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The Sickening Conspiracy That Is The Fashion Industry

Really, it beggars belief, doesn't it? Reading the press release issued by the British Fashion Council yesterday was like looking at the price tag on a pair of Prada shoes. You think: "No, surely not, that can't be right -that is absolutely bonkers!"

Because this unelected but hugely influential body has come to the decision that it will not bring in any move to ban very skinny models from being hired for London Fashion Week next month.

"We believe that regulation is neither desirable nor enforceable," is about the sum of it.

You may think: "What do I care, I don't shop on Bond Street." But if you have a teenage daughter, you should be very, very concerned by what I am telling you.

The press release then became even more lily-livered when it announced that, far from bringing in a ruling banning girls under 16 (believe me, I talked to many models last season during LFW who were 14 and 15), it would merely "recommend that only models aged 16 or over are used".

You may not think the ruling constitutes a death sentence, but I would argue that this document is the equivalent of giving the models crystal meth, ashtrays, syringes and unlimited quantities of champagne.

The British fashion industry is, yet again, burying its Botoxed head in the sand, putting big business before the health of all young women in this country.

First, I want to know why London is digging its Jimmy Choos in when New York and Madrid have both decided to bring in guidelines for their fashion weeks.

Under the new rules, models with a body mass index (BMI) - a measurement of ideal weight based on height - of below 18 are not allowed to appear.

The World Health Organisation considers anyone with a BMI of 18.5 or below to be underweight.

The Council of Fashion Designers of America is also backing an education programme to teach young models about healthy eating and nutrition.

A few weeks ago, it looked likely that Milan, too, would capitulate, but plans were put on hold when too many designers - bar Giorgio Armani and Valentino, who this week likened the most in-demand models to "walking skeletons" - objected. Paris, too, is refusing to bring in guidelines.

OK, I can slightly understand that the Milan and Paris equivalents to the British Fashion Council may have been browbeaten into submission.

These cities are home to the biggest luxury brands in the world (Louis Vuitton, Dior, Prada, Fendi, Max-Mara, Gucci), all of which have huge marketing budgets and enormous financial clout. But London - which, let's face it, hasn't been at the forefront of fashion since the Sixties? What on earth is going on?

Let me first explain what the British Fashion Council is. It is chaired by Stuart Rose, CEO of Marks & Spencer. Its CEO is Hilary Riva, who has worked in retail for 25 years.

The BFC runs London Fashion Week and the British Fashion Awards (which, let's be honest, are not exactly the Oscars), and offers financial support to students in various design colleges.

To do this it has sponsors, and it was representatives from the majority of these sponsors who met last week and came up with the decision pretty much to ignore the issues raised by the whole debate over size zero models and celebrities, and do absolutely nothing.

Neither Stuart Rose, who chaired that meeting, nor Hilary Riva would answer my calls yesterday, but in case they are curious to know what I was going to ask them, my questions are as follows.

Dear Mr Rose, as head of M&S, you must know the majority of British women are size 14 and above, so do you not think it a bit weird that the only women who are held up before us during London Fashion Week are size 8 or below, are all 6ft tall and have barely gone through puberty?

What would I have asked Ms Riva, should she have deigned to pick up the phone? She is notoriously shy when it comes to the Press, and her by Liz Jones PR wouldn't even give me her correct age. I would have asked her who was actually present at this meeting.

I know for a fact that no one from the Association of Model Agents was there, although, "the British Fashion Council is in contact with the AMA and routinely meets with them to discuss all matters concerning models at London Fashion Week". How immensely reassuring.

No one will tell me the names of the people who sat around that table making that decision, but I can tell you they are employed by this country's leading retailers and publishers.

The names of these firms may not mean much to you, but I can tell you they own Topshop, Miss Selfridge, Oasis, Whistles and Warehouse, and on and on and on. These companies publish Glamour, Elle, Grazia and Marie Claire, and on and on and on.

Well, I have never worked in retail, so I can't tell you why shop owners would want to put you off buying their clothes because you feel too fat to wear them (Spain has recently ordered all shop mannequins be size 10 or above).

But I have worked in glossy magazine publishing, and the reason the magazine editors will not make a stand on this issue is clear and simple: fear. They are terrified of losing their jobs, their dress allowances, their discounts and their designer freebies.

Glossy magazines are not on the side of their (often very young) readers; they are on the side of the luxury brands who advertise in their pages.

The gushing nature of their articles, which fawn over designer bag after designer shoes after designer perfume, would make me want to throw up, if only I suffered from bulimia nervosa - such a messy psychiatric illness, don't you think? I have always preferred its far more prissy stable mate, anorexia nervosa.

You don't believe what I have just written? Say one bad thing about a brand - anything, I don't know: what a ghastly shade of blue - and you will be persona non grata.

Now, I don't particularly care that I am routinely barred from designer shows, but if I were still the editor of a magazine (surprise surprise, I am no longer at the helm of Marie Claire), I would be very worried indeed.

The big mistake, the thing Culture Secretary Tessa Jowell should be tearing her hair out by the roots over, is that these people are allowed to arbitrate their own industry.

Let me pose this question: what other industry is allowed to bribe the journalists who write about it? A £1,600 designer traveller? Ooh, yes please, but can I have a bigger one?

Of course, we have all been here before. In June 2000, I co-chaired a Body Summit with Tessa Jowell, then minister for women, at which we asked representatives from the fashion industry if they would not at least be sensible and introduce a BMI cut-off point.

Surely they could offer counselling to very young models who might be far from their Third World or Eastern Bloc homes, under pressure to provide for their entire families, and who are being told by their model agencies to lose weight in order to earn more money? We called for girls of different heights, shapes and ethnicities to be employed on the catwalk and in photo shoots.

Tessa Jowell suggested to me that I might start some sort of committee, made up of designers, magazine editors, model agents and photographers, and I agreed.

When every single person at the aforementioned summit refused even to countenance the idea, sending a frankly rather mean fax to the national newspapers and TV news programmes saying they didn't want to do anything of the sort, especially if it was going to be chaired by me, Jowell and her department washed their hands of the whole issue.

When, in a panic, I telephoned the ministry for their help in how to handle the backlash in the Press, they told me they couldn't get involved.

So I am flabbergasted that Jowell has got involved again, and has proved to be as completely ineffectual as usual. She held a meeting with Rose and Riva this week, but failed to change their minds. Has she learned nothing from what happened nearly seven years ago?

That absolutely no one in the industry seems to have learned anything, or agreed to do anything, is astounding. They have not learned from the deaths from anorexia last year of models Ana Carolina Reston and Luisel Ramos.

Not, even, from the letter written to the BFC last October, in which 40 doctors at the Eating Disorders Service and Research Unit at King's College, London said: "There is no doubt there is cause and effect here. The fashion industry showcases models with extreme body shapes, and this is undoubtedly one of the factors leading to young girls developing disorders."

So take this conversation I had with leading British fashion designer Amanda Wakeley last week. Is she not concerned about the use of very young, thin models? "I think it is nonsense. One of Britain's most famous supermodels has a BMI of less than 18 and she is fit and muscular - she is not remotely anorexic."

I concede a point here. A woman's BMI is not a perfect arbiter of health; some women, especially teenagers, are naturally very slim. Girls with eating disorders are incredibly clever and devious, and rather than a chart, you need professionals on hand to identify whether or not there is a problem.

But Amanda continued: "I want a uniform look when I choose models, I don't suddenly want someone older or bigger, because that would distract from the clothes. If you ask me, obesity is a much bigger problem."

Trust me, if I interviewed any one of our leading designers, the response would be pretty much along the same lies, oops, sorry, I meant to type the word "lines".

The deaths of the young models are, of course, only the tip of the iceberg: between one and two per cent of young adult women worldwide suffer from an eating disorder; most are 15 to 25 years old. It kills somewhere between 13 and 20 per cent of its victims. Of all psychiatric illnesses, anorexia has the highest percentage of fatalities.

To be brutal, the physical and emotional welfare of models or the endless parade of cadaverous celebrities flaunting their ribs are not my prime concern. I am concerned about the girls I counsel each week in an eating disorders clinic near London, who tell me they had each been given a glass of milk, which they were supposed to finish. But they reckoned if they left just half an inch they would not be able accurately to count the calories, and so the awful recriminations could not set in.

One girl had been told to eat a cereal bar, and her response was a hysterical: "I can't eat that! It's 144 calories!" Another girl was worried about how many grams there are in an ounce: "Are there 28 or 30?" she asked me, over and over again.

I am concerned about the sheer volume of letters I get every week from women who are either suicidal, or who merely just feel bad about themselves. You think obesity isn't linked to the size zero debate?

This is the letter I received from Donna, a 36-year-old who lives in Oxford. She is a size 22, despite cycling 60 miles a week. "I am a secret eater," she wrote. "I look at celebrities and models in magazines and think: 'They are all too far away'."

You think your daughter is safe at school? Here is a letter from Emma, who attends a public school in West London: "If you go in the toilets after lunch, it smells of sick. There is sick on the floor, sick on the toilet seats.

"So many girls here think it is fashionable to be thin that I am thinking I should be like that, too. How do you become anorexic, because I really hate throwing up?"

No glossy editor would talk to me about this issue. I phoned the Association of Model Agents, and no one has called me back. I left a message at Storm, the agency that discovered Kate Moss, and no one could be bothered to call me back.

The people who work in this industry, an industry that makes millions and millions of pounds by preying on our insecurities, need to be called to account. Now. Before another young woman calls me and says: "I have just eaten half an avocado because I think I am about to die."



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