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Models launched a rights group on Monday ahead of New York Fashion Week to seek workplace standards including backstage privacy to stop unauthorized nude photos and a program to provide confidential advice on dealing with sexual harassment.
Model Sara Ziff, 29, founded the nonprofit Model Alliance because she said she has seen the industry disregard child labor laws, evade financial transparency and tolerate sexual abuse in the workplace.
"Most models start their adult careers as minors and they labor in an unregulated business knowing that they are highly replaceable," said Ziff, who started working aged 14.
The Council of Fashion Designers of America (CFDA) said it had offered Ziff advice in starting the group. "Change comes from action and the Model Alliance can be a catalyst for change," said CFDA chief executive Steven Kolb.
Designer Diane von Furstenberg, president of the CFDA, is working with the alliance during Fashion Week, a high-profile global fashion event which starts on Thursday, to implement a rule that clears the backstage area of photographers and non-essential staff when models have to change clothes.
Australian "plus-size" model Robyn Lawley, 22, described the Model Alliance as an amazing idea.
"So many young girls get into this industry and they have no one to protect them and having this model alliance will help girls realize they have the power, they can say no to things that make them feel uncomfortable," Lawley said at the launch.
"I started modeling when I was 16 and I went off to shoots by myself. My parents weren't there and sometimes you do feel very uncomfortable," she said. "You don't really talk about it. If you say anything you won't get another job."
The alliance has produced a draft bill of rights to empower models to demand fair treatment and is establishing a confidential service offering advice on how to deal with sexual harassment and abuse.
"Since we're independent contractors, basic employment laws do not apply," one participant said in a montage on .
"When you know you're highly replaceable its not so easy to speak out about inappropriate behavior," another speaker added.
"The idea of models organizing may seem frivolous or, worse, downright funny — models are certainly not the people you picture when you think of child labor or bad working conditions," d former model and fashion writer Jenna Sauers said.
"There's nothing funny about a work force that is overwhelmingly young, female and impoverished, working for some of fashion's wealthiest, most powerful brands," said Sauers, who is on the board of directors for the Model Alliance.
Ziff and Sauers said some U.S.-based models had complained about being told to lose weight, had suffered anxiety or depression and been sexually harassed.
"Many top designers pay their models in clothes — not cash. This doesn't have to be the case. We can do better. And we can start by giving models a voice in their work. This is a new frontier of women's rights, and workers' rights," Ziff said.
Some 90 designers are due to show their collections for fall/winter 2012 at New York Fashion Week to buyers, media and celebrities, with dozens more showing at other venues around the city to coincide with the semi-annual event.
Fashion Week in New York is followed by events in London, Paris and Milan.
"Models have won the genetic lottery. They are tall, they are beautiful, they get paid for walking," said Susan Scafidi, director of the Fashion Law Institute at New York's Fordham University and an alliance board member. "But they are human beings, they are not coat hangers."
Vika Skyte, 26, is from Lithuania, has been modeling for eight years and moved to New York in September.
"It's important," she said of the alliance. "Models are not really protected. ... We're vulnerable as well because we start at a young age."