Over the past year, high-profile models have made repeated pleas for designers to pay them for walking in their runway shows. Some designers are finally responding, paying models in cash instead of clothes for their fashion week work.
A lot of labels, like Donna Karan, Oscar de la Renta, and Calvin Klein, have always paid models in cash for appearing in their runway shows during New York Fashion Week. But Marc Jacobs, a huge label in the same league, didn't start paying models in cash until last season for his spring 2013 Marc Jacobs and Marc by Marc Jacobs shows, said Sara Ziff, who runs the Model Alliance, an organization that advocates for model rights (but is not an official union). Until then Jacobs had, like many labels, just paid models in trade, or free clothes. Free clothes are nice, especially when they're expensive and beautiful, as many of these designers' are, but they don't pay the bills on their own — and models need that cash to not only cover living expenses, but also to avoid going into debt with their agencies.
Alexander Wang and Rag & Bone also started paying models in cash for the spring 2013 show season, Ziff said. But she said that a few big labels are holding out, including Anna Sui, Proenza Schouler, and Narciso Rodriguez — whose shows are all major highlights on New York Fashion Week's calendar. They're still just offering free clothes.
"If you think about how expensive it is to take out a full page ad in Vogue, which all of those companies do, you'd think they could compensate the models," Ziff said. Reps for Anna Sui, Proenza Schouler, and Narciso Rodriguez did not return requests for comment.
One modeling agent, who could only speak anonymously due to delicate relationships with designers, observed that while labels might be responding positively to models asking for cash instead of clothing for their work, "rates are still much lower than they used to be." In the '80s and '90s, models could book runway exclusives with certain labels, go on to shoot their ad campaigns, and make "massive" amounts of money. Now, even with exclusives, those huge rates aren't guaranteed, and not all labels with the most money pay good rates because they know models would kill to walk in their shows. "Well-off, well-known clients really should pay a lot more even if they have shows that models would kill to walk in," this agent said, noting that some labels, like Michael Kors, are known to pay great rates despite their outsize status as a fashion week must-see.
In addition to the runway show itself, which is usually about two to three hours, the models must go to a fitting at a previous date, which is another half hour, at least. If a model makes only $100 for a show, after taxes and agency commission she'll take home only around $50 to $60, which, depending on her schedule, might not even cover transportation costs to the fitting and show.
One model who has done New York Fashion Week shows told BuzzFeed Shift that $150 is common for "small shows" and $200 to $500 is often paid for bigger shows. There are exceptions — Project Runway paid models $900 for walking its most recent show, this model said. But a label in the realm of Marc Jacobs still might pay just $500 to $800 for doing a show. Ziff understood that Rag & Bone paid their runway models in the hundreds of dollars and offered trade in addition. (Not every model makes the same rate — more in-demand faces can command more.)
Some models who really need the cash will eBay the designer loot they've gotten for free — a time-consuming practice. And even then, the payoff is never equal to retail value of the items sold (if they go to a thrift store, they're likely to make much less). Money from eBayed goods also doesn't come through right away since not everything sells immediately, and the site doesn't make the funds available until after a period of time.
Paying a model in trade is not illegal since they're considered independent contractors. However, many models enter into debt with their agencies when they don't make enough money to cover their start-up costs — which include everything from photo shoots for their portfolios to travel and housing expenses. Agencies may front the money, but even if a model has had a successful runway season, she might not make enough to pay them back.
Ziff's work at the Model Alliance often involves advising models about agency debt. "We've seen plenty of models who are like, $20,000 in debt," she said. "I've seen one case where a model who's actually a pretty established working model was $100,000 in debt to her agency." Some agencies aren't fully transparent about these costs, Ziff said. "It's not just a question of whether or not designers are paying money, there's also the issue of all these fees which are not always explained and that are adding up to debt."
Over the past year, famous models like Doutzen Kroes, Shalom Harlow, and Coco Rocha have all spoken out about the issue of designers not paying for runway modeling. Last year, Ziff, a model herself, met with Vogue and the Council of Fashion Designers of America — which partner on a "health initiative" that arose following widespread concerns about models being unhealthfully thin — to discuss the matter of payment for runway work, among other issues the Model Alliance works on. Ziff is happy that the industry is responding to their pleas and that models have started talking publicly about this problem.
"Just the fact that it's even being reported on I think is significant because the industry is so insular," Ziff said. "Considering how resistant the industry is to change, I think it's a pretty big step."