It has been bubbling up to a boil in industry circles for a while now. When will a Weinstein-gate equivalent for the fashion industry burst forward, implicating photography greats Bruce Weber and Mario Testino in allegations of sexual abuse on shoots towards male models. It was in the pipeline for so long that at one point, Steve, (my partner who works at i-D) and I would ask each other casually at dinnertime, when this NY Times story was going to break, along with when the council tax bill was going to arrive. It’s finally out there and the darker underbelly of this in-depth exposé is, I’m afraid to say, a discernible lack of surprise within the industry over what they’re reading. More robes, more hotel rooms, more awkward and harrowing exchanges. And what?
The story broke earlier today and Condé Nast responded with a pre-prepped release of their editorial Code of Conduct to defend the tidal waves of a would-be backlash. Except maybe not. A quick search on Twitter and the response is thus far, no where near as incensed or inflamed as when the Weinstein story broke. The consensus on my WhatsApp group convos with friends in the industry is a “Meh” or an apologetic defence of the accused (the allegations against Weber and Testino have been fiercely denied).
But let’s not kid ourselves. We – and I use a collective “we” here – may not have known the particulars and specifics of how Weber or Testino supposedly treated their photographic subjects but the rumours and gossip of this sort of behaviour does the rounds regularly, and often gets treated with a lack of gravity. And despite the persistent (and consistent) accusations against Terry Richardson and the combative voices of industry greats like Caryn Franklin and the outpourings of abused models, spurred by Cameron Russell, the attitude towards sexual abuse in fashion hasn’t engulfed the industry in the same way that Weinstein and his merry band of bathrobed men has in Hollywood. Yet like Hollywood’s casting couch culture, there are too many that are involved in the complicity of guilty parties, tied to a career ladder power struggle, where people lower down on the fashion food chain are pressurised into keeping it all hush-hush, lest they lose a gig in a highly competitive environment.
Mario Testino’s ad campaign for Gucci S/S 2003 under the direction of Tom Ford
There is a machination of keeping the status quo that goes deeper than what’s in the story. The “sex sells” operating benchmark is so ingrained within fashion that it ties itself into all kinds of knots with the general modus operandi of the industry. For want of a better word, it pays to be “on” in this business. By “on”, I mean out there, on the scene, having a jolly. Can you down a bottle of champagne at a party and still have the ability to make it to a 6am shoot call-time the next day or a 9am show at fashion week, looking nonchalantly fabulous? As I have spent the year making a half-assed return to life B.B. (before baby), I’ve felt that pressure to switch back “on”. Going out, getting shit faced, filing copy early next morning and taking a Nurofen/Berocca cocktail at an early show as proof. Of course, I’m a consenting adult in these decisions. As ridiculous as it sounds, being “on” subtly gives people the impression that you’re free spirited and most importantly, FUN! And fun along with sex, are important cogs in fashion. They’re the aspects that the fashion world has sold through imagery and branding in the last century to fuel this multi-billion dollar industry.
To be clear, I’m obviously not conflating going hard on the champers and partying hard at Le Bain with the sort of abuse that is being alleged in this report, but I do think it can be difficult to compartmentalise and separate the blurred lines that occur on a “fun” shoot littered with drinks and recreational drugs, producing images that reflect far-fetched fantasies, that then leads on to the specific point where someone is having their penis touched against their will. There’s a vague link somewhere along that very VERY broad spectrum of what’s considered to be “a bit of fun”, all in the name of “fashion”. Somewhere along that creative process of image creation, subjects will find it difficult to differentiate between what’s above board bordering on the unorthodox and what is clearly past the acceptable line. When David Hemmings’ fashion photographer character (inspired by David Bailey and the like) commands the model Verushka to “Give it up!” and “Make it come!” in a shoot in Michelangelo Antonioni’s film Blow-Up, we chortle at the supposed stereotype. But if you were realistically in Verushka’s position, feeling scared and a pressure to be “on” and go along with the wishes of a powerful person who can make or break your career, is it really a laughing matter?
We laud and consume provocative subject matter that have become standard fashion fodder – bared breasts under a submerged wet gown, performing fellatio on a handbag or a shoe, accessories artfully placed on genitalia – but mostly ignore what may or may not have gone on behind the scenes in the making of these images. There’s almost a so-what shoulder shrug tone in Tom Ford’s comments in the NY Times article: “We sell sex” he says, and in defence of Testino, purportedly locking a male model inside a hotel room on a shoot and climbing on top of him, he says there are only a few ways you can get the right shot of a model’s face on a bed. Well DUH! That’s FASH-UN!
So, should we just shrug, accept this “sex sells” standard, and carry on as before? There will be murmurings for sure, coursing through the industry that mirror Catherine Deneuve’s open letter defence of flirtation and sexual advances in Le Monde – those that decry a “puritanism” washing over our woke-on-the-surface industry. This NY Times story may not be a watershed moment. We may not even raise our eyebrows enough to try and out other offenders (suffice to say, Weber and Testino AREN’T exceptions). And of course, it’s not a case of erasing a culture that has given us so many potent moments of creative artistry in fashion and provocateurs, whose images aren’t tainted with wrongdoing. Guy Bourdin. Helmut Newton. Corrine Day. You could go on…
Bruce Weber for Calvin Klein
Just as the film industry needs a significant amount of time to enact real concerted change, so too does the fashion world. Change also depends on legions of editors, photographers, stylists, designers and those in charge of brand image and marketing collectively changing attitudes that don’t treat these sorts of allegations and rumours as light fodder. The question is, is it the sort of change that might be asking too much of an industry predicated on provocation and boundary pushing? Isn’t it all too seductive, deliciously decadent and yes, just a bit of fun? Furthermore, it’s still difficult to untie all those knots of a hierarchical industry, where getting ahead is ranked ahead of acknowledgement of any possibility of foul play. And even if the industry adopts Condé Nast’s Code of Conduct as standard working practise, how will it realistically be enforced in a transparent manner? Are all parties involved willing enough to play by the rules and whistle blow where necessary? It’s been less than a day and these are just some thoughts that have been percolating in a mind reacting to a story that was sadly so inevitable, it became part of day-to-day chitter chatter in our house.
N.B. I know the blog has been so dormant, it’s hard to remember the last time I even posted. I’m not sure why I felt so compelled to take my mind off mopping up baby vom/phlegm/food to sit down and properly write. But…in other news, I’m relaunching/redesigning the blog so that I don’t just pop up once in a blue blue moon to bang out 1,000 words. New year, new me, new yadda yadda… I’m just sorry I had to begin 2018 with thoughts as muddied and murky as these.