Dior’s newest face, Sofia Mechetner, has catapulted to success almost instantly. In just a matter of months, she has opened and closed Christian Dior’s Paris Fashion Week show — gliding down the runway in a filmy, white, see-through dress — is featured on the company website, and — according to the Washington Post — has signed a two-year contract worth the equivalent of $265,000. News outlets are calling her story an incredible "rags to riches" tale and Mechetner seems to already have bright future in fashion. But there’s a huge catch: Mechetner is only 14 years old.
Earlier this month, Mechetner was profiled on Israel's Channel 2. She hails from a small town in Israel and lives in a tiny apartment with her siblings and mother, who makes about $1000 a month working three jobs, according to The Blaze. So how did the teenager find herself in the aforementioned sheer gown designed by Dior creative director Raf Simons?
Shalom Life reports that Mechetner met Simons in an encounter so random it might as well have been fated. She was struggling to balance education and family when she decided to try out modeling, after many suggestions to do so. Mechetner sent her portfolio to a modeling agency in Paris with the help of an Israeli agency, but was rejected upon her arrival in the city, due to her young age. With some time to kill in Paris before her flight back to Israel, Mechetner and her Israeli chaperone visited Paris’ Dior boutique — where they happened to run into Simons. Simons, upon hearing Mechetner’s story, immediately requested her presence at Dior’s Haute Couture show.
Yahoo! News calls her career breakthrough a "Cinderella story", noting that she was "plucked from poverty," and the Washington Post declares it a "classic rags to riches story that’s almost too much of a cliché to be true."
None of these stories mention that she's technically too young.
Mechetner’s quick ascent to fashion stardom raises questions about the continued use of underage models within the industry. Since modeling is a high-pressure job that requires sophisticated decision-making skills — and knowing one's rights — a general consensus within the industry has been to avoid employing models legally considered children.
In 2011, the CFDA banned models under 16 from participating in catwalks of any major fashion weeks in the United States.
These are the industry’s “soft regulations,” though — concerns of the exploitation of young models continue to be evident. And the CFDA rule does not apply in Paris, where Mechetner walked.
In 2013, New York governor Andrew Cuomo — under the guidance of not-for-profit organization The Model Alliance — signed legislation designating models under 18 as child workers who may not work unless in possession of a Child Performer work permit. In addition, there are rules for child models that employers must follow; Sara Ziff of the The Model Alliance had been pushing for these changes.
The problem with casting underage models is that the effects are possibly grave to a child’s development. In a 2013 article, the Daily Mail points out that while child actors and dancers are protected by labor laws, child models lack strong protection and are in an industry that largely governs itself.
Often, young models are forced out of school and into a cutthroat environment where they are competing with many older and established models. They are also treated like adults, face harsh judgment for their appearance — at an age where confidence is delicate — and receive meager benefits. We previously covered the grim financial realities of male modeling: models need to work long hours, attend many casting calls a day, and receive little to no money for their work — realities that instantly violate the United States’ youth labor laws. Models who start their careers at a very young age are exposed to exploitation, unregulated pressures such as nudity, and educational sacrifices. Even though Mechetner has begun her career already on top, her fate could quickly change after her two-year contract is up.
What motivates a designer to bend the industry recommendations and hire an underage model?
“Curves are complicated and curves create varieties in bodies,” Susan Scafidi, academic director and fashion law professor at Fordham University, told Fusion. “Models whose bodies aren’t fully womanly yet are desirable in the sense that curves do not interfere with or draw attention away from the clothing. That’s why designers tend to go for models who are slender, young, or both.”
In 2012, according to the New York Times, Marc Jacobs was discovered to have hired two underage models for his fashion show. Jacobs, who sits on the board of CFDA, defended his decision by saying: “If [the models’] parents are willing to let them do a show, I don’t see any reason that it should be me who tells them that they can’t.” The CFDA, in an episode of flexible parenting, honored their initiative but said it was up to the individual designers to follow the guidelines or not.
Designers who employ children to showcase their clothing are promoting an unrealistic ideal for their consumers, who are primarily adults with adult bodies.
“So long as we keep seeing children on the runway marketing clothing designed for adults, we’ll keep having conversations on unhealthy body image ideals and whether the industry is exploiting children,” Sara Ziff, founder and executive director of Model Alliance, told Fusion. “As a general rule, it’s better for kids to have the opportunity to be kids, and for adults to represent women on the runway — and not have children represent women. It's better for models and consumers alike.”
While Mechetner vows to continue her education, her deal with Dior could eventually evolve into more responsibilities and sacrifices.
Ziff warns of the precautions a young model must take in regards to her future. In many cases, girls don’t finish basic high school education and plunge into careers that will inevitably expire with age.
“When [the child models] get older, most of them aren’t lucky enough to make it,” Ziff said. "They have sacrificed a lot at this point already."
Mechetner's "Cinderella story" has earned her admiration in Israel, though there are inevitably people in the country who have noticed the sexual objectification of a teenager. The Jerusalem Post reports the surfacing of a Facebook post titled "Sofia Mechetner fashion industry's focus on pedophilia," though Mechetner attributes the allegations to Israel's traditionally conservative mindset.
"Fashion nudity is about art and not sexuality," Mechetner told the Jerusalem Post on July 16.
The financial benefits of Mechetner’s deal with Dior are undeniable. Her two-year contract will pay the equivalent of 22 years of paychecks for her Mother, and the model tells Israel's Channel 2 that she is eager to use the money to move her family to a new apartment and eat Corn Flakes more than once a month.
Ziff says that while Mechetner possesses a unique opportunity with significant financial rewards, she should still stay on guard and make smart decisions: “No matter how successful a campaign is and how much they pay, it doesn’t last forever.”
Fusion reached out to Dior for comment but has not received a response as of this post's publication.
Nikita Redkar is the editorial intern for Fusion who loves writing all things pop culture and feminism - sprinkled with the occasional punchline. She likes cute animal gifs and dislikes long walks on the beach, plagues, and other cliches.