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February 1, 2018

Us too: Sexual exploitation in Adelaide’s fashion industry

Adelaide is not immune from the tide of sexual misconduct revelations flooding fashion scenes around the world. Our local industry – with its own stories of horror – is due for a reckoning, writes CityMag's fashion director Sharmonie Cockayne.

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  • Words: Sharmonie Cockayne

On January 13, I sat in the back of a friend’s car on the road to Moana. An unread email from The New York Times entitled Open Thread: This Week in Style News sat in my inbox, amid a few less interesting reads.

Below the editor’s letter and above a story about airbrushing sat the headline: ‘Male Models Say Mario Testino and Bruce Weber Sexually Exploited Them.’

Sharmonie Cockayne is CityMag’s fashion director.

My immediate reaction: What the fuck.

I shouldn’t have been so shocked; in the increasingly liberated landscape of reporting sexual misconduct, it should come as no surprise that the fashion industry also has something to purge – those (un)professionals who undeniably and yet unaccountably abuse their positions of power.

But for some of the fashion industry’s most prolific fashion photographers to be called out so loudly, that was big.

“From agents to stylists to fashion brands, the system has traditionally seemed more invested in preserving its image of perfection and glamour than in recognizing its bad actors,” write authors Jacob Bernstein, Matthew Schneier and Vanessa Friedman.

Reflecting upon the part I play in Adelaide’s (tiny) fashion industry, I realise I too am an actor in the systematic sweeping under the rug of sexual misconduct.

I take part in the conversations before and between shooting on set – private conversations in which models, photographers, hair and makeup artists, assistants and stylists feel comfortable sharing their stories of unwanted encounters.

Words of warning are exchanged, but, generally speaking, it is within the bounds of those hushed conversations that these accounts stay.

Sexual misconduct happens within Adelaide’s fashion industry. It’s real, and it plays out no differently than it does in New York, or Paris, or Milan.

The story I have most often heard repeated by Adelaide’s models is the traumatising experience of a test shoot (an unpaid photoshoot young models are often sent to in order to gain experience and new portfolio images) in which they are made deeply uncomfortable by the shoot’s overtly sexual nature. The experience leaves these (often under-age) models feeling gross, used, and fearful of the industry they had once idolised.

There are particular name/s that come up again and again in these stories. From where I stand, aside from the warnings passed during hair and make-up, the consequences for such behaviour seem to be effectively non-existent.

The system has functioned this way forever, in Adelaide and abroad, and even with venerated names like Testino.

“It was general practice to give a model a heads-up about a specific photographer who we knew had a certain reputation,” Gene Kogan, who worked as an agent at Next Management from 1996 until 2002, is quoted in the New York Times as saying.

“If you said you were not going to work with someone like Bruce Weber or Mario Testino, you might as well just pack it in and go work in another industry.”

In Adelaide too, there is a similar dynamic, where I and my co-workers, who have heard this story recounted repeatedly over the years, have little power to wield in order to stop this behaviour.

But it needs to stop. So I am writing this.

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