Vetements] since then,” the booker told TFL. “I believe Demna [Gvasalia] had been talking to Angie directly.” Unfortunately, she says, “We couldn’t do much legally as we didn’t do the booking [her previous agency did] and no contract was signed at all.”

As for Sherbourne, she told TFL that Gvasalia did contact her back in 2015. “Demna called me and told me exactly, ‘We are poor, we don’t have this money. If you take the money that Success is asking for from us, we will never be able to work with you again.’”

“They basically manipulated me and threatened [they would] never book me to work with them ever.”

The question remains: is she really without legal recourse due to the lack of a formally drafted and signed contract dictating the use of the image? Maybe not.

There is a chance that Sherborne – who says that at the time of publication, she was still learning about even more stores where her image has been displayed – could establish that there is a verbal contract at play and Vetements breached it. To be exact, Sherborne might be able to argue that by accepting $1,000 and posing for the photo on the premise that Vetements would only use the image for a single-season lookbook and not as part of a larger campaign, she entered into a verbal contract with the brand under French law (which would almost certainly govern the transaction, as that is where the contract was created) as to the scope of usage of her image.

In France, all that is needed to create a contract — i.e. an agreement by which one or more persons obliges to give, to do or not to do something — is the good faith offer and acceptance by which the parties agree to be bound (and that each party entering into the contract has the legal capacity to do so). Contracts generally need not be put in writing (even if that is the practically preferable format). In other words, oral contracts are, for the most part, deemed to be valid and binding in accordance with the French Civil Code, just as they are in the U.S., subject to certain exceptions and limitations, of course.

While Sherbourne has made no mention of initiating litigation, there is a chance that she could pursue Vetements for running afoul of the scope of the contract and seek damages, including any unjust enrichment that Vetements brought in as a result of such allegedly unauthorized use.

Vetements did not respond to multiple requests for comment.