NEW YORK — In the spring of last year, Victoria’s Secret imposed official rules to protect its lingerie models for the first time in its four-decade history.
The Harvey Weinstein scandal was at that point almost two years old, and the #MeToo movement that would follow was fostering something of a cultural rejection of the underwear maker’s dated vision of female beauty, accelerating the 75% collapse in the stock price of its parent company L Brands Inc. from a 2015 peak. Management could no longer afford to turn a blind eye to the perils its models faced on the job — being alone with photographers or executives who wielded power over their careers, feeling pressure to bare more of their bodies or participate in private photo shoots.
The new rules included making sure models have private places to change clothes and that they’re never left alone with a photographer, makeup artist or anyone else. Those guidelines, the backstory of which Bloomberg is reporting for the first time, are part of a wave of self-reflection in the modeling and retail industries about the treatment of people whose faces and bodies help sell the clothes we wear.
The question is whether the rules go far enough to make a difference. Sara Ziff, a former model who now leads a group advocating for more protections in the industry, had been hoping to persuade the retailer to sign on to a program she’s designed to combat harassment by requiring more independent oversight. She chose Victoria’s Secret because the nation's largest lingerie company had come under fresh scrutiny for its treatment of women, in part because of its controlling owner’s ties to convicted sex offender Jeffrey Epstein. Ziff also felt that Victoria’s Secret could be a force for reform as widespread accusations of assault, rape and sex trafficking of models were being levied against executives across the fashion industry.
As models converge on New York, Paris and Milan this month for the spring’s major fashion shows, the industry is teeming with debate about whether companies like Victoria’s Secret can sufficiently police themselves to root out abuse. Models have a tough enough time trusting their agencies to look out for their interests — much less the clients.
Until last year, Victoria’s Secret didn’t have stringent, formal policies on appropriate workplace behavior during photo shoots, according to a person familiar with the matter. In late 2018, Victoria’s Secret started reviewing its own policies, developing them internally through legal and compliance teams and rolling them out in May 2019 with training sessions, said the person, who asked not to be identified discussing internal matters.
In addition to ensuring models are chaperoned during shoots, Victoria’s Secret’s rules explicitly stated that no one on set could drink or use drugs, or post “lewd, offensive or unprofessional images” on social media that included L Brands products or sets. Underage models were officially barred. And the policies offered specific guidance on how photographers and models should interact with one another on set. Models would get private dressing spaces that photographers couldn’t enter. Before showing up to the workplace, models would be required to receive information about who they would be working with, the creative plan and the photographer’s vision for the project. Finally, the lingerie chain said models should “not be pressured to expose their bodies more than they are comfortable doing” while participating in shoots.
Anyone working on the set — from the models to photographers to makeup artists and L Brands associates — had to acknowledge these guidelines, which extended to the making of videos, fashion shows and commercials for Victoria’s Secret. If participants felt uncomfortable, they would be advised to tell the L Brands representative on site or call the company’s ethics hotline, operated by a third party.
The #MeToo movement wasn’t the only reason L Brands was under pressure to make changes. A sense of urgency had been spreading throughout company headquarters in Columbus, Ohio. Victoria’s Secret’s same-store sales, an important metric in retail, had been negative for three years, margins had been hit by discounting and even its youth-targeted line, Pink, was in need of an overhaul. L Brands, which also owns Bath & Body Works, had lost about $22 billion in market value since 2015.
Victoria’s Secret had also struggled to adapt to competition online, watching as foot traffic in shopping malls began to slow. The brand lost market share to rivals such as American Eagle’s Aerie and Rihanna’s Savage X Fenty that catered to women with more varied body types and skin tones. Last year, Victoria’s Secret canceled its hypersexualized annual fashion show. Then in July, Epstein was arrested, and all hell broke loose.
Federal prosecutors accused the financier of running a sex-trafficking ring, which included girls as young as 14. As Epstein’s past and connections came to light, it became clear how closely affiliated he was with Leslie Wexner, L Brands’ chairman and chief executive officer, serving as his money manager and using his power of attorney. Wexner, 82, denied knowledge of any illegal activity by Epstein, who also backed a modeling agency that worked with Victoria’s Secret. Epstein, who died by suicide in his jail cell in August, once claimed to an aspiring model that he was a Victoria’s Secret model scout, according to The New York Times, and used to promise women jobs through his network of powerful men.
The same month Epstein died, Ziff’s organization sent a letter to John Mehas, the Victoria’s Secret CEO, offering a way the company could address its mounting problems. The Model Alliance called on Victoria’s Secret to join its Respect program, billed as the only existing anti-sexual-harassment code of conduct designed by and for models. Retailers that sign the pact agree that employees, agents, vendors and photographers will follow rules not unlike the ones Victoria’s Secret had already developed. The difference is that under Respect, an independent monitor can access cases where harassment might have taken place, providing a level of oversight outside the company.
“Victoria’s Secret has the opportunity to be a leader, to use its power and influence to bring about the changes that are urgently needed in our industry,” the Model Alliance said in its letter. “This would go a long way in helping our industry chart a new path forward.”
That same month — less than half a year after creating its photo-shoot guidelines — Victoria’s Secret decided to further strengthen protections for models in the policy, according to the person familiar with the matter. The revisions added a requirement for an authorized independent monitor to be present for the entire shoot to “provide oversight and ensure compliance with the procedures” and raise red flags, if necessary. Fit models — workers who try on clothes for designers — now also fall under these protections.
The revisions weren’t part of the initial policy because the legal and compliance team continued its work after the rollout in May, looking for other areas where protections could be strengthened, the person said. The team is still researching other areas, such as casting, where it might add to the policy, the person said. The independent monitors at photo shoots are almost all from outside the company. Since they’ve been present, one concern has been raised to the company, which is taking action now, the person said.
The rules were already in place when Ziff and her attorney visited Victoria’s Secret’s high-rise office near the Empire State Building in Manhattan last September. Over the course of about an hour, they spoke with Tammy Roberts Myers, the retailer’s top public relations executive, and other staff members about working conditions for models, including protection from sexual misconduct. Mehas, to whom the letter was addressed, wasn’t present for the meeting.
Ziff walked out with Myers’ business card and an assurance that the Model Alliance was helping Victoria’s Secret executives be better listeners. They haven’t spoken since. Victoria’s Secret hasn’t signed on for the Respect program the Model Alliance proposed, and no other retailer has been announced as a participant.
Industrywide protections for vulnerable employees are hard to implement, but there is precedent. The U.S. hospitality industry, after a barrage of controversy surrounding the mistreatment of cleaning staff, is being forced to take new measures to protect workers. After the #MeToo wave began, hotel housekeepers successfully fought for measures in eight major U.S. cities, including Chicago and Miami Beach, requiring businesses to provide panic buttons, handheld fobs used to summon help should a threat arise. The industry’s main trade group resisted the idea at first, saying it wouldn’t address the problem, but by late 2018 big hotel chains including Hilton and Marriott agreed to adopt the systems. As the larger names got on board, the smaller ones began to fall in line.
The hospitality and modeling industries both largely employ women and have been used as conduits for abuse and sex trafficking. Unlike models, hotel workers have unions to lobby on their behalf. Juliette Gust, president of Ethics Suite, a workplace misconduct and fraud reporting consultancy, said models are more like musicians and actors, largely freelancers who might have more legal recourse if they worked directly for a corporation.
This means change may have to come from the top down, Gust said. “It is up to these large brands to set the example,” she said. “That would really help to shake up the industry.”
This month, The New York Times published an investigation of working conditions at Victoria’s Secret, including fresh allegations that former L Brands Chief Marketing Officer Ed Razek had harassed women and that Wexner had ignored complaints about them. Razek denied the allegations, and Wexner didn’t comment to the Times. L Brands is in talks to sell Victoria’s Secret, and Wexner is considering stepping aside as CEO.
In a letter last week to Mehas, the Model Alliance criticized L Brands, saying the company had refused to act since the September meeting. “The culture of misogyny, bullying and harassment at Victoria’s Secret is even more egregious and more entrenched than previously understood,” the group said.
Still, Ziff says she wants to find a way. “I’m genuinely interested in working with Victoria’s Secret,” she said. The company remains open to talks and is considering further steps, the person familiar with the matter said. One unanswered question is what an independent observer from the Respect program would do when a problem arises, the person said. “We absolutely share a common goal with Model Alliance to ensure the safety and well-being of models,” Myers, the Victoria’s Secret spokeswoman, said in a statement.
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