90s supermodel and actress Carré Sutton (nee Otis), was in Paris recently, to testify against the former President of Elite Model Management Europe, Gérald’ Marie. PICTURE: Calvin Klein Jeans Archive
90s supermodel and actress Carré Sutton (nee Otis), was in Paris recently, to testify against the former President of Elite Model Management Europe, Gérald’ Marie. PICTURE: Calvin Klein Jeans Archive

As Fashion Month rages on, top models are calling for the industry to put a stop to model abuse

By Buhle Mbonambi Time of article published Sep 25, 2021

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Paris Fashion Week begins in Monday. It will mark the final week of Fashion Month, where the industry's travelling circus of models, critics, buyers and clients, travel the four fashion capitals to see what the designers have decided the world will wear in the next six months. It has been a time of glamour, parties and a literal throwback to the pre-Covid-19 times of the industry. Throw in the Met Gala and you have a glorious celebration of an industry that barely survived.

But while all this was happening, the other side of the industry was on trial. The seedy, creepy and abusive side that many would want to turn a blind eye to. While the new generation supermodels like Gigi Hadid, Imaan Hamman and Adut Akech were gliding on the ramp at New York Fashion Week, their predecessors were in Paris, fighting a battle the fashion industry hasn't yet won – the sexual abuse of models.

90s supermodel and actress Carré Sutton (nee Otis), was in Paris recently, to testify against the former President of Elite Model Management Europe, Gérald’ Marie. Sutton, 52, accused Marie of repeatedly raping her when she was 17-years-old. And she now wants justice.

She's not the only one. Marie has now been accused of rape and sexual misconduct by at least 23 other women. Even though Sutton and the other survivors’ testimony to French investigators will not result in the former fashion agent's arrest, as the case is outside of the criminal statute of limitations in France as they are more than 20 years old, it is still an important case that many models believe will help prevent this from happening again. Most importantly, she and the other models want to see accountability taken in the industry.

Sutton was a top model, who lived the jet set life together with the other models of the 90s. She was friends with fellow models, Carla Bruni, Kristen McMenamy and Helena Christensen, had campaigns with Calvin Klein and Guess, rocked the runways of top designer brands.

But she had a secret that she couldn't tell or her career in Paris would be over. She signed with Elite and the agency assigned her a spare room at the Paris apartment that Marie shared with supermodel, Linda Evangelista, whom he was married to at the time. And it was when Evangelista was away on her modelling assignments, that Marie would then take advantage of Sutton.

"It is roughly 30 years ago that this photo was taken of me," she testified earlier this month in Paris, while displaying a magazine with her face on the cover. "This was my first French Elle cover. I was 17-years-old, and I remember it vividly. And at the same time the photo was taken, Gérald’ Marie had started to sexually assault me. And it was made very, very clear that if I protested his advances and the relationship that he wanted that it would impact my career. And that's exactly what happened. As soon as I did push back, I didn't work in France again."

Marie, who is now in his 70s and lives in Ibiza, Spain, has denied the accusations. He was known as one of the most important people in the industry, a gatekeeper who could make or break a model’s career. And that's what happened with Sutton. She was soon working in the US and never in Paris, which is where the industry crowned it's supermodels.

While Sutton was giving her testimony, her fellow 90s supermodels were showing their support, most notably her friends, Bruni and Christensen and also Paulina Porizkova. They took to Instagram to speak up, bringing even more attention to the case.

The fashion industry has been rocked by accusations from a number of models accusing industry players of sexual assault and predatory behaviour. Photographers like Bruce Weber, Terry Richardson and Mario Testino have been blacklisted after models accused the photographers of sexual assault and misconduct that they allege happened on their sets.

It led to publishers, like Conde Nast, which publishes Vogue, GQ and Vanity Fair, to create a code of conduct on their shoots, where the safety of models is paramount. In 2018, the publisher released a statement saying that their code aims “to safeguard the dignity and well-being of all who work with its brands."

The code includes two key guidelines to protect models: "We recommend that a model should not be alone with a photographer, make-up artist or other contributor participating in a Condé Nast shoot. Throughout the shoot, including any related travel, photographers and videographers may not shoot anyone engaged by or through Condé Nast other than as requested by Condé Nast."

It may be the beginning of a better working environment for models after Sara Ziff founded the Model Alliance in 2012, a nonprofit labour advocacy organisation that looks after the interests of fashion models.

In 2009, she released a documentary, Picture Me, that featured heavily in the global film festival circuit, including the Durban International Film Festival. Picture Me followed Ziff from being a fresh face to one that adorns billboards and magazines around the world. It also showed the ugly behaviour of people in the fashion industry, from photographers and make-up artists, to hairstylists and agents.

The feedback from models watching the film led to her forming Models Alliance, three years later. "Models would come to these screenings and get really emotional talking about bad experiences they’ve had, and the film became this organising tool to raise awareness publicly, but also within the industry," she told Fashionista.

The models wanted a union to protect them and from these conversations, they formed Models Alliance.

Sutton worked with the union to speak out about being assaulted by Marie. Together with the union, they wrote a letter to the current owners of Elite Model Management, to make sure this never happened to another model again. The letter was addressed to Elite CEO, Julia Haart, who was the recent subject of a Netflix docu-series My Unorthodox Life. In the show she details how she wants the models signed with her agency to be safe at all times from sexual predators on set.

However, Sutton and Model Alliance’s letter accuses Haart of presenting herself as an advocate for women while profiting off her agency’s sordid past, and failing to make meaningful commitments to change.

The letter read in part: “As the world’s largest conglomerate of modelling agencies, Elite World Group has the power to fundamentally shift the modelling industry and end the cycle of abuse. Will you use it?”

Agencies have been part of the problem for many years and one supermodel has finally decided they have had enough with agencies and the lack of accountability.

In May, British model, Karen Eslon revealed that she was leaving all of her modelling agencies and would now represent herself.

“Magazines shift the blame on agents, agents shift the blame on the clients, and no one wants to take real responsibility for the things we all know occur,” she wrote on Instagram. “We need to figure out why the fashion industry enables so much toxicity and finally make positive changes for the better.”

This article first appeared in Saturday Insider, Sep 25, 2021

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