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When Will Sexual Harassment Go Out of Fashion?

Though the #MeToo movement of 2017 may have helped bring awareness to the overwhelming presence of sexual harassment in everyday life, allegations continue to circulate through the fashion industry years later. The recent call for the removal of Paul Marciano, the Guess co-founder who has faced a series of sexual harassment accusations dating back to 1983, puts the focus back on eradicating this behavior once and for all.

To do that, activists are hitting the brand where it hurts most: the purse strings.

At the beginning of the year, Marciano was accused of raping a model referred to anonymously as “Jane Doe 3” in February 2013 while she was visiting the U.S. For activist hedge fund Legion Partners, a “significant shareholder” of Guess, Inc., that was the fashion executive’s coup de grace. With the same influence it used to drive boardroom change at Bed Bath & Beyond, Kohl’s, Genesco and Perry Ellis for performance-related issues, the activist firm published a public letter calling for the same at Guess. It demanded that the company immediately remove Marciano—as well as co-founder and brother Maurice Marciano, who it says enabled the abuse—from his executive role or commit that he will not be re-nominated at the upcoming 2022 annual meeting of shareholders.

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Guess denied any wrongdoing, pointing to its previously established “special committee” which it said conducted more than 40 personal interviews and reviewed over 1.5 million pages of documents, the findings of which were made public in June 2018. It then proceeded to move up its annual shareholders meeting—typically held in June—to April 22, which Legion Partners claimed was an attempt to “freeze current share ownership positions.” The Guess board, however, said it notified Legion Partners in advance of its plan to set an annual meeting date “that would allow Guess shareholders the earliest opportunity to vote on the matters that Legion Partners has raised.”

On Wednesday, the firm published a presentation outlining the executive’s record of allegations and once again called for action.

Guess Inc. responded Thursday, describing Legion Partners’ claims that the board has “turned a blind eye” to allegations regarding Paul Marciano as “demonstrably false” and noted that Maurice Marciano is not involved in board discussions regarding his brother.

“The Guess Board takes allegations of sexual impropriety or unethical conduct extremely seriously,” Guess Inc. stated.

Despite the firm’s persistence, Guess said it plans to keep both brothers employed while it conducts an investigation—a move that echos the brand’s response to an earlier incident. In 2018, model Kate Upton accused Paul of verbal harassment and inappropriate touching when she modeled for the denim label in 2010. The accusation triggered an investigation and resulted in settlement agreements totaling $500,000 with five individuals who had accused the founder of sexual harassment. At the time, Marciano resigned from his role as executive chairman, only to be quietly welcomed back as a Guess board member and chief creative officer a year later.

Recent accounts

Models have long been the target of sexual harassment at the hands of people in charge, perhaps most famously depicted by model and actor Emily Ratajkowski, who in 2020 published a New York Magazine essay entitled “Buying Myself Back: When Does a Model Own Her Own Image?” The account detailed her experience with photographer Jonathan Leder, who she alleges sexually assaulted her during a photoshoot at his home in 2012, and four years later published a book of the photos without her consent. Leder denies the allegations.

Around that same time, a New York Times report highlighted accusations against Ed Razek, who ultimately stepped down as president and chief marketing officer at Victoria’s Secret parent company L Brands. Allegations included bullying, lewd comments and sexual harassment aimed at models including Bella Hadid.

Another one of the most powerful names in fashion, modeling executive and Elite Europe president Gerald Marie has faced similar accusations from at least 24 women, including models Milla Jovovich, Karen Elson, Carla Bruni and Paulina Porizkova. He was accused of repeatedly raping model Carre Otis at his apartment when she was 17 years old.

Disturbing allegations were also made toward Peter Nygard, the former chairman of Canadian clothing brand Nygard International. In December 2020, the executive was charged with a nine-count indictment including racketeering, sex trafficking and related crimes arising from a decades-long pattern of criminal conduct.

During a 25-year period through 2020, Nygard reportedly recruited female victims—some of whom were minors—for his and his associates’ sexual gratification. He and his associates are accused of sexually assaulting some victims who did not comply with their demands, as well as drugging them to ensure their compliance. Nygard was forced to resign from his position and was later arrested in 2020. His offenses were depicted in the Discovery+ true-crime documentary “Unseamly: The Investigation of Peter Nygard” last year.

Still, the executive has yet to be tried: In February 2022, a Toronto court delayed proceedings on his trial to determine whether to extradite him to the U.S. to face separate charges there.

And allegations of sexual harassment are not exclusive to women. In late 2020, fashion designer Alexander Wang faced a number of accusations of sexual misconduct from models who identify as male and trans. One anonymous accuser claimed they were given molly water laced with MDMA, and another alleged that Wang “started touching [him] up” at a New York City club in 2017. In 2021, The Cut reported that Wang met with 11 of his accusers who recounted their experiences, after which he vowed to do better and “expressed regret without offering an outright apology.” It was unclear whether or not an arrangement or financial agreement was determined during the meeting. Though the allegations initially drove celebrities and consumers to boycott the brand, it seems like some are returning. Actress Lucy Liu appeared in Alexander Wang’s recent resort campaign.

Famous fashion photographers have also faced allegations. In 2018, the New York Times reported accounts from 15 models alleging that photographer Bruce Weber, who has led ad campaigns for Calvin Klein, Ralph Lauren, Abercrombie & Fitch and others, coerced them into unnecessary nudity and sexual behavior during photo shoots. The same report highlighted accusations against photographer Mario Testino, which alleged sexual advances toward 13 male assistants that in some cases included groping and masturbation. Representatives for both photographers denied the claims.

Industry response

The publicity surrounding all of these accounts has helped open the conversation of sexual abuse among models and trigger an industry response—including what some consider to be public relations stunts from companies looking to clear their names of wrongdoing. Such was the case for Guess which, following the January 2021 allegations against Marciano from anonymous model Jane Doe and former employee Eileen Toal, launched its Guess Safe Spaces/Model2Model Program in April. Through the program, participants have access to the Violence Intervention Program (VIP), a community family advocacy center. Guess and VIP did not respond to requests for comment on the initiative.

Consisting of skill-based training, professional mentorship and emotional and mental health assistance, the program was developed by model Xian Mikol, along with victims-rights attorney Micha Star Liberty, the program’s advisor, and with support from the Guess executive team—including Marciano. The program’s debut immediately sparked outrage among the modeling community, including the Model Alliance, a support organization created by and for models, which called the initiative “a charade.”

“Developed in part by Mr. Marciano himself, the program presents itself as ‘the first in the industry to approach workers’ rights from the models’ perspective and proactively address a variety of issues that models commonly experience,'” the organization said in a series of tweets on April 19, 2021. “As a worker-led organization that has advanced models’ rights in the workplace for almost a decade, the Model Alliance cannot let this charade go unchecked. Any program that continues to harbor a known predator like Mr. Marciano does not create a ‘safe space’ for models to seek support.”

The Model Alliance added that the mere structure of the program puts the responsibility on the models themselves rather than on the “systems of power that enable such abuse.”

Since 2012, the model rights group has worked to create a safer working environment in the industry. In 2018, it unveiled its legally binding Respect Program, which outlines a detailed code of conduct, educates and protects models on their rights to speak up and addresses economic vulnerability, and has followed through on efforts to create change. In November 2020, it published a study of 76 fashion models reporting on behaviors and experiences during the Fall 2018 New York Fashion Week that focused on the implementation of policies such as providing private changing areas and requiring medical certificates to mitigate the risk of sexual harassment and unhealthy behaviors in the community.

Model groups aside, some of the most recent allegations in the fashion industry were condemned—and often times, first reported—by watchdog groups with a strong presence on social media. Now with a following of 245k on its @shitmodelmgmt Instagram page, Shit Model Management is credited with exposing the allegations toward Wang in 2020. The group joined forces with fellow fashion watchdog group Diet Prada to elevate victims’ stories when they were first shared. Those stories encouraged others to come forward, and eventually caught the attention of many major news outlets.

But the group didn’t start out with the intention of exposing sexual assault allegations. Shit Model Management was founded by an anonymous model in 2016 as a way to vent frustrations about castings and agents, using memes and humor as a way to connect with others experiencing similar obstacles. It soon evolved into an outlet for models to share experiences of discrimination and racism, and eventually led to the publishing of a blacklist of photographers with a history of acting inappropriately toward models.

While there’s much more work to be done in holding individuals and groups accountable for abuse, the industry is celebrating trailblazers who seek justice. Model Alliance founder Sara Ziff was recently honored with the French National Order of Merit at the Consulate General of France for her work in advancing model rights, which included holding Marie accountable for the rape allegations against him. Last fall, the Council of Fashion Designers of America (CFDA) honored the Model Alliance with the first Positive Social Influence Award.

“It’s nice to be recognized after banging the drum for so many years,” she told WWD. “But I’m really in this to create meaningful change. The question still is, ‘Will companies step up to address issues of rampant wage theft, lack of financial transparency, sexual misconduct and even trafficking?’”