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How young is too young to walk the ramp?

Italian fashion house Prada courted controversy recently, when they cast 14-year-old Dutch model Roos Abels for their Spring/Summer 2015 show at the Milan Fashion Week. Soma Das spoke to members from different spheres of India’s fashion fraternity for their take on this contentious issue.

It’s not just concerns over underweight models that rock the fashion world every now and then; underage models are also raising alarm bells. With 14-year-old Dutch model Roos Abels walking the ramp for Prada at the Milan Fashion Week, the issue has re-emerged as a talking point.

This photo taken in 2006, shows 16-year-old Aboriginal model Samantha Harris wearing a creation from the label Zambesi during Australian Fashion Week in Sydney. Harris, whose mother is Aboriginal and father is German, broke into the modelling world in 2003 and has been touted by agency insiders as the fashion world’s first Aboriginal supermodel.
This photo taken in 2006, shows 16-year-old Aboriginal model Samantha Harris wearing a creation from the label Zambesi during Australian Fashion Week in Sydney. Harris, whose mother is Aboriginal and father is German, broke into the modelling world in 2003 and has been touted by agency insiders as the fashion world’s first Aboriginal supermodel. 

In the past, the Italian luxury fashion house Prada was in a spot for casting the 14-year-old model Hailee Steinfeld and 15-year-old model Lindsey Wixson for high fashion brand Miu Miu’s campaigns. Even earlier, British model Kate Moss was discovered at the age of 14 and went on to have a trailblazing career in the world of fashion.

Wang Yang, a 16-year-old high school student from Zhejiang province, walks the ramp at the Shanghai Ascend International Model Competition after she won the golden award in 2000. 170 models from France, Greece, Italy, Norway, Israel, Estonia and the United States had taken part in the contest.
Wang Yang, a 16-year-old high school student from Zhejiang province, walks the ramp at the Shanghai Ascend International Model Competition after she won the golden award in 2000. 170 models from France, Greece, Italy, Norway, Israel, Estonia and the United States had taken part in the contest. 

Rules for the ramp
However, taking note of the rigours of modelling, especially for younger ones, the Council of Fashion Designers of America (CFDA) instituted guidelines in 2012, requiring models to be atleast 16 years old for appearing on the catwalk and brands were advised to check the ages of the models.

Sixteen year-old Nombulelo Mazibuko of South Africa walks down the ramp prior to winning the Face of Africa model competition in Cape Town in 2000. She was selected from 16 finalists from the continent of Africa. PICS/afp
Sixteen year-old Nombulelo Mazibuko of South Africa walks down the ramp prior to winning the Face of Africa model competition in Cape Town in 2000. She was selected from 16 finalists from the continent of Africa. Pics/AFP

In the same year, fashion magazine Vogue adopted a rule to stop using models under 16 or those who appear to have an eating disorder. Ironically, according to reports, the magazine was found to be flouting its own rules when in the same year, it featured the 15-year-old model Ondria Hardin in Vogue China, 15-year-old model Sarah Kees in Vogue Italia and 15-year-old model Julie Borawska in their Mexico issue.

Models walk the runway at Teen Vogue’s Back-to-School event in Los Angeles, California. Pic/AFP
Models walk the runway at Teen Vogue’s Back-to-School event in Los Angeles, California. Pic/AFP 

In 2013, New York State passed legislation declaring under-18 models to be ‘child performers’ and hence, entitled to breaks and limited working hours.

US model Lindsey Wixson presents a creation for Versace Atelier line in Paris. The model appeared in a Prada ad for Miu Miu at 15.  Pics/AFP
US model Lindsey Wixson presents a creation for Versace Atelier line in Paris. The model appeared in a Prada ad for Miu Miu at 15.  Pics/AFP 

While some countries and states have legislation restricting under-16 models, others including Italy, where the Milan Fashion Week controversy occurred, have no such rule. Globally, younger models continue to walk the ramp, as the issue remains a grey area.

Hailee Steinfeld was cast in a Prada campaign at 14. Pic/Getty
Hailee Steinfeld was cast in a Prada campaign at 14. Pic/Getty

The India perspective
Former model Anna Bredmeyer, who is currently a brand development consultant in the corporate world, entered the world of commercial modelling when she was 14 through press campaigns (not on the runway). She feels that younger models are entitled to make a choice for themselves, “If it doesn’t interfere with the model’s education and general well-being, they are entitled to their own choices in life. However, it’s important that their parents closely monitor it all, to ensure that a sensible balance is maintained between their health, education and professional life.”

15-year-old Laura Holzhauer on the catwalk in Amsterdam, in 2005
15-year-old Laura Holzhauer on the catwalk in Amsterdam, in 2005

Model Sucheta Sharma James, who has been modelling from 2004, observes that while modelling has gruelling working hours (15-16 hours a day), the age to enter the profession is a personal choice. “In the West, people start working from a young age. It’s their culture. By the time they reach 20, they are mature enough to walk into the world of competition. They start their modelling career at 13 or 14, and are represented by an agency, which signs them for 10-15 years.

Kate Moss was spotted at the age of 14 and posed for ‘test shots’
Kate Moss was spotted at the age of 14 and posed for ‘test shots’

But India has a different culture where the emphasis is on studies. We start modelling mostly post our higher studies, and are at least 17 by then. However, there is kids’ modelling all the time through Kids’ Fashion Weeks, print ads or television, and that needs to be looked into.” She also mentions the talent hunts increasingly being held to rope in younger models that are considered “fresh faces”.

In 2012, the 15-year-old Ondria Hardin was featured in Vogue China
In 2012, the 15-year-old Ondria Hardin was featured in Vogue China

Designer Archana Kochhar seconds James, stating that there is always a hunt for a fresh face, and new talent regardless of age. “As long as the child is doing one or two shows (maximum) per season and it doesn’t obstruct with their studies, it’s not as big an issue, provided parents are chaperoning them. With Indian society, being more conventional and conservative, this trend will take time to seep into the Indian approach.”

THEN AND NOW
If the clothes that the younger models are showcasing are actually intended for adult appeal and consumption, it’s  a misfit. – Anna Bredmeyer, former model
If the clothes that the younger models are showcasing are actually intended for adult appeal and consumption, it’s a misfit. – Anna Bredmeyer, former model 

James states that elder models aren’t missing out either. “To balance things, where experience is needed, you always opt for models who have been around,” she shares, adding that younger models should be helped to achieve a balance of work, travel and studies, so that they don’t depend on modelling to earn money later in life.

Lubna Adam
Putting young models in clothes meant for older women does not make sense; it’s wanting to create a controversy. — Lubna Adam, choreographer

Fashion choreographer Lubna Adam feels that India has models entering the profession at a later age, and is more interested in showstoppers.

As long as the younger model is doing 1-2 shows per season and it doesn’t obstruct with their studies, it’s not a big issue.
As long as the younger model is doing 1-2 shows per season and it doesn’t obstruct with their studies, it’s not a big issue. — Archana Kochhar, fashion designer

“If the clothes are for young models, there is nothing wrong in using them. Putting young models in clothes meant for older women does not make sense; it’s wanting to create a controversy,” she elaborates.

There must be a minimum age limit as well as a body size to avoid trauma. There also must be a chaperone for young models. Teenagers are merely kids! — Nachiket Barve, fashion designer
There must be a minimum age limit as well as a body size to avoid trauma. There also must be a chaperone for young models. Teenagers are merely kids! — Nachiket Barve, fashion designer

Start early, but at what cost?
Beauty is subjective and the norms of beauty change every few years, be it for curvy models or youthful androgyny. In the case of underage models, however, the losses are in terms of a youthful innocence that is lost forever.

Unlike the West, in India we start modelling mostly post our higher studies, and are at least 17 by then.  — Sucheta Sharma James, model
Unlike the West, in India we start modelling mostly post our higher studies, and are at least 17 by then. — Sucheta Sharma James, model

Designer Nachiket Barve feels that 16 should be the minimum age for models. “Most Indians wouldn’t allow their children to model until 17 or older. Also, the atmosphere in India and internationally is different. Modelling is a tough industry and one of the most precious things is childhood. If, for all other purposes 16 is the age considered, it’s preposterous to let a 14-year-old walk the runway.” He stresses that girls or boys younger than 16 are still coming to terms with their lives: “Public scrutiny and being ‘commodified’ is unhealthy. Remember the trauma suffered by Brooke Shields or many incognito faces who were celebrated, consumed and spat out by the system?”

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There is bitching backstage, catfights, jealousy... Children and teens shouldn’t be put through this. — Rasna Behl, former model choreographer

Barve isn’t comfortable with a younger model modelling his clothes and also cautions against objectification of models. “We live in times when child sexual abuse is rampant. Anything that objectifies or sexualises young kids or teenagers is simply not okay. I am against children walking the ramp or even taking part in reality shows. In fact, I have no issues with mature models as I feel experience and character add to a face.”

Former model choreographer Rasna Behl, who is now involved in corporate grooming, mentions that after gaining an outsider’s perspective, she realises that models are too self-obsessed. “There is an early focus on physical attributes and earning money at an early age, which can affect a person. A 13 or 14-year-old is discovering the world and having them obsess over their looks and fashion is cruel. They have to be emotionally ready; there is backstage bitching, catfights, jealousy... Children and teens shouldn’t be put through all this. With changing times, today we see kids’ fashion shows and even for birthday parties, children opting for blow-dried hair or getting their eyebrows shaped; this doesn’t seem right,” cautions Behl.

She blames the parents for putting such pressure on them. “Such models grow up fast but without the degree or intelligence that might help them through life,” she states,

reiterating that overseas, children take a sabbatical after school, and not everyone goes to college, so they can become models earlier.

She cites the example of Indian model Lymaraina D’Souza who was Miss India Universe 1998. D’Souza visited Hawaii that year as part of the pageant duties. She got a scholarship to study there, stayed back to pursue it, and later, took up a corporate career. “She used her contacts to take her education further. Modelling does not last forever,” advises Behl.

Where have the children gone?
Summing up the scenario, sociologist Dr Sarala Bijapurkar observes that thanks to an exposure to media, there is an eroding of the notion of childhood or innocence.

“There are now schools for developing ‘executive children’ or children equipped to handle executive careers. The idea of what a child or teen should do is undergoing a change. Parents are the ones who should draw a line and not push them; there is parental pressure, to excel that puts them in the limelight. But it’s not a world suitable for their age,” she informs.

Bijapurkar explains that while trying to understand themselves, they are pushed into an adult world, creating huge mental and emotional pressure, with an emphasis on the superficial, cosmetic way of looking good, where they don’t end up looking their age.

teenage fashion models, age controversy, Kate Moss, The Milan Fashion Week, Roos Abels, Dutch model, Spring/Summer edition, Prada, Anna Bredmeyer, Ondria Hardin, Laura Holzhauer, Hailee Steinfeld, Lindsey Wixson

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