Interview and Text: Jess Mederos
The American Fashion Industry has an accountability problem. Industry insiders have long criticized the abuses artists and models face at the hands of “untouchable” bad actors within the fashion industry. Delayed payment, complete lack of payment, sexual harassment, threats of intimidation, and extortion by fashion magazines are just some of the abuses that individuals in the fashion industry face on a daily basis. The glamorous veneer of fashion hides the treachery that lies within the belly of this multi-billion dollar beast. According to the Congressional Joint Economic Committee, in 2017 alone, Americans spent over 380 billion dollars on clothing and apparel. Money, which in part is made through the efforts of those who work on photo and video sets, and create images for fashion advertising. This includes makeup artists, hairstylists, fashion stylists, photographers, set designers, models, nail artists, etc. Set workers, more often than not, work as freelance gig workers. They work without health insurance, retirement benefits or paid time off. Routinely companies have a “net 30” payment schedule. Meaning, artists are paid at or before 30 days from receipt of their invoice. However, artists are tirelessly fighting for their payments to be delivered within this time period. “I often have to wait 60 to 90 days for payment, and I have to keep reaching out every 30 days”, says makeup artist, Caitlin Wooters “theres often some run around from clients that don’t pay on time”. In addition to chasing clients down for payment, artists even have to take matters to the courts, suing companies to pay their invoices, sometimes years after they are due. Legislatures have made small strides in combating these problems, New York in particular enacted the Freelance Isn’t Free Act in May of 2017, which extended some protections to the freelance workforce. However, artists are still afraid to use the law to their advantage as the threat of retaliation looms and is incredibly difficult to prove in court.
Industry watchdog sites are necessary in this new world of exploiting workers, and Instagram has provided a reach and platform for them that has never before been accessible. Accountability Project, along with the Instagram accounts of Diet Prada and Shit Model Management are holding companies and individuals accountable for their actions in the only way that seems to have any traction — publicly calling them out on social media.
We had the chance to talk to Accountability Project about where they started, and what it looks like to call people in power out on their bad behavior.
What is the mission of Accountability Project (AP)?
Accountability Project is an initiative against the lack of accountability present in the fashion/advertising industry. AP’s aim is to be a voice for set workers who can’t speak up due to fear of losing income sources, threats of retaliation, etc,. Any set worker in an oppressed role can report on AP.
You have decided to run the Instagram account anonymously, can you talk a little about that?
The anonymity of both my identity and that of my reporters is paramount. The job of exposing abuse comes with many many risks: threats to my career, lawsuits, financial burden, and even threats to me and my family’s lives, believe it or not.
Wow. That is terrifying, but not surprising to me. When did you start AP? Was there a specific incident or reason that made you start this page?
I have always had a very strong sense of justice and much stronger than average perseverance/commitment levels. I endured, and STILL endure abuse in the NYC fashion industry for over a decade (at the time AP was created, on Halloween 2018, I had done so for 13 years). After facing a type of abuse that was just too absurd, my thoughts were: “I can’t believe that at this point of my career this card is still played… I am so tired of swallowing this… and I know my peer/friends are all in the same boat, but faking it like they are immune to it just to save face and stay afloat”. I decided to finally do something about it. It was a “that’s it” moment.
I realized I had a naive notion about the hardships of the industry – a notion that ended up never manifesting itself: I was certain that with time, as I gathered more seniority in the NYC market with a very respected representation history, great clients, and status with magazine covers and high profile photographers/models under my belt, that the abusive scenario would diminish greatly. What happened instead is that the abuse just developed from “less professional” abuse types, like not having payment in time, or. not having images sent by the photgrapher, or just dealing with production chaos because early-career work more often stems from less organized/less professional folks, to straight up soul-less corporate psychopathy byproduct, like stealing clients, sabotaging of artists, blackmail, coercion, retaliation, coups/scams and all sorts of other premeditated corrupt practices.
I couldn’t be quiet anymore, especially after living through (and by no means comparing AP’s initiative to the following giants): “anonymous”/occupy wall street, the “Arab Spring” that rose from social media, the “#metoo” movement…all of the internet-based leaks… all of that influenced me to think that this is an era that cares about transparency and accountability powered by the anonymity of the internet.
I realized artists are at the “bitter end” of an unfair hierarchical system where power holders are allowed to abuse and remain unchecked – and the fashion world accounts for 95% of the reports. We don’t have unions, or strong enough laws to protect us, we need more than “Freelance Isn’t Free”. We also need a way for peers to exchange wisdom and navigate the industry, there is very little community building in fashion due to the nature of the industry – sales driven by ostentation and competition – and due to the extreme saturation – worker’s competing for jobs which creates animosity.
I took the reporting task to make me feel like I wasn’t just another person accepting these unspoken oppressive rules. Instagram just happened to be the media fashion uses the most.
This is so inspiring, as someone who works in the fashion industry myself, I am so grateful for your work. How many reports do you get in a week? Of those reports how many actually make it to the Instagram page?
I can safely say it’s more than I can handle, which is why I created the “Snake Tab” in Instagram Stories, because some reports have to go straight there. I want to make quality content and educational reports about the most relevant abuses practiced in the industry. I don’t count how many alerts per week, it’s too busy already to compile even more data about this project. They definitely fluctuate in a chaotic way. The more reports I publish, the more interactions I have: comments, questions, people trying to understand how such abuse can happen, added information and most importantly: vouching for the report. I reply to everyone aside from standard “reactions” to posts. The engagement on my Direct Messages (DM) is crazy. I am often talking with about 30-50% of followers… I have always at least 10 new messages every “quiet day” and after a report the number grows to 70-100, depending on the nature of the report. On busy days I am constantly checking and engaging, dedicating many hours to DM background work.
You are literally working a second full time job on this. Can you give us some info on your vetting process? How you decide what reports are authentic and make it to a post?
I knew I would have to deal with the dark side of the internet-era: false reporting, personally motivated reports, hate and cancel culture, follower’s scrutiny and juggling the ethics of being alone. I can’t rely on help yet due to firstly, not being able to pay for someone to assist me and second, finding it hard to trust anyone else with this task.
Before I got any followers, I reflected long and hard about strategies/rules to check myself and avoid mistakes that could bias my reporting.
– Only first hand accounts (witnessed abuse is accounted too, as well as public posts from Original Poster (OP) or reliable news media.
– The need for detailed stories and answering of questions to check the logic of a report.
– Reports against individuals need to be either supported by evidence or by public vouching/multiple reporters.
– I always ask myself if the report is not solely personally motivated or what misunderstandings or reasons for the behavior reported could potentially justify it
– Reports must come from identified artist accounts and records must be kept
– I will never share identifying info of either reporters or myself
– I always check if photos of conversations, emails, or documents can be posted with the permission of the reporter, and I always try to take an educational approach to how to deal with the different categories of abuse
– I will not give special treatment to reported abusers who happen to be friends/idols to me (and I find that rule quite easy to follow) or to myself if I am ever reported, that would be challenging but thankfully, I haven’t had to endure that.
The industry as a whole de-incentivize speaking up. I have been directly taught and advised in workshops, at industry parties, agency meetings and through witnessing other situations where someone tried to point a flaw in this system, that confronting any problem or abuse burned bridges, made an artist be pinned as dramatic, and resulted in an artist facing alienation from the industry – clients, agencies, peers and all dropping them. No one in fashion used to applaud calling out habits. So it’s a controversial job…
Have you been threatened by any of the entities you’ve outed? How so?
Yeah, people get aggressive sometimes: threats about finding out my identity, ruining my career, finding out where I live, killing me…but these people are just out of control crazy, they mostly are trying to intimidate me. I have had a few cease and desist letters from lawyers sent and one attempt at hacking into my account but I have it all two factored and cleaned. The archives of conversations are kept on an external HD now.
I certainly knew to expect the worse from people who are being reported: if they abuse people with no remorse they would likely not take the idea of “accountability” gracefully. Corporations have money to follow through with lawsuits and try to discover my identity so they can sue me for defamation, etc. Once you understand the difference in magnitude between the average artist and who they serve, you get perspective on how risky AP could be to my career. I protected myself by being anonymous from the start, even while setting up accounts. I use every measure possible to not be identified or hacked: no records, no trace.
I also know that an account like “Diet Prada” eats Cease and Desist letters for breakfast. I have fought my share of legal battles against clients and I am somewhat interested in the law in a practical way. I also can count on followers who are also experienced: people who share their knowledge with me for many of the new steps of this process. Finally, I consult with lawyers from time to time to get advice and so far I try to find solace on the knowledge that if I do the job ethically and follow my own rule set, I will likely be safe. The fact is that if the report is accurate it is not defamation. The truth is not defamation and the truth can be spoken about, as long as it is well founded. Also, there is a historical right to anonymity when it comes to whistle blowing. For a substantiated claim of defamation, the claimant has to prove what is reported is in fact untruthful, not the other way around. I keep records and I have the reporters willing to testify if it ever came to it. The reported party is unlikely to want to pursue legal action that will result in them losing and being further exposed.
There is still a massive threat to my career, specially with “big fish” reports but for now, I will take my chances: my commitment to helping other people who’s crushing industry experience I relate so much to is more relevant than continuing to help selling fashion products and it’s attached anxieties. Fashion is still my bread and butter, sure, but I sometimes wonder how I ended up in this industry. I get less and less attached to my identity as a fashion worker and more and more attached to an anti-establishment role.
It’s not just lawsuits that pose risk, I also anticipated some corporate attempts of “buying” me: I am prepared to have corporations rub money in my snake face in exchange for information from reports/reporter identity and to say no every single time, and delight at their outrage at this inconceivable notion of resisting money lures. I can be stubborn and money isn’t my god. I think I have more than enough and I don’t need to spoil it with excesses.
Where do you see the future of AP going?
I don’t know, really. I am trying to grow it and make it happen in other markets (UK, Italy, France, Australia, etc.) but a lot of it depends on people sharing it’s existence. There are limitations to expansion: I need to learn a lot about how the foreign markets operate in relation to the United States.
There is also a chance that I can’t justify doing it for much longer given the hours I put into it with no pay. I get about $250 from Patreon from 53 donors. It’s a small percentage of my followers and it’s not enough to reasonably pay myself. This project has expenses that go beyond just time commitment – I pay my VPN and I set aside money for legal battles. It takes a toll on me and this year allowed me to dedicate more hours to it, but in a regular non-pandemic year, I won’t be able to take hours away from things that pay my bills to continue on.
That would be a tragedy. I encourage all of our readers to support Accountability Project on Patreon – which you can do here — SUPPORT
Is there anything you would like to add before we finish up?
There should absolutely be more protective laws enacted for freelancers. The fact is that NYC has an astronomical cruise-ship-load of freelancers and the trend going forward is for that number to grow – comprised of real freelancers and the “permalancers” that companies love so much.
It is also an ideological/political issue: Compared to other countries, the US has a “non paternalistic” approach to labor laws: there are capitalistic/libertarian ideologies in the very foundations of the country and that affects everything. A worker is not protected by public policy. The prerogatives are usually on the business’ side, unlike other “first world” countries. In the US the burden of chasing rights is on the worker. Take the situation with bankruptcy coups: businesses elsewhere aren’t allowed to simply declare bankruptcy for a fresh start: change investors and their underground business name keeping the DBA while operating like before. These internal changes are irrelevant and invisible to the public who, therefore, continue to buy products via artist assets and labor that won’t ever be paid for. The corporation knows this and when the books tell them “it’s time to file Chapter 11 to save our asses” they go ahead and hire TONS of freelance workers.
In some European countries if you declared bankruptcy a given number of times you aren’t even allowed to open another business for an “x” amount of time, as a punitive measure. But the laws in the US are for-enterprise, first and foremost. One could argue it’s for the benefit of the country and its financial progress but it is also to the detriment and lowering of their quality of life of artists over time. In the end it is just the good old criticism to the wild unrestrained capitalism in the US… It has lots of bad side-effects and it needs revision.