When #MeToo came into fashion

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Credit: Illustration by Tam Nguyen

#MeToo movement firings have come so fast and furious over the past six months that it's been hard to fully process the ultimate repercussions of some of the ousters.

The immediate effects are, of course, obvious—particularly if you work at a company that's had a #MeToo firing or know someone who works at such a company. Leadership suddenly changes, reporting structures are shifting and new policies are being instituted while everyone simultaneously swings between coping with the trauma and, well, celebrating (if you were among those waiting for a particular shoe to drop, that is).

Meanwhile, how industries are creatively transformed—as increasing numbers of long-dominant men suddenly have to cede their power, and more and more women grab the reins—will take some time to discern.

But in one industry, at least, I suspect we'll start to see a dramatic creative revolution almost immediately.

It's hard to overstate how much the fashion-industrial complex has been rocked by a series of exposés surrounding a handful of high-profile A-list photographers. Fashion glossies have taken the lead in reacting swiftly, issuing internal orders not to commission new work from the alleged sexual harassers/predators, with fashion labels following thereafter.

For instance, Terry Richardson, who has shot countless fashion features and covers over the years for Condé Nast publications including Vogue and GQ, was banned at the corporate level last October in the wake of new allegations (and Condé titles globally were told his work in their pipelines should be "killed or substituted with other material"), with other publishers quickly following suit. And then brands that have given him campaign work in the past, including Bulgari, Diesel and Valentino, also said that they would no longer hire him.

In January, Condé and other publishers, again followed by various fashion brands, announced they would stop working with photographers Bruce Weber and Mario Testino in the wake of a major investigation of sexual misconduct allegations published by The New York Times. And the cycle was repeated in February for yet more fashion-world talents—including, most notably, photographer Patrick Demarchelier—who were the subject of a Boston Globe investigation that resulted in more industry bans. (The photographers have each denied specific allegations.)

You know all of these men, even if their names aren't familiar, because essentially every major U.S. and European magazine that runs fashion features and/or celebrity profiles has used them endlessly over the past couple of decades. (The falls from grace are fresh enough—and editorial and ad campaign lead times long enough—that you can still find work by these photographers all over the newsstand.) Each of them has a particular style that's instantly recognizable. A Richardson portrait, for instance, is typically starkly lit and often sexually charged. Testino's work is famously loud and also sexually charged. Demarchelier has a softer, more elegant sensibility that's in keeping with his former role as Princess Diana's personal photographer. Weber shoots homoerotic images (often in black-and-white) of hunky all-American jocks. Together they've helped define not only generations of fashion photography, but contemporary art history; each of these men's work has been the subject of gallery shows, monographs and museum exhibitions around the world.

As a recovering (sort-of) member of the fashion-industrial complex—over the years I've been on the mastheads of a number of American fashion magazines as an editor and/or writer—it occurs to me that the untold story of this murderer's row of fashion-photography greats is how ridiculously dominant they've been and how insane the cost structure around their work was. As a guy on the often lesser-funded side of glossy publishing—the part involved in coming up with, you know, mere words—I always thought to myself, "What an insane racket."

Not only were these A-list fashion photographers absurdly well compensated, but small armies were involved in their art-making. I once spent a day on a set of a Vogue fashion shoot (led by an A-list photographer not among the accused) that was populated by so many workers—multiple photographer assistants plus stylists, assistant stylists, set builders, prop wranglers, makeup artists, etc.—that it rivaled the movie and TV sets I've been on. All to produce a 10-page fashion feature.

The dirty little secret of the great fashion-industry purge of '17-'18—beyond an entrenched, unchecked culture of sexual misconduct—is that the racket was rapidly running out of steam already. (The editor of a major fashion magazine recently complained to me about ever-shrinking editorial and art budgets.)

Glossies and fashion brands have been paying through the nose for the halo effect of working, over and over and over again, with a relatively small number of famous male photographers. It's gotten, let's just admit it, same-y and tedious and utterly unsurprising—and the outsize spending devoted to supporting this status-quo hegemony has stood in the way of the evolution of fashion-industry visuals.

In short, it took #MeToo to get the fashion-industrial complex to realize that some of the powerful, aging men who defined the way we look at fashion ... were actually in the way.

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