Dying to be skinny
The size zero debate rages on, with reports of casting directors mistreating models. One former model shares her story with our reporter
Yesterday saw the finale of Paris Fashion Week, wrapping up another season of fabulous clothes, cooler-than-thou street style stars and, of course, lots of skinny models. To the casual observer, modelling is all about looks but behind the scenes, it's a numbers game.
When Victoire Dauxerre was scouted, she was 18. At 5'10" she weighed 58kgs. In the eight weeks between signing with Elite Paris - the monolith agency that represents the likes of Cara Delevingne and Kendall Jenner - and her first fashion show, she lost 10kgs. For fashion shows she was told models must be a size 4 but could go up to a size 6 for photoshoots.
After walking at New York, Paris, Milan and London fashion weeks she found herself placed among the top 20 working models in the world. Eight months later she was nearly dead.
Dauxerre was hospitalised after attempting suicide, and then admitted to a rehabilitation clinic for three months where she recovered physically and mentally. She was told she had the skeleton of a 70-year-old.
Now 24 and an aspiring actress, the only thing she counts is how lucky she is to be out of the industry and strong enough to tell her story. Her book Size Zero: My Life As A Disappearing Model was released last year but the English-language version has just hit shelves, bringing with it a second round of attention for the harrowing story within its pages.
While the book has been criticised for detailing the steps Dauxerre took to lose the weight, her intention was to expose the demands of the industry and the lengths models must go to achieve the 'ideal' weight. It makes for difficult reading but such frank details are necessary to talk about the brutal reality of the industry.
After reading Dauxerre's horrific account, it is not the instances of abuse and manipulation that are most striking. Instead it is her candour, the naming and shaming, that makes the book so compelling. She recalls meeting Miuccia Prada at castings, where the famed Italian designer would inspect her without looking her in the eyes, acknowledging her with no more than a small shove in the back to start parading, and describes being dismissed from a Chanel casting because "Karl Lagerfeld doesn't like breasts. Your 32A is still too much for him".
These details, Dauxerre says, were vital in making sure the book landed with the velocity she intended.
"In the original version I keep all the real names, whereas I had to remove some in the English version because of legal reasons in this country," Dauxerre says of her adopted London home.
"Of course I wanted to keep the big ones like Miuccia Prada and Karl Lagerfeld. Otherwise it has no impact if you remove those names because it reads like fiction - whereas it's real."
Dauxerre has not been contacted by any of her former associates to apologise or even defend themselves. But finally, change is afoot.
American model Sara Ziff (33) has long been a vocal proponent of models' rights. Her 2010 documentary Picture Me was filmed over the course of five years by Ziff's boyfriend Ole Schell. The footage featured instances of sexual harassment, abuse and general mistreatment of models who are vulnerable mostly because they are very, very young. In 2012 Ziff formed Model Alliance, an advocacy group in the US staffed by volunteers. Its first major coup was the implementation of legislation to protect underage models. Previously, models under the age of 18 were excluded from regulations that protect child performers. After Ziff's Model Alliance lobbied alongside New York state senators Jeffrey Klein and Diane Savino, the proposed legislation was passed and came into effect in 2013.
British model Charli Howard (inset) made headlines in 2015 when she published an open letter on Facebook to her former modelling agency. She revealed that at 5'8" and size 6-8 she was told she was "out of shape". Howard used her newly elevated profile to found All Woman Project along with model/blogger Clémentine Desseaux. The foundation promotes realistic images using models of all ages, ethnicities and sizes in unretouched photoshoots.
Dauxerre speaks regularly with both Ziff and Howard, forming an accidental Holy Trinity with a geographic presence that just about extends across the four major fashion capitals. Dauxerre offers insight into the French industry and is all too aware of its shortcomings.
In 2015, the French government passed a bill that requires models to have a doctor's note deeming them healthy enough to work. It was a step in the right direction but the reliance on the ambiguous Body Mass Index (BMI) that is used to determine a model's health makes it nearly impossible to regulate. Dauxerre points out that she never saw a doctor after signing her contract and even if she did the extreme weight loss she underwent in those eight weeks would have been missed.
According to Dauxerre, even if the bill demanded a trip to the doctor every week it's unlikely it would be taken seriously by an industry that has long been a law unto itself.
"I had a meeting with the French Minister of Health and she told me that she actually met with all the designers and they told her if you apply the law, we will make fashion week in another country," she says.
There are glimmers of hope, however. Last week, lauded casting director James Scully took to Instagram to allege he had been contacted by a number of models telling him casting agents Maida and Rami, who Scully described as "serial abusers", had held a casting for Balenciaga in which girls were told to wait for more than three hours in a cramped, darkened stairwell with no food or water.
One half of the duo Maida Gregori Boina has denied the claims but Balenciaga swiftly made a statement that it had cut ties with the agency. Dauxerre is optimistic, but feels that until designers address the vicious cycle that demands models fit into their tiny samples, the pressure to maintain an unhealthy weight will continue.
"For me, designers really are the responsible ones because they say 'we want size 2 for 5'10" models and we are going to create the clothes in this size'. So then of course agencies have to scout models who are this size. If designers said we want size 10 models, agencies would scout size 10 models."
She is at a loss when discussing designers like Phoebe Philo, the hugely influential creative director of Celine. Dauxerre has only positive things to say about her time working for her - except her use of underweight models.
"Honestly, it's a mystery to me because these people are clever and very nice and good human beings," she says.
The 'size zero debate' has been a talking point for the best part of a decade. It seems the only way to incite real change is for it to come from within. Scully, Dauxerre and Ziff have all worked in the inner sanctum of high fashion and are acutely aware of the processes that result in severely underweight models. Scully's Instagram post rallied the troops with comments from Helena Christensen, Carolyn Murphy and Antoine Arnault, CEO of Berluti, who told Scully if he heard of anything similar happening at any fashion house within the Arnault luxury empire to come to him directly.
Peer pressure may well save the day. With voices like Dauxerre's, there is real hope that this is the beginning of the end for a very ugly side to the fashion industry.
Size Zero by Victoire Dauxerre is out now (HarperCollins, €15.99)