Fashion is About to Have Its #MeToo Moment—And It’s Long Overdue

President of Elite Model Management, John Casablancas, wipes tears from the face of Benvinda Mundenge—the winner of the 'Face of Africa' model competition. Namibia, 1999. (ANNA ZIEMINSKI/AFP via Getty Images)

On Sept. 21, a former president of Elite Model Management was formally accused by four women of sexual assault. Gérald Marie ran the European arm of Elite for 25 years. Now three models—Carré Otis, Jill Dodd and Ebba Karlsson—along with journalist Lisa Brinkworth, have filed legal papers against Marie in Paris. Marie has “categorically” denied the accusations but, like Harvey Weinstein and Bill Cosby before him, rumors across his industry have painted him as a predator for decades.

Dodd wrote about being raped by Marie in her 2017 memoir, The Currency of Love. Otis made similar allegations in her 2011 autobiography, Beauty Disrupted, about events she said took place when she was 17. The detail she offered was harrowing. More recently, Otis told Lisa Brinkworth in The Times that, “The abuse was part of what was expected on the set from agents, photographers, stylists. If you don’t comply, you don’t work.”

In fact, looking at incidents reported by models and in the press as far back as the ’80s, an unhappy truth emerges: Marie is not an outlier in the industry. He is just one of several modeling executives to routinely appear connected to stories that involve inappropriate objectification at best, and sexual harassment and assault at worst.

An echo of Otis’ sentiment was expressed in 1988 during an episode of 60 Minutes, titled “American Girls in Paris.” In it, multiple models described exploitative and dangerous working conditions. One casually stated: “You’re there for the purpose of someone wanting to take you home to bed. [If you say no], you don’t work.” In the show, French agents including Claude Haddad from the Ford Agency and Jean-Luc Brunel of Karin Models were accused of sexual harassment and assault.

Decades later, Brunel was pursued by American authorities as part of the Jeffrey Epstein sex trafficking investigation. Epstein had financed the opening of Brunel’s Miami modeling agency, MC2, in 2005. Of the professional partnership, former model Courtney Powell Soerensen told the Miami Herald in 2019: “Brunel had access to a network of young women and it was already his proclivity to behave that way. When he connected with Epstein, they realized they could do it together. He is just as guilty if not more so than Epstein.”

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In 2019, one model who said she was drugged and assaulted by Brunel in 1987 gave a sworn statement to French authorities about the incident. No charges were filed because the statute of limitations had run out.

One Epstein survivor, Virginia Roberts Giuffre, claimed the financier once bragged to her that he had “slept with over a thousand of Brunel’s girls.” Brunel went into hiding after Epstein’s death last year and is now so infamous in his home country he’s earned the nickname “le fantôme.”

Gérald Marie has been similarly slippery when it comes to being held accountable for the accusations leveled against him.

In 1999, a BBC investigative journalist named Donal MacIntyre went undercover and attempted to expose Marie in a television documentary. Despite revelations regarding Marie’s targeting of underage models, and an initial “unconditional apology” from Elite founder John Casablancas, Elite sued the BBC for defamation. The case was later settled out of court, with the BBC publicly stating that MacIntyre's exposé had misrepresented Elite.

That lawsuit effectively shut down potential legal actions against Elite, and put Casablancas back on the offensive. “People aren’t allowed to be silly at 3am in the nightclub,” he said dismissively, “or in the privacy of their own home.” Regardless, the fallout from the BBC investigation prompted both Marie and another Elite executive, Xavier Moreau, to step down from their positions.

Though it is Marie who has caused the most controversy at Elite over the years, a 2000 article for New York magazine quoted a rival fashion agent as saying: “John [Casablancas] was as bad as Gérald [Marie], but he had a more elegant manner.”

While Casablancas—who died in 2013—considered Marie a professional rival and was open about their fractious personal relationship, he also actively turned a blind eye to Marie's behavior for the sake of his business.

Last year, Marie Anderson, who was vice president of Elite Chicago for seven years during the ’80s, told the French outlet 20 Minutes: “It was the culture of the time, everyone knew. We thought that the only thing to do was to warn the girls.” Anderson went on to relay an incident in which one 18-year-old model called her in tears from Paris because of the coercive harassment she said she received from Marie. The model later admitted to Anderson that she had eventually given in to his sexual demands in order to get work.

A final straw for Anderson came after she witnessed Marie and Casablancas yelling at two of Elite’s top female executives. When Lisa Herzog and Trudi Tapscott asked Marie and Casablancas to “stop sleeping with underage models,” Casablancas is said to have told the women to “relax,” while Marie reportedly yelled: “Go screw yourselves!” Casablancas later dismissed the women’s complaints as an example of American puritanism. Anderson resigned.

Which is all to say, women in the fashion industry have been trying to sound the alarm for decades. And yet flattering myths around these agency bosses—in particular, John Casablancas—have persisted. A 2016 Netflix documentary titled Casablancas: The Man Who Loved Women works hard to hail the Elite founder as a maverick, hero and “starmaker.” This despite some jaw-dropping revelations in the film that are repeatedly glossed over.

In the documentary, the models in Casablancas and Marie’s midst are presented as beautiful objects to desire, use and discard. Models are seen wearing “Property of John Casablancas” T-shirts. Casablancas laughs at the memory of his father viewing his modeling agency as “a glorified brothel,” and he proudly explains that the original Elite logo “was a phallus and testicles ... I loved it.”

More disturbing are his sexual relationships with teenagers. When Casablancas ends his marriage by beginning an affair with supermodel Stephanie Seymour, the fact that she’s 16 and he’s 42 garners only a brief mention. That “she broke [his] heart” is far more of a focus. That their break-up was prompted at least partially by an intervention from Seymour’s parents speaks volumes about the model’s immaturity at the time.

Later, when Casablancas talks about meeting Aline Wermelinger, a model he would marry when he was 49 and she was 17, his description of the moment is outstandingly creepy. He talks of her “baby face, green eyes and spectacular body ... standing in front of us, innocent and pure.”

Footage of Casablancas being asked about his relationship with Wermelinger during a talk show appearance in the ’90s reveals him to be characteristically dismissive. “She comes from a country and I do too where there isn’t this fixation with age. People [in America] are obsessed with age ... It’s my personal business, not yours.”

Today, there are signs that small but significant shifts are afoot in fashion’s tolerance for such behavior. Emily Ratajkowski’s recent essay for The Cut, which detailed her abuse and exploitation within the industry, garnered a refreshingly loud outcry. (If nothing else, it sent out a clear warning to any model who might consider working with photographer Jonathan Leder.)

In addition, Marie Anderson used her experience at Elite (as well as a number of other prominent agencies) to set up a coaching firm called Boss Babes. The company’s goal is to help young models navigate the industry, “while maintaining [their] purpose and dignity.”

Today, Gérald Marie is 70, the chairman of the Oui Management model agency and is on the defensive once again. But the Paris prosecutor’s office has confirmed it is investigating him. And the lawyer representing his accusers is also representing some of the women going after Brunel. These legal proceedings are beginning to look like a full-blown strategy, which—as the cases of Bill Cosby and Harvey Weinstein taught us—is essential if justice is ever to be served.

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If the buried voices of models can emerge from across the decades and shout loud enough about Marie and Brunel together, fashion might just finally get its #MeToo reckoning. Lord knows it’s long overdue.