Italy's fashion models go on strike

By Peter Popham

ROME - They are not manning pickets or hanging about on the threshold of Gap thrusting flyers in shoppers' hands, but yesterday the fashion models of Italy followed the example of the nations' pilots, judges, teachers, journalists and just about everybody else except parish priests and went on strike.

It was the first such strike in the history of the industry.

Stylists, photographers, hairdressers and all the other backroom staff involved in Italy's fashion business likewise downed tools.

The enemy: American companies which set up shop in Milan on the eve of big catwalk events, hoover up the work and then vanish, and rogue agencies which lure girls into "modelling" work which turns out to be something quite different.

Also in the crosshairs are the "unpatriotic" Italian women's magazines which are accused of obsessively locating their fashion shoots abroad, robbing the local industry of work.

In the model agencies of Milan, telephones went unanswered, photoshoots went un-shot and contracts went unsigned as the industry took a concerted three-hour break to express its disgust with what it calls "unfair competition" from foreign agencies, particularly American ones.

The big American fish in the agency pond are charged with dropping in on the eve of Milan fashion week, setting up ad hoc Italian branches, snagging all the work and then flying off home - without even paying their taxes.

The invoices are sourced to Luxembourg, and once the fashion shows are over, they are off.

"They come to work in Italy," fumed Guido Dolci, president of ASSEM, which represents the top Italian model agencies, "and they don't have to pay taxes, while if we work in France or the US we have to get a licence and enrol in the Chamber of Commerce." "We are demanding that the same rules apply to our foreign competitors as apply to us," Dolci adds.

Piero Piazzi, a legendary Italian talent scout and manager of an agency called Women Model, known as the "King of Models" in Italy, commented, "They take the work in the period of greatest interest. But they shouldn't then just shut up shop. They should stay in business with their office and employees. It should be like in France, with the licences, inscription in a register and the deposit of a sum of money as a guarantee."

The other evil caused by the absence of regulation, the agencies complain, is that the legitimate agencies are readily confused with criminal gangs masquerading as model agencies who import foreign girls to work as hostesses and prostitutes.

Giovanni Alfieri, Mr Dolci's deputy, said, "Deregulation is making our work impossible. For example, on a daily basis we meet embassy staff to obtain entry visas for the foreign girls, many of them from Eastern Europe. Now we've realised that in those countries they have no way of knowing if one agency is a serious agency which provides modelling work - and another gets the girls to come to Italy for other reasons altogether. This way it can happen that not having a licence to produce, visas are denied to everybody."

"We are starting with a token three hour strike," adds Dolci, "but if we don't get results we are ready to make our feelings known at the next fashion week."

The agencies which belong to ASSEM - 15 account for 85 per cent of catwalk work - are demanding a register of agencies to which all agencies wishing to work in Italy must belong.

Piazzi addes, "A register is a weapon of defence also for the girls who want to work on the catwalk. With a register, we would get rid of fake agencies which offer job opportunities which have nothing to do with the catwalk."

Eva Riccobono, one of the handful of Italian models famous internationally, threw her weight behind ASSEM's stand.

"The Italian agencies are the most professional, yet they enjoy much less protection than those in France," she said. "And a good agency is fundamental. I have seen too many girls destroy their careers through being badly managed."

The other target of the striking agencies is what they call "esterofilia" - excessive love of foreign parts.

Says Alfieri, "Often the Italian magazines support foreign agencies, photographers, models, stylists, hairdressers and locations. We don't want to lay down the law but why not work in Italy? Is or is not fashion our strong suit?

"'Esterofilia brings absurdities," comments Eva Riccobono. "When I lived in New York, I worked more in Italy than I do now I live here."


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