Why Do Fashion’s #MeToo Moments Keep Getting Swept Under The Rug?

Photography by David M. Benett/Getty Images
Earlier this month, U.S. news site Vox attempted to collate the name of every influential person accused publicly of sexual misconduct over the last 18 months. The shockingly extensive list (which currently contains more than 250 names) includes everyone from business and media moguls, to academics, actors, and politicians – highlighting not only the extent of the problem, but also how power, wealth and influence is often weaponized to keep alleged victims silent. Discussion of this dynamic resurfaced yesterday in the House of Commons when, using his Parliamentary privilege, Lord Hain named Arcadia Group CEO Sir Philip Green as the alleged abuser at the heart of the “British #MeToo scandal.”
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“[I have been] contacted by someone intimately involved in the case of a powerful businessman using non-disclosure agreements and substantial payouts to conceal the truth about serious and repeated sexual harassment, racist abuse and bullying which is compulsively continuing,” Hain said, noting that Green had recently slapped The Telegraph newspaper with an injunction, essentially preventing them or any other publication from reporting details of the case. As depressing as this might sound, none of it is remotely surprising. Not only is Green a billionaire whose retail empire includes high-street giants Topshop and Topman, he’s also been awarded a knighthood and held up as an example of entrepreneurial excellence. He’s rich, powerful and highly-influential: a #MeToo-busting trifecta.
But one thing sets Green apart from the names of businessmen on the Vox list: he works in the fashion industry. Recent mainstream #MeToo conversations has been dominated by Hollywood, which has subsequently become known as a sort of epicentre of abuse. This isn’t necessarily the case. As Bronx-born activist Tarana Burke – who founded the first iteration of the #MeToo movement back in 2006 to empower victims, the majority of which were young girls and women of colour – knows all too well, the problem is that some stories sink to the bottom of the news-cycle whereas others, buoyed by fame and salacious detail, rise to the top. Burke has argued that countless experiences are erased.
In the case of fashion, it doesn’t help that the industry has often normalized extreme sexual imagery and behaviour. Terry Richardson’s ‘practice’ is a case in point, and it took decades for the women accusing him of sexual misconduct to have their allegations taken seriously. Not only was he hailed as a provocative pioneer, he enjoyed a lengthy spell of success: he shot for Vogue, lensed a portrait of Oprah, and even followed Lady Gaga on a world tour whilst photographing her for a coffee-table book.
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The currency of Richardson’s name within the fashion industry made redundant the voices of women who had been accusing him repeatedly since 2001. Stories trickled out over the years, and the truth of the events were often evident in his photography: there are photos of women jerking him off; in one shoot he clutches the loose tampon string of a faceless model between his teeth; in countless photos there are women sucking his dick on-camera (Richardson denies the allegations of assault, claiming that all such sexual acts were consensual).
An in-depth 2010 Jezebel piece summarised the accusations, but it wasn’t until 2017 that Richardson’s public fall from grace finally came, with Condé Nast and other publications instituting a ban on working with him. "This man has built his business/pleasure empire on breaking the cardinal rule of asking a young girl you don't know to come over to your house and hang out naked: don't be a fucking creep,” model Jamie Peck wrote in 2010.
Just months after ‘Uncle Terry’ was finally vilified for his actions and the multiple allegations, a legion of models began speaking out against endemic abuse in the fashion industry. In January this year, dozens of men stated that Mario Testino and Bruce Weber had sexually exploited them on set. Next, similar allegations were levelled against Patrick Demarchelier. The domino effect commenced: within just a few months, a handful of fashion’s most powerful photographers had been dethroned, denounced and accused of exploiting their immense power. Yet the backlash was muted, and a wider, mainstream ripple was basically non-existent. The men weren’t publicly slated in the way that various Hollywood figures had (rightly) been, and most publications chose to quietly phase them out as opposed to issuing public statements.
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One exception was Vogue, which published a personal response from Anna Wintour detailing new photoshoot regulations (no underage models, no alcohol, revealing shoots must be approved by the subject) but also reinforcing the “value of remorse and forgiveness.” Tellingly, she describes both Weber and Testino as close friends in the previous sentence. The statement hints at the industry’s nepotism – which keeps alleged rapists like Ian Connor on the front row of the season’s hottest fashion shows – but it came only because high-profile names were involved. This week’s allegations against Green ought to reignite similar fashion industry debate, but that seems as likely to happen as not.
Fashion’s victims are often more or less anonymous – from low-paid, behind-the-scenes assistants, to models without a public profile – making them essentially powerless; how can we believe these women if we never even hear them? As an industry, fashion is intensely hierarchical. At the very bottom of the food chain are garment workers – the majority of them struggling young women of colour working excruciatingly long hours in developing countries. Not only do they have their overtime payment refused, their strikes interrupted by violence and their concerns about unsafe conditions ignored (which has lead to lethal factory collapses and fires), a recent report showed that sexual abuse endemic in their industry, with workers forced to endure such misconduct on a weekly, and even daily basis.
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Non-profit organizations including Global Labor Justice and the International Labour Organization spend months interviewing workers about their lives, yet their testimonies rarely make the news. As a journalist, I recently learnt this firsthand when trying to place a story about these accounts of abuse; I was told in no uncertain terms that these stories don’t attract an audience, and that nothing could be written unless the violations had already made major headlines. It’s a vicious cycle, and one that leaves untold the stories of fashion’s most vulnerable assault victims – poor women of colour being threatened with violence or dismissal if they don’t comply with their bosses’ demands.
More than many other industries, fashion actively turns a blind eye to rumours, accusations and allegations of sexual exploitation. The industry largely didn’t question Richardson when he plucked beautiful, unknown models from obscurity and masturbated with them on-camera; and, although less explicit, Testino built his career on a homoerotic aesthetic that was only described as “weird and creepy” in the aftermath of the New York Times report. Fashion loves nothing more than provocation, and this desire to shock has historically outweighed basic respect, facilitating dynamics that apparently only seem abusive in retrospect.
Fashion at its highest level relies on a close, nepotistic circle of creatives, elevated to ‘genius’ status that, in turn, renders them untouchable. This is precisely why Sara Ziff, a former model and founder of the Model Alliance in New York, didn’t question anything when a casting agent asked her to strip almost naked at 14 years old. It’s why interns work for free; because, to quote Devil Wears Prada, a million others would kill to be in their position. Elsewhere, garment workers endure abuse because they need the work and are largely powerless to stop it, which leaves consumers in developed countries in a tricky position. If we consume fast fashion, we’re complicit. If we boycott, their garment industries could collapse entirely, leaving them unemployed (and therefore potentially destitute).
Exploitation and abuse in the fashion industry is happening at every level. Sometimes it’s sexual, allegedly perpetrated by billionaire tycoons like Philip Green. Sometimes it’s financial, driven by budget-conscious CEOs secure in the knowledge that students will work themselves to the bone for a byline, or an unpaid internship. Whatever form it takes, the issue is systemic, and facilitated (intentionally or not) by intrenched hierarchies. A chain of power that creates victims and simultaneously gags them – for fear of being blacklisted (by photographers), silenced by NDAs (tycoons) or deliberately erased (garment workers). The question we must ask isn’t why fashion hasn’t yet had its own major #MeToo moment. It has. The real question is why the powerful people who could affect change are so hellbent on maintaining the status quo.
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