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Shereen Wu, a Taiwanese-American fashion model, walked the runway during LA Fashion Week in October wearing a black ball gown by Michael Costello, a “Project Runway” alum who has designed for Jennifer Lopez, Beyoncé and Cardi B.
Even though Costello is an elite couturier, Wu walked knowing she was not going to get paid for the gig. What the 21-year-old model would get is exposure during one of the fashion industry's most publicized events — Costello has upward of 1.7 million followers on Instagram.
She was stunned, then, when her mother, her biggest fan, showed her the picture the designer eventually posted: The image had been manipulated so that Wu’s face had been replaced with that of a white model’s.
“I was unrecognizable. My ethnicity as a Taiwanese-American model has been completely erased,” she said.
Wu’s experience has helped galvanize an effort to secure more protections for fashion models, many of whom, as independent contractors, are precluded from unionizing and susceptible to the manipulations of modeling agencies that advocates argue have too few regulations governing them.
Wu, who is based in California, spoke during a press event last week in support of state legislation that in part would make it illegal for management companies to “create, alter, or manipulate a model's digital replica using artificial intelligence” without the model’s explicit permission.
The bill, introduced last year by Manhattan Senator Brad Hoylman-Sigal and Bronx Assemblywoman Karines Reyes, would tweak the state’s labor law to also provide basic protections for independent fashion models and close loopholes that for now allows management companies to “escape accountability.”
It passed the State Senate last session but did not come for a vote in the Assembly. The AI provisions have since been added.
Sara Ziff, the founder and executive director of the Model Alliance, a New York City-based research, policy and advocacy nonprofit that helped draft the bill’s language, said the city’s fashion industry “currently operates without oversight.”
“Since first introducing this bill, our goal has been to create an environment of transparency and accountability in the fashion industry,” she said during the Jan. 24 press event. Ziff, noting the absence of AI provisions in the bill’s first version, said the application of the nascent technology within “an industry that already lacks regulation is deeply concerning.”
“When your body is your business, having your image manipulated or sold off without your permission is the violation of your rights. And too often, model's images are manipulated and reused without consent or compensation,” she said.
Robyn Lawley, a member of the Model Alliance’s Worker Council and a fashion model, podcaster and designer, said the use of AI to transform bodies into idealized forms is particularly insidious in that it cultivates an unattainable desire for near-perfection among consumers.
Lawley said she’s been made to look “skinnier, bigger, younger, older, shorter, taller” through the use of manipulated imagery.
“As a mother of a daughter, the idea that she'll be comparing herself to images of a woman and girls who do not exist is absolutely terrifying,” she said. “Body image issues and eating disorders issues are already an increasing problem and have been for quite some time. We are stepping into unknown territory surrounding body image if we completely do not even use a real human body.”
Lawmakers, Lawley said, must pass the Fashion Workers Act “to protect models' online presence in this industry and bring back humans to the workforce.”
Hoylman-Sigal, whose bill is now before the Senate’s Labor Committee, said that although New York City “is the fashion capital of the world,” employing about 6 percent of the city’s entire workforce, models are too often taken advantage of.
And while the industry generates about $11 billion in wages in the city alone, Hoylman-Sigal said “decades-old loopholes” leave modeling agencies essentially unregulated, which leaves models at the mercy of being “too often underpaid, overworked, or exploited by the very management agencies that claim to represent them.”
“This has fostered a system where these agencies can exercise near complete control over a model's finances, job opportunities, salary and the use of their personal images,” he said.
Other than the provisions on AI, the legislation would also require management agencies to act in the models’ best interests, provide them with copies of contracts and agreements and let those they formerly represented know of royalties they could be due. It also would call on the agencies to not collect fees or deposits from models and establish, based on a model’s pay, a 20-percent ceiling on commission fees. The bill provides for overtime pay, meal breaks, liability insurance and several other conditions.
Alex Shanklin, a former model who is also on the Model Alliance’s Worker Council, said he was shocked to walk into a department store and see that brands he had worked for were displaying his torso coupled to another model’s face. As the law stands, he said he sensed he would have little recourse for redress.
“The agencies have kind of a blanket power of attorney over us. And, you know, when I think about an instance like that, I just can't help but to realize that somebody got paid for that and it wasn't myself,” said Shanklin, the lead plaintiff in a pending class-action lawsuit alleging that he and other models were mischaracterized as independent contractors by modeling agencies and were unfairly deprived of pay for uses and re-uses of their images.
“We work and we work out and kind of sell ourselves and promote ourselves in a business, and then only to find that after a shot's done, they can alter our image,” he said.
For Shereen Wu, who is also on the Alliance’s Worker Council but lives in California, the New York law won’t help her recuperate the invaluable exposure she lost in October. Still, she said the legislation would be a crucial first step in holding the fashion industry accountable to its most precious asset: the model.
“I never want another model or another human to experience this power dynamic or helplessness over their own image,” she said. To have my face digitally altered without consent is dehumanizing.”
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