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Fashion’s child models: more than a minor issue

Despite the Council of Fashion Designers of America‘s laudable efforts to keep models under 16 off the runways in New York, top designers continue to hire adolescents to model their grown-up designs. This week, at least two models who walked in Marc Jacobs‘ show were under the CFDA’s minimum age guideline. When Eric Wilson of the New York Times questioned Jacobs about his casting choices, Jacobs was not apologetic; in fact, he seemed impatient and somewhat annoyed:

I do the show the way I think it should be and not the way somebody tells me it should be … If [the models’] parents are willing to let them do a show, I don’t see any reason that it should be me who tells them that they can’t … There are children actors and children models for catalogs and stuff, so I guess if a parent thinks it’s okay and a kid wants to do it, it’s fine.

Indeed, there are child actors. But, unlike actors in the US, who rely on strong unions like SAG and AFTRA, models in the US lack union support and basic workplace protections. Strict rules that govern child actors’ working hours and provisions for tutors during professional commitments are not applied to child models, who often work long hours and drop out of school to make the most of their earning ability during their teenage years.
The prevalence of unusually thin models on the runway is well-known, yet the industry relies on a labor force of children, valued for their adolescent physique. Model Amy Lemons, who started modeling women’s clothing at age 12, reached instant supermodel status when she graced the cover of Italian Vogue at 14.  But just three years later, as the gangly 17-year-old began to fill out physically, her New York agent advised her only to eat one rice cake per day; and, if that didn’t work, only half a rice cake.  Lemons got the hint, “they were telling me to be anorexic – flat-out.”
While most people think of modeling as a lucrative career, the vast majority of working models do not command large sums, and some work in debt to their agencies. Like many New York designers, Jacobs pays his models in “trade”, meaning just clothes, not cash. This practice is not illegal; models are generally considered to be independent contractors, and so minimum wage laws do not apply. However, there is something deeply unsettling about one of fashion‘s wealthiest, most powerful brands hiring minors and not compensating them financially.
The two models in Jacobs’ show who are under 16 are Thairine Garcia, who is from Brazil, and Ondria Hardin, who hails from North Carolina. Hardin also walked in Jacobs’ show last season, when she was just 14. Both models are represented by the Ford agency, which has also refused to follow the CFDA’s minimum age recommendations.
One can only hope that these young models have not dropped out of school, that they are accompanied by chaperones, and that they are not working the grueling 20-hour days models often endure on the runway circuit. Now that these kids have been catapulted into the spotlight via Marc Jacobs’ runway, they will, no doubt, be in high demand, if but for a season, in this unregulated industry of fashion, where one compliant child is swiftly replaced by the next by designers who choose to set an adolescent standard of beauty for women.
• Author disclosure: I work as a model, and I have walked in a number of Marc Jacobs’ shows, for both of his namesake brands Marc and Marc Jacobs, as well as for Louis Vuitton, where he is creative director. My personal interactions with Mr Jacobs have always been positive, and while I question his practices, I respect his creative talent as a designer.

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