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Women to Watch: Sara Ziff

Our Women to Watch series has shined a spotlight on groundbreaking female leaders of many industries. These female innovators have each made a unique and lasting impact in the world. This month, we’re focusing on Sara Ziff.
Sara Ziff is the founder and executive director of the Model Alliance, a nonprofit organization dedicated to promoting fair treatment, equal opportunity, and sustainable practices in the fashion industry. In 2022, Ziff was the recipient of Knight in the National Order of Merit in France for her work with Model Alliance.

Sara Ziff’s Beginnings

Ziff was born and raised in New York City. Her modeling career started when she was 14 years old as the face of advertising campaigns including Tommy Hilfiger, Stella McCartney, and Kenneth Cole. She graduated with a B.A. in Political Science, magna cum laude, from Columbia University and a M.P.A. from the Harvard Kennedy School of Government.
Along with her modeling career, Ziff has also had a career in filmmaking. Ziff was the subject of the documentary “Picture Me,” a look into the life of a model. During filming, the idea of the Model Alliance started to form. She then went on to create an online mini-series for The Cut and “Tangled Thread,” a documentary about Bangladesh’s garment industry and women organizing for better working conditions across the supply chain.

The Creation of the Model Alliance

In 2012, Ziff founded the Model Alliance to improve working conditions for models in the fashion industry.
“I entered the business at 14, which is very young,” said Ziff. “I quickly realized that there was an asymmetry of power. That includes difficulty in getting paid the money I was owed, waiting months, even years simply to get paid for a job. I think the longest I waited was 11 years.”
The Model Alliance is credited with helping pass legislation in New York and California to protect models, such as:
  • Models’ Harassment Protection Act
  • Child Model Act of 2013
  • Child Performers Protection Act of 2015
  • Talent Protections Act
In 2018, over 100 models joined the Model Alliance to form the RESPECT program, a global initiative calling on brands and agencies to sign a legally binding agreement to protect models from harassment and other forms of abuse.
“One thing that I have struggled with in my advocacy is this perception that the industry is glamorous. And the reality is, for the vast majority of people, it is so different,” said Ziff. “It’s sort of camouflaged by this facade of glamor and it makes it hard for people to understand that we are doing a job and deserve to be treated fairly — just like anyone else who works for a living.”
In March 2022, Model Alliance announced The Fashion Workers Act. The legislation, co-sponsored by New York State Senator Brad Hoylman and New York State Assembly Member Karines Reyes, would regulate management agencies and offer labor protections to models and other creatives in the fashion industry.

More Women to Watch

Sara Ziff is using her voice to support models of all ages and communities. We are so excited to see what other projects Ziff has in store. In the meantime, read up on our other Women to Watch, such as fellow model and activist Christy Tu and philanthropist Melinda French Gates.
Plus, check out Hope Smith — the devoted mother, wife, former model, and Founder and CEO of luxury skincare brand MUTHA™. Hope drives others to uplift and provide opportunities to women.