Stahl: Richardson scandal raises fashion industry issues

By Samantha Stahl

I guess the fashion world thought it wasn’t fair for ESPN to hog all the sex-scandal… I guess the fashion world thought it wasn’t fair for ESPN to hog all the sex-scandal media. Good news, Tiger Woods — you have someone here to steal your spotlight.

Famed fashion photographer Terry Richardson was recently accused of sexual misconduct. After he published a photo of Danish model Rie Rasmussen in his book “TerryWorld” without her permission, she told Page Six that Richardson “takes girls who are young, manipulates them to take their clothes off and takes pictures of them they will be ashamed of. They are too afraid to say no because their agency booked them on the job and are too young to stand up for themselves.” Richardson has since denied the allegations.

Since then, an article in the Huffington Post reported that a number of other models have come forward to complain about Richardson’s alleged creepy behavior.

Though Richardson’s reps haven’t commented on any of the models’ allegations, Richardson took to his blog to defend himself on Tuesday, saying the allegations are “hurtful” and “false.”

The important issue here isn’t whether the allegations are true or not — it’s what the scandal has brought into the public eye as far as the modeling industry goes.

Now, Richardson is well known for his sexually provocative work. This is a guy who doesn’t shy away from nudity or explicit images. If you’re not familiar with his work, know that his photo style is probably the inspiration for American Apparel’s ads. That should give you a visual.

Here’s the thing — Richardson is a big deal. He’s shot ad campaigns for everyone from Gucci to Miu Miu and features for every fashion publication that matters. Celebrities and models just starting out in the business jump at the chance to have him take their picture. They know if Richardson shoots them, they’ve hit gold.

So is it his industry power that makes his sexually suggestive photo shoots acceptable?

Two weeks ago, every major fashion news outlet was running a near-daily update about Richardson. This week, the coverage is already winding down. Maybe “Terrygate 2010” is indicative of the fashion industry itself. Scandals, like trends, rotate quickly. What’s big news one day is long forgotten and abandoned to the discount dump the next.

But isn’t the media hoopla surrounding these young models worth a little more attention than a short-lived trend? Many people are concerned about the well-being of the minors Richardson has shot. Some suggest that a parent or agent should be present during shoots. But what about the over-18 models? Just because you’re in your early 20s doesn’t necessarily mean it’s easier to get yourself out of a bad situation.

The scandal seems to have split the fashion world. Model and actress Noot Seear, who has worked with Richardson, told New York Magazine that “Terry’s a really cool guy. It’s not like he pressures you into doing anything you’re not comfortable with.”

Marc Jacobs has also come out to defend him. Jacobs told The Wall Street Journal, “I’ve worked with Terry, and Terry has asked me to do some crazy things. I know that those pictures will exist if I do them. But I’m a big boy, and I can say no.”

But sometimes saying no is easier in theory than in practice.

I’m hesitant to take a position on the issue. On one hand, allegations of sexual misconduct should always be taken seriously. Making anyone uncomfortable, regardless of age, is never OK. These models shouldn’t be put (or put themselves) in explicit situations in the first place if they might present situations that could be perceived as inappropriate. If this scandal results in nothing more, it will at least make more models aware of what they’re getting into with Richardson as far as the nature of his work.

On the other hand, I can acknowledge and understand why many fashion insiders don’t bother worrying about the provocative atmosphere of Richardson’s shoots. Fashion is an art. It’s a place were the weird and avant-garde is celebrated. From an outsider’s perspective, Richardson’s tactics seem stranger than the polygamist family demographics on “Big Love” would to a devout Catholic. To those on the inside, however, it’s popular culture — and as such, it’s a known concept that sex sells.

Richardson is a brilliant photographer, hands down. He’s worked his way to the top and has become one of the most trusted photographers in the industry. So I have to wonder, does this guy even realize he’s a creep? Or has the fashion world’s continuous tolerance of the sensual and erotic incorrectly reinforced his attitude and allowed him to toe the line of what’s appropriate and inappropriate?