Refocusing on Rights
Sara Ziff is a beautiful person. Discovered on the street when she was only 14, Ziff quickly became one of the most sought after models in the world, lending her looks to major fashion houses like Chanel, Prada, and Louis Vuitton, to name a few. But it’s more than Ziff’s physical appearance that makes her so lovely. Her incredibly sharp intellect and fierce determination have inspired other models to come forward and band together in an effort to not only guarantee basic working rights for themselves, but also help put an end to some of the fashion industries not so pretty practices. First with her revelatory documentary, Picture Me, and now as a founding member and leader of the Model Alliance, Ziff’s impact on the world of fashion is about to become bigger than ever.
Why did you want to start the Model Alliance?
This might seem like a non sequitur, but a week ago I went up to Harvard to visit Marshall Ganz, a professor of public policy there who started out as a civil rights organizer in the summer of ’64. He’s always been an inspiration to me, so I wrote him and said I’d love to sit in on a class. Talking afterwards, he said there are a lot of models that maybe had bad experiences, but almost no one ever actually works to organize change, what made you different? One thing was I always felt like an outsider in the modeling industry, coming from a much more academic background. It was a very different world where ideas were everything, and education was everything. I was lucky enough to grow up in an environment where I questioned things; people cared about my opinion and I cared about theirs. But, I don’t think I would have done this work if it weren’t for [Picture Me]. I was telling my story and, inadvertently, helping other models tell theirs. I think that was powerful, and it was the basis for everything I’ve done since.
What are you working on to change the day-to-day life of a model?
Why do you think it’s been such a difficult journey to organize models and get basic rights for your profession?
It’s a superficial industry that I think provokes superficial criticism. For a long time people have spoken critically about the industry in terms of body image issues; those issues are really just symptoms of a larger problem, which is that you’re dealing with a completely disempowered labor force. It drives me nuts, I see contracts where they’re signing 16 year-old girls and there are prohibitions that she can’t gain more than 2cm on her hips. How can you possibly do that without starving yourself? I think there’s a lot of stuff like that where it comes down to these very basic legal and labor issues, and the end result is it brings you these skeletal girls. We’re finally progressing to the root of the problems.
What projects are you working on next?
I’m very eager to make sure that models have access to good, affordable healthcare. [The Model Alliance] met with Vogue back in January, and in May the CFDA and Vogue announced these health initiatives, saying we’re not going to cast models who are under 16 or who appear to have an eating disorder. I think that language is problematic, but at least it’s a start. So, promoting people who appear to be healthy is great, but what about actually making sure they can see a doctor? Again, we need to get below this issue of appearance. There hasn’t been any concern for the health and wellbeing of the people who are the faces of the business, but who have no voice within it.
Picture Me really exposed the dark side of modeling, was there any sort of backlash from the fashion community?
There was never this concerted effort to expose the sordid underbelly of the industry. My boyfriend at the time and I would just shoot for fun, and then we realized we had footage that might be interesting. Some of the more compelling and disturbing testimonials we cut out at the last minute. As a filmmaker, and now as an activist, that really frustrated me, but I decided to err on the side of friendship. I felt like the last thing you want to do when people are telling stories of being exploited is further that exploitation. Some people outside the industry have criticized me for that, but to be on the inside making a living doing what I did, and to go as far as we did was terrifying to me. I wasn’t doing this to benefit myself; I was doing it because I just had to.
How do you hope to see the Alliance grow in the coming months?
One of the main things an effective organizer should do is help develop leadership skills in others, so that’s what I’m trying to do. Not pass the torch exactly, but we need to figure out the best way to make this as democratic as possible and have our organization really reflect the concerns and opinions of our base. As I get older, I’m not really [modeling] anymore, so I don’t want to speak for people who are experiencing it first hand right now.
What’s been a highlight of your career thus far?
I think being able to connect with girls who I have never met before and will never really know. Having them come up to me after screenings, it’s obviously struck a chord in them and that feels really wonderful. I think that some people are misogynistic, and there can be a kind of strange hatred towards beautiful, young women. I know I felt that way when I was younger. So I get a lot of pleasure from feeling a sense of solidarity with people who maybe haven’t gotten that kind of support or sympathy.
What is your WILD Wish?
There are many workers in fashion, particularly garment workers, who are “invisible” and whose working conditions are so poor they risk their lives on the job. The fact is, fashion is built on the backs of low-paid girls and the problem runs all along the supply chain, from Dhaka to New York’s runways. So my WILD Wish is that the models, the faces of this business, could lend their visibility to the garment workers in Bangladesh to fight for justice. As workers, as women, I think we could really transform the fashion industry.