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Underage models' return to runway sparks debate

Sofia Mechetner, 14, leads Dior's couture runway show on July 6, 2015, in Paris. (Reuters)

July 22: It's a "Cinderella story". A "fairy tale". A "total Cinderella moment".

But is it?

"It's not a fairy tale, it's a cliché," said Sara Ziff, the founder of the Model Alliance, discussing fashion's favourite new narrative, that of a 14-year-old Israeli who went to Paris in search of a modelling career, met the designer Raf Simons in a Dior store and ended up opening the Dior couture show this month. "It's once again using girls to sell clothes to women."

A season after the more mature among us were widely celebrated in ad campaigns like Céline's (Joan Didion) and Saint Laurent's (Joni Mitchell), complete with numerous articles (yes, here too) positing fashion's embrace of the silver dollar, the fashion pendulum has, it seems, swung dramatically in the opposite direction.

Aside from Dior's new find, Sofia Mechetner, Chanel has announced that the face of its eyewear campaign will be Lily-Rose Depp, 16, daughter of Johnny Depp and Vanessa Paradis. And Kaia Gerber, Cindy Crawford's daughter, has landed a photo spread in the September issue of CR Fashion Book, Carine Roitfeld's magazine. In one picture, she's wearing thigh-high leather Versace platform boots; in another, cat-eye makeup, a Prada dress and a pout. She's 13.

We're back in the days of Brooke Shields declaring, at age 15 (and in the 1980s): "You want to know what comes between me and my Calvins? Nothing," and the 1990s world of the photographer Corinne Day, a teenage Kate Moss and the waif. Almost two decades later, isn't it time we moved on?

If the increasingly vociferous demands for diversity on the runway should have taught us anything, it is that consumers increasingly want to see models who look like them - all kinds of them. And most consumers of adult fashion are, shocking as it may seem, actual adults.

To be fair, there has been some movement between then and now. There is unquestionably heightened awareness within the industry, not to mention within the law, when it comes to the need to protect underage girls working in a grown-up world.

(Still, it is revealing that models are almost always referred to as "girls" by the industry itself; they aren't called "women".)

Three years ago, all 21 international Vogues signed and published a pact pledging that they would not use models under 16 (though this has occasionally been circumvented, as in the case of Kaia Gerber, who recently appeared in Italian Vogue, the photos used as part of an "age issue").

In 2007, both the Council of Fashion Designers of America and the British Fashion Council issued health guidelines that strongly recommended (in the case of the American group) and required (the British council) that designers use models who were at least 16 for runway shows.

In 2013, after lobbying from the CFDA and the Model Alliance, the New York State Legislature passed a law stating that all models under 18 must be treated as child performers, with all the related regulations, from limited work hours to trust accounts, supervision and checkups (and that brands must have a permit from the state department of labour, as must the models).

Meanwhile, Ivan Bart, president of IMG models, the agency that represents Gerber, said it does not allow models under the age of 16 to do runway work. And according to a spokesman for Dior, its 14-year-old, Mechetner, was chaperoned at all times and has returned to Israel for school, her future relationship with the brand to be determined.

Even more, there is increasingly a narrative around models themselves, an effort to move them from nameless mannequins to personalities. Mechetner is being "sold", as Michelle Tan, the editor of Seventeen, said.

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