Fashion is exasperating. Even when it tries to do the right thing, it often manages only to remind the world just how tone deaf it really is.
Terry Richardson is a fashion and celebrity photographer who has worked with an array of subjects, including Beyoncé, Miley Cyrus and former president Barack Obama. He is a skilled shooter, but one who has long had an extraordinarily sleazy reputation for being sexually abusive to models. In public, he’s recognizable thanks to his signature style, which includes work shirts, long sideburns, a mustache and eyeglasses that give him the incongruous look of a nerdy pornographer.
In 2014, New York magazine published a profile of him detailing the often sordid nature of his work. While the story contained all the usual biographical data points and résumé highlights, it also made it clear that Richardson was known for being an awful person who regularly coerced models into sexually compromising circumstances. At the time the story was published, there were still people willing to defend Richardson, who took pains to acknowledge his accomplishments as a photographer. But after it ran, the magazine published a follow-up that included the personal stories of models who alleged that Richardson had been a sexual bully and worse. Richardson, for his part, seemed to view himself as a somewhat tortured and unfairly maligned artist who sometimes happened to work nude.
Richardson was mostly unscathed by the stories.
Now, however, a certain mainstream segment of the fashion industry has decided to formally distance itself from him. The Daily Telegraph reported that in a leaked email from Condé Nast International, the publishing house banned Richardson from working for the company’s publications, which include such titles as Vogue and GQ. Any forthcoming photo shoots should be halted, the memo said. And any unpublished shoots pulled. (This does not mean that Richardson’s work has been purged from the archives. Indeed, the GQ website still hosts “The Best of Terry Richardson” photo gallery.)
The facts of Richardson’s behavior have not changed over the past few years. Only the context. That roiling backdrop includes the denunciations of Harvey Weinstein and his predatory behavior in and around Hollywood; the allegations of sexual harassment and coverups against Fox News’ Roger Ailes and Bill O’Reilly; and the continued dismay by many that the current president once bragged on tape about groping women, has been accused of doing just that in real life, and hasn’t yet faced any repercussions.
While it’s a good thing that a media company has formally asked its editors-in-chief not to hire Richardson, it’s also the kind of move that engenders an eye-roll and a sigh. Why is it so challenging for fashion to take the lead? Why does this feel like a Johnny-come-lately decision to denounce reprehensible behavior — not because the behavior is inherently awful, but because it’s no longer cool?
In an industry that is overwhelmingly for and about women, fashion still manages to treat women — those who are young and powerless — like crap.
It’s not just some narcissistic photographer with a warped definition of “consent.” It’s inhumane model bookers, self-indulgent designers, greedy stage parents and other creative types who treat women as something other than sentient, thoughtful, individuals. Fashion denounced Richardson. Finally. Sort of. But frankly, it doesn’t much matter. Such egregious behavior may no longer be cool, but it’s still in fashion.