This was supposed to be the Fashion Month that models were finally getting better treatment. After a series of whistle-blowing efforts last winter, major fashion companies LVMH and Kering worked with casting agent James Scully to introduce the “Charter on Working Relations With Fashion Models and Their Well-Being,” protecting models’ rights. So casting directors, agents, and stylists should have been on their best behavior. But as the model and photographer Louise Parker alleged on Instagram this weekend prior to the Balenciaga spring 2018 show, some questionable activity is perhaps still going unchecked.
Balenciaga flew Parker to Paris for a trial fitting — or to be a “first option” for a “go and see,” as the brand calls it — and asked to cut her hair in a short, boyish style. In concordance with the new Charter, Parker had to explicitly accept changes to her appearance, which she did. Balenciaga also called her agent. The brand never confirmed that she would walk in the show, but Parker thought the haircut could only help her chances. She also wanted to be professional. But in the end, the haircut was all for nothing, as Parker ended up getting cut from the show. She took to Instagram to express her frustration, and the Cut reached out for further comment.
While in some cases a change to a model’s appearance can jump-start her career, other times it comes at a huge cost. “I’ve received many letters from models who have had their hair cut and colored — and are not supported by the people who have asked this of them — and it really messes with their self esteem,” James Scully told the Cut in an email. “They are left feeling insecure and used, and with no jobs lined up because they were booked on their former appearance.” So when Parker spoke out, she wasn’t just complaining about a bad haircut — she was addressing a common road bump in models’ careers.
Balenciaga casting agents have come under fire for their treatment of models in the past. In February, Scully himself took to Instagram to publicly name and denounce then-Balenciaga casting agents Maida Gregori Boina and Rami Fernandes for allegedly holding models in a dark stairwell. Balenciaga responded immediately, condemning the incident and writing in a statement that the brand was “making radical changes to the casting process, including discontinuing the relationship with the current casting agency.” According to Scully, Kering also made a swift effort to sit at the table with LVMH to pen the Charter.
At Paris Fashion Week this season, the Cut saw iterations of the Charter posted backstage at numerous shows and printed out for distribution at makeup stations. Parker says she also saw immediate implementations of the Charter’s rules backstage at Balenciaga. That being said, it seems there is still work to be done.
Below, Parker writes her thoughts on the matter in an open letter to Balenciaga and Kering.
I want to begin this note by stating that I take responsibility for this situation (I chose to be a model, even after graduating from college I still chose this profession). Furthermore, after five years of working in this industry, I should have known a flight, a fitting and a haircut never guarantees anything. Lastly, I’d like to be clear and acknowledge that for the most part, I’ve been very fortunate throughout my career, have worked with amazing people and been treated very well. I understand that this story is quite insignificant as far as the rest of the world is concerned, and that right now it seems ridiculous to complain about what, at face-value, is just a long flight and a haircut. I know we all have problems, but this feeling of powerlessness and disposability is a pattern. I’m sick of it, and I know I am not the only one.
I am a 28-year-old model. We count in dog years in my profession. That basically makes me dead. Which is fine, I’m pretty much over it, but at the end of the day I do still love my job and most importantly, it pays the rent. So when my agent let me know that Balenciaga was interested in me for their show, I was really excited. Like every other job, I was wary it wouldn’t work out so I told no one but my fiancé about this opportunity. I didn’t want to jinx it. Less than two weeks before the show my agent sent them updated digitals and a video. They immediately booked me for a fitting and on Thursday I took a twelve-hour trip from Los Angeles to Paris for my appointment with Balenciaga.
On Friday at my fitting I tried on several looks and to my delight the stylist and designer found one they liked on me. After having it fit to my body, they asked me if I would cut my hair to better fit the show. I take my job seriously and I want to work — I always do my best to please my clients — so I agreed. They called my agent to ask for permission; I made sure they understood I was okay with it. It was my decision and my mistake. But in that context, it felt like an ultimatum.
They cut my hair, and I remained calm and professional while I presented the stylist with my new look. She approved and I waited for the team to pull my outfit, which had already been relocated off the floor — an indication that my look had been “validated.” Like I said, I’ve been cancelled from many shows before, even an hour leading up to one, and I’ve spent countless hours in the middle of the night at fittings for shows that end up not working out, so I understand you’re never truly confirmed until you’ve walked out onto the runway. But this felt different from those situations; I felt lead on. They photographed me in my look with my new haircut and I left feeling excited and grateful for the opportunity.
That evening, I received a message from my agent saying that they needed to cut my hair even shorter, “sort of up to her ears.” Desperate, I agreed again. It didn’t end up happening though, because the next day I didn’t hear anything. I found out, through a friend, that there was a rehearsal happening for the show within the next hour. I contacted my agent and she informed me that she had been working hard to keep me in the show but was told “she does not fit the line up.” She was pissed and I was devastated.
Like I said, I blame myself in the end; I was too eager, too willing to please. I allowed them to take advantage of my time and my body. I wanted the job, I tried to make it work, and did my best to be polite and flexible. I chose to post about this on Instagram and write about this here not because I want sympathy, or think that this is a unique situation (because it’s not, far worse things happen to models every day), but because I am tired of being treated this way. If you don’t work in the industry, it might be hard to relate, but imagine this in the context of having virtually no control over your working life, where your body and image is your currency, where you constantly feel disposable, and where you’re often left in the dark, bending to powerful clients. I know you shouldn’t bite the hand that feeds you, but reaching out through social media helped me take back some of the power and control I felt I had lost.
The industry has taken steps to make our lives better and I respect that. In Paris, before walking a show you have to visit a doctor to confirm you have a healthy BMI. Balenciaga went out of their way to be polite throughout my fitting; they had plenty of food for us and even had a therapist available to us 24/7. But I cannot help to see the hypocrisy there as I was led on to believe that these were decent, caring professionals.
Designers, stylists, casting directors, etc. need to recognize their position of power. It is not unreasonable for one to assume that after a flight, a fitting and a haircut that one is confirmed for a show. The fact that this is not the case is painful and confusing. Industry wide guidelines need to be implemented in order to provide models true clarity on these sorts of situations, especially when it comes to changing someone’s physical appearance. Why wasn’t this discussed beforehand with my agent? They knew my current hair length, why fly me all the way without telling me ahead of time? Please Balenciaga, Kering, take a more holistic approach to addressing model’s concerns by recognizing the fundamental power imbalance at play, and update your policy.
Yes life is tough, the world is on fire, I know, I just believe I deserve to be treated as professionally as I strive to be. I am not a coat hanger.
When the Cut reached out to Balenciaga for comment, the brand wrote via email:
Balenciaga is sincerely sorry for the disappointment of Louise Parker for not being confirmed for the Women SS 2018 show in Paris. The House regrets that there seemed to have been a misunderstanding between Louise Parker and her agent about the fact that flying her for a ‘go & see’, fitting does not mean she would be confirmed. A ‘go & see’ or fitting never means that the model is confirmed for a show.
Balenciaga then went on to detail its casting process, adding in the end:
“Unfortunately, sometimes the right look cannot be achieved and we have to release the option. In this case, the ‘first option’ on Louise had to be released, and she received a financial compensation as if she had walked the show.”
Regarding compensation from Balenciaga, Parker added a final note:
Yes, my agency requested that Balenciaga pay me for the rate of the show. However, I have asked that Balenciaga instead donate the money in my behalf to the Model Alliance, an organization that “aims to promote fair treatment, equal opportunity, and more sustainable practices in the fashion industry, from the runway to the factory floor.”
This is not about money, it never was. It’s about feeling taken advantage of and after years of grinning and bearing it, wanting your voice to be heard.
Moving forward, this incident ultimately raises questions about whether the Charter is sufficient. Balenciaga didn’t technically break any rules, but perhaps there’s room to expand and specify the text. Is it fair for a model to assume that if she changes her appearance for a brand, she will be confirmed? Is there a way to restructure the process so that the line between “choice” and “ultimatum” isn’t so blurry?
Scully isn’t sure if the Charter needs a specific clause regarding haircuts, but he wrote to the Cut that there’s definitely the opportunity for improvement. “Does the Charter have holes in it? Yes,” he wrote. “But both Kering and LVMH are truly dedicated to changing anything to make this better. That said, my whole point of doing the things I’ve done and getting this Charter off the ground was to let models know they have a voice and should always put themselves and their self-empowerment first.”