AS the designers, stylists and editors of Fashion Week pack up to leave New York City today, one group of participants isn’t going anywhere: hundreds of young models, the surplus labor of the fashion industry.
Ten years ago, I was one of them. When I told my dad excitedly that I would be walking in a fashion show — which paid in dresses instead of money — he summed it up succinctly: “That and a buck will get you a cup of coffee.”
Fashion Week, despite bringing over $400 million to the city each year, is unprofitable work for most of the people wearing the designs. Because modeling is freelance work done on a per-project basis, models don’t receive benefits, have little control over the conditions of their work and never know when their next job is coming. They are arbitrarily selected and easily dismissed. And vast disparities exist in payments among models who do equivalent work; for the same show, top models can earn between $1,000 and $5,000, while others are not paid at all. Some models even work under arrangements that recall indentured servitude: they are in debt to their agencies for visa expenses, plane tickets, apartment rentals, even the cost of bike messengers who transport their portfolios to and from offices.
Fashion is a glamorous industry, but rub off the sheen, and quite another scene emerges.