The fashion industry loves to champion charitable causes, but is sexual abuse just another scandal-turned-stunt?
Last week, fashion house Alaïa announced that it would be hosting a book party on June 20 for the coffee table tome “Azzedine, Bruce, Joe” at its Paris headquarters, according to Page Six. The late Azzedine Alaïa will obviously not be in attendance, but stylist Joe McKenna and the infamous photographer Bruce Weber will be there to autograph copies of the book.
In an exposé by the New York Times in January, more than 15 male models and industry professionals spoke out against Weber. The big time photographer was accused of sexually assaulting a number of men throughout his career. And oh, was it illustrious: Weber became famous for his sex-fueled ad campaigns shot for clients like Abercrombie & Fitch, Calvin Klein, and Ralph Lauren.
According to the Times’s report, many of the accusations brought against Weber were strikingly similar. Their stories involved a common theme of nude “breathing exercises.” Weber found these to be an important part of his mentorship. Others who shared their stories remembered the photographer actually groping their genitals. None of this ever prevented Weber from continuing to find work.
But as the Times also pointed out, Weber wasn’t the only “bad actor” in the fashion and art worlds who got away with risky business. Terry Richardson and Mario Testino are two of Weber’s prominent peers that are notorious for the same types of offenses. To date, none of their alleged actions have stopped them from working with some of the world’s top models, brands, and magazines.
Naturally, Richardson, Testino, and Weber all deny the allegations against them. And most of the models’ stories are anonymous, which makes even them harder to prove. For a model, speaking out against a photographer used to mean not booking the next job, or worse, never working again. This fear persists decades later.
It seemed like the fashion narrative shifted when the Harvey Weinstein scandal broke in November. But fast forward only months later, and an alleged sexual predator is being honored for his achievements—with a book, no less. If book party launches are still the barometer for success (as they often are in fashion), then “Azzedine, Bruce, Joe” proves the industry’s tolerance for sexual abuse hasn’t actually changed all that much.
If anything, the fear of these accused men has propelled them further ahead in their careers, which begs the question: Has fashion already forgiven, or stopped caring about, sexual abuse?
Anna Wintour’s ready to bury the old hatchet, for one. In the May issue of Vogue, Wintour dedicated her Editor’s Letter to Georgina Chapman—Harvey Weinstein’s ostracized ex-wife, and the co-founder of the red carpet dress label Marchesa.
Marchesa was blacklisted by both Hollywood and the fashion industry after the Weinstein scandal surfaced. Only recently, when Scarlett Johannsen wore a red Marchesa dress to the Met Gala, did the blackout end. Wintour’s Vogue letter, titled “Georgina Chapman breaks her silence,” echoed Johannsen’s sentiments, and suddenly people were being asked to acquit Ms. Weinstein.
The Cut’s editor-in-chief Stella Bugbee wrote an incisive piece about Wintour’s request for forgiveness, titled, “Who Is Anna Wintour Asking Us to Forgive in Her Editor’s Letter?” An excerpt from her story hits the nail solidly on the head:
“Wintour positions herself alongside Chapman: They were two women close to Harvey who both claimed to know nothing of his crimes but benefitted from association with his power. [sic] By asking us to forgive and forget for Chapman, Wintour asks that we do the same for her,” Bugbee writes.
And she’s right. The undertones of Wintour’s letter read like an admission of guilt—this is the same woman who pulls all of the major strings in the worlds of fashion and entertainment. Circles at the top are small, I imagine, so the idea that Anna Wintour never heard a word about Weinstein’s misdeeds is difficult to fathom. And by turning a blind eye, it’s almost as bad as committing the crime itself.
“If you don’t want to have your pants pulled about, don’t become a model! Join a nunnery, there’ll always be a place for you in the convent. They’re recruiting even!,” Chanel and Fendi creative director Karl Lagerfeld recently told fashion magazine Numéro in an interview.
Obviously an extremist, Lagerfeld’s blunt words had people wide-eyed when the interview dropped in April. Variations of, “did he actually say that?” were all I heard about for days after.
Despite what fashion’s forefathers have to say, though, the outlook is not all doom and gloom… A New York City model alliance is materializing, which should provide model’s with some agency to unionize and protect themselves against sexual abuse. Has it gained any traction? Not to my knowledge. And, not to be overly critical, but, why would it?
Brands and publishers don’t stand to gain much from restricting other business relationships for one, or even groups of models. Consider the short lifespan of a model’s career. Every single established and aspiring model in the world would have to band together in order to call the shots.
Until models can monopolize all of the beauty in the world, an alliance probably won’t stop the problem. So, what will it take to end sexual abuse in the fashion industry? Or, maybe more importantly: do the fashion industry’s top players even care about finding a solution? It’s hard to say.
For one, we must acknowledge that the fashion industry is a (lucrative) mirage built upon the cliché principle that “sex sells,” because, frankly, it does. Historically, it’s a multi-billion dollar business. So why change up that formula now?
Well, at a time when magazines and major fashion brands are folding faster than Trump’s house of cards, changes are necessary for survival. The evolving digital landscape can instantly determine the rise or fall of a brand. The problem is that no one really knows the answer to what “comes next” though.
Uneasy brands, publishers, and alleged sex offenders aren’t sure how to navigate sexual abuse, or it’s next steps—and it would appear that they don’t care to linger on the subject. The trio have been entangled in a ménage à trois for so long that each’s priorities have blurred together over time.
Sexual abuse is actually integral to the industry’s marketing tactics: people have an innate human desire to be desired, which is why fashion advertisements are often sexualized. Marketers have preyed on this human desire to look good and procreate for decades.
Some might even argue that consumer culture is to blame for the continuation of sexual assault. But the consumer’s not fondling the Abercrombie or Gucci model behind the scenes.
It’s the photographer, yes, but it’s also the leading industry professionals who have been sitting back while models are pimped out. These power players enable sexual exploitation (or sexploitation), for fear of rocking the boat or losing their own jobs.
Or maybe, fashion’s gatekeepers just don’t care at all.
Research and Global performance-management firm Gallup released a 2017 poll that found 71% of American workers are not engaged at work. If that statistic is accurate, it’s probably even more skewed in the fashion industry.
To that end, effectively ending sexual abuse throughout the fashion industry would require Big Brother-level monitoring. But, perhaps, examining the root of the problem would be more effective.
The issue, as with most workplace issues, stems from a lack of strong, ethical managers and decision-makers throughout organizations. As leadership expert and Huffington Post author John Mattone argues, “leadership starts at the top.”
Mikey Myatt, leadership expert and Forbes contributor, finds that unethical leader’s actions are their own undoing.
“A leader who lacks character or integrity will not endure the test of time,” he says. “It doesn’t matter how intelligent, affable, persuasive, or savvy a person is, if they are prone to rationalizing unethical behavior based upon current or future needs, they will eventually fall prey to their own undoing. Optics over ethics is not a formula for success.”
This lack of strong, ethical leadership is a problem for the future of many fashion corporations. According to a poll by Human Resources consulting firm Brandon Hall Group, 84% of organizations expect to encounter trouble filling leadership roles in their companies over the next 5 years as senior leaders retire.
“The bottom line is that more money is spent on leadership development than any other area of corporate training, yet 71% of organizations do not feel their leaders are able to lead their organization into the future.”
So, maybe the solution to ending sexual abuse isn’t banning hands-y photographers like Weber, issuing public pseudo-apologies like Wintour, or forming lofty model alliances. Maybe it’s as simple as shaking things up at the top, and preparing the next generation of fashion industry leaders.