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Sashaying for slave wages

Sep 28. 2018
Away from the glamour of walking the world’s top catwalks, models find themselves deep in debt./AFP
Away from the glamour of walking the world’s top catwalks, models find themselves deep in debt./AFP
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By Agence France-Presse

Fashion models, many of them up to their eyes in debt, speak out about catwalk misery

THEY APPEAR to be living the dream, walking the catwalks of Paris, New York and Milan in the most beautiful clothes money can buy.

But behind the glamour and the travel, many models are earning mere “pocket money”, tied by debt to agencies and afraid to admit what they owe.

“The worst thing is that it is impossible to talk about because in this industry people only want to work with ‘successful’ girls,” says 26-year-old Clara, who has appeared in Vogue and walked for uber-hip labels like Prada, Rick Owens and Comme des Garcons.

Away from the glamour of walking the world’s top catwalks, models find themselves deep in debt./AFP

The London-based model, who is deeply in debt to her agencies in New York and Paris, only agreed to talk to AFP of the trap she and many of her colleagues have fallen into if her name was changed, fearing she might never get work again.

Other models say that they are often paid in clothes and handbags and that they are “almost never paid” for fashion magazine shoots.

The model rights group Model Law, which was set up earlier this year in Paris, confirms debt is a bigger taboo than sexual harassment since the #MeToo movement lifted the lid on abuse.

The group’s co-founder Ekaterina Ozhiganova, a Paris catwalk regular, says the time has come “to put an end to the years of abuse, dubious practices and the flouting of labour laws.”


Clara, who began modelling when she was still at school, says that on her first Paris fashion week “my agency gave me a car (for castings) which I was sharing with other models from the big Airbnb apartment they had put us in.

“It was only later that I learned that I was paying 300 euros ($350) a day for the driver. I had signed the contract and I was 3,000 euros in debt” by the end of the week, she adds.

“Later I did New York fashion week. Every model from overseas starts by going into debt because the work visa is very expensive.

“Then you stay in a ‘models’ apartment’ which your agency charges you $50 a night for a room you share with three others. When the castings started I got really sick and therefore missed most of them, so I ended up going home $8,000 (Bt259,000) in the red,” she adds. 

Yet she insists her “situation is not particularly bad”.

“I am still in debt to my agencies in Paris and New York although I have since done many jobs through them. For instance I was in a big Paris show which had a 1,100-euro (Bt41,500) fee, of which I got only 400. And I didn’t see any of that because it was taken off my debt.”

Despite her difficulties, Clara stresses that she is doing better than most models “who are 16, hardly speak English and come from poor backgrounds.”


Two highly experienced US models described being “slaves” to debt, with agencies at times talking the lion’s share of their earnings.

East European and Brazilian girls – who now dominate castings – are the most vulnerable to exploitation and get the rawest deal.

One 24-year-old American model who has appeared in Dior, Issey Miyake, Balmain and Off-White shows, says debt had also shaped her personal life.

She adds that she has taken a “professional decision to only go out with men who are rich enough to support me,” something that “sits awkwardly with my feminism”.

Ozhiganova, 26, hopes that Model Law can help “break through” the fear of speaking out in an industry “where you are quickly labelled as difficult if you ask questions.

“People imagine models earn lots of money, but that is absolutely not true. It’s only the case for about two percent of girls”, with male models even worse paid, she says,

The group explains unpaid work was the bane of models’ lives. “Only rarely are people paid for modelling for magazines even though it takes hours of work,” Ozhiganova says. 

“Okay, it’s prestigious, but how are you going to pay your rent?”

Model Law, which is in talks with a French union, has already met with Synam, the body that represents French model agencies.

Synam’s chief Isabelle Saint-Felix admits that Model Law has “some justified demands” including that employment regulations should be translated into English given that most models working in Paris do not speak French.

However, she questions how representative the group is. “They have to narrow their claims and not make general demands,” she stresses.

The treatment of models has become a hot potato for the big luxury brands after New York casting agent James Scully blew the whistle last year on the way some were treated at “cattle call” castings.

The incident prompted the two French fashion giants LVMH and Kering – who own some of fashion’s biggest names – to join forces to create a charter to combat mistreatment.

The new rules also banned the use of ultra-thin models and those under 16.


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