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New York Fashion Week: For The 1st Time, Models Get Private Changing Areas


If you follow fashion, then I don't need to tell you New York Fashion Week kicked off last Thursday. Now it sounds awfully glamorous, so it might surprise you to know that during these shows, models are expected to change in large, open areas with no privacy. And this practice has come into question in part because in the wake of the Me Too movement, both female and male models have raised complaints about sexual harassment, especially by certain top photographers.

So this year, an advocacy group for models and the Council of Fashion Designers have agreed that models will finally have private changing areas. We wanted to hear more about this, so we called Sara Ziff. She is a model and the founding director of Model Alliance. That's the nonprofit advocacy group we just mentioned. She's with us now from New York. Sara Ziff, thank you so much for joining us.

SARA ZIFF: Thanks for having me.

MARTIN: So first, would you describe the scene backstage for those of us who've never been to a high-end fashion show, let alone we've never been backstage? So could you just describe it for us?

ZIFF: The backstage environment at Fashion Week is pretty frenetic. I started working when I was 14 years old every season. Sometimes the backstage photographers are a little pushy and are trying to get their shot and are not mindful of the fact that, you know, we're standing there basically naked in nothing more than a G-string trying to change. And then, you know, there are all kinds of people back there, especially when the show ends. The attendees tend to pour backstage to congratulate the designer, and we're left, you know, trying to put on our clothes.

MARTIN: Has anybody ever asked for privacy before? Has this issue surfaced?

ZIFF: It has come up before. You know, I formed The Model Alliance with the support of other models and various industry stakeholders six years ago in 2012. And one of the first issues we raised was this concern about lack of privacy in the backstage changing areas. There's a bit of a sense that, you know, oh, boo hoo, poor fashion models. You're being paid to look pretty. Now, you know, just be quiet and get on with it.

And, you know, the objectification of models' bodies has really led to models being treated more like props without any consideration for their very human and reasonable concerns for privacy and, you know, dignity back stage. You know, pursuing a modeling career shouldn't be taken as implicit consent for being sexually harassed.

MARTIN: So if you've agreed to model a ball gown, for example, that doesn't give somebody the right to take a picture of you backstage in a thong as you're waiting to put that ball gown on. And that's what you're experiencing here.

ZIFF: Right. Yes. I mean, the model, if she's appearing in a show and is walking down the runway in clothing, has not implicitly given her consent to be photographed nude when she is, you know, trying to change backstage.

MARTIN: How do you feel about - I mean, as you mentioned, you've been in this industry a long time. And you've been fighting for some of these changes for a long time. Do you feel like you're getting somewhere?

ZIFF: One would hope. I feel like for the first time in a long time, people are finally listening. You know, the media landscape has changed, which is a huge part of it. I made a documentary back in 2009 called "Picture Me" which chronicled my and other models' experiences in the industry. And some of us told stories of sexual abuse and assault. And when that film came out, it's kind of interesting to note that The New York Times at the time back in 2010 in their review called it worthless as social commentary, which was extremely upsetting at the time.

And now, of course, The New York Times has championed women, particularly actresses, who have come forward with these allegations against Harvey Weinstein and now male models speaking out about photographers like Mario Testino and Bruce Weber. So I definitely think that, you know, the media has a huge role to play in this. And I think that the industry, you know, people are concerned about reputational risk. And the industry, I think, feels that they need to take these issues more seriously than they have in the past.

MARTIN: That's Sara Ziff. She's the founding director of Model Alliance. And she was kind enough to allow us to call her at home in New York. Sara Ziff, thank you so much for speaking with us.

ZIFF: Thanks so much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.