Ahead of N.Y. Fashion Week, designers are warned against sexual harassment

Models gather backstage before the Maryam Nassir Zadeh fashion show during New York Fashion Week on Sept. 12, 2017, in New York City. (Photo: Getty Images)

In the run-up to New York Fashion Week, designers will receive an email from Diane von Furstenberg, chairperson of the Council of Fashion Designers of America (CFDA). In it, she notes a health initiative for designers to remember, focus on, or to watch out for during Fashion Week. And in this current #MeToo moment, the choice of topic was obvious: sexual harassment.

Last year, the CFDA statement focused on models’ health and wellness. It included a call for nutritious food and plenty of water backstage, as well as regular breaks for models. This year, with the fashion world still reeling from long-whispered-about allegations against Bruce Weber, Terry Richardson, Paul Marciano, and more, the letter makes it clear that there will be a zero-tolerance policy for sexual harassment. As the L.A. Times reports, von Furstenberg alluded to the allegations in her letter: “The current climate has been marked by brave women and men and their revelations about an unacceptable culture in politics, sports, and entertainment, as well as in fashion.”

To combat the “unacceptable culture” — and to help designers understand it — the letter explicitly outlines the CFDA’s definition of sexual assault as “any involuntary sexual act in which a person is threatened, coerced, or forced to engage against their will.” It also instructed anyone with any sexual assault claims to both file a police report and contact the Model Alliance, a model advocacy group.

A model is prepared backstage at the Sun Jung Wan fashion show during New York Fashion Week: The Shows at The Dock, Skylight, at Moynihan Station on Sept. 10, 2016, in New York City. (Photo: Getty Images)

In addition to spelling out its own zero-tolerance policy, the letter reminds designers about the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission’s definition of sexual harassment as “unwelcome sexual advances, requests for sexual favors and other verbal or physical conduct of a sexual nature.” The EEOC gets even more specific, and explains that sexual harassment has occurred when “submission to such conduct is made either explicitly or implicitly a term or condition of employment,” when “submission to or rejection of such conduct by an individual is used as a basis for employment decisions affecting the individual,” or when “such conduct has the purpose or effect of unreasonably interfering with an individual’s work performance or creating an intimidating, hostile, or offensive work environment.”

The letter comes just as Condé Nast International released its own Code of Conduct aimed at preventing harassment.

The updated guidelines are a step in the right direction, but are public platitudes enough to change the climate of the entire fashion industry? The Model Alliance has responded with an acknowledgement of the positive step while continuing to call for stringent education, complaint mechanisms, and enforcement of standards. A letter is a good start, but if we want industry standards to change, designers and photographers are going to need the consequences that back up the words.

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