A Force for Good: How the Model Mafia is Changing the Fashion Industry

Áine Campbell, Cameron Russell, MaryAnn Elizabeth, Shivani Persad wearing jewellery by Hakhu Amazon Design. Photo credit: Nyra Lang  

Meet the Model Mafia, the game-changing community of model activists brought together by Cameron Russell and Áine Campbell, as they reflect on an incredible two years. 

In an apartment in New York City, a group of inspiring model activists are connecting and reflecting on the achievements of the past 24 months. They’re gathered to celebrate the two year anniversary of Model Mafia – the community of model leaders founded by Cameron Russell and Áine Campbell in 2017, whose members are working together to build a more equitable and sustainable fashion industry and world.

Today, the Model Mafia is a self-organised community of over 200 fashion models, who use their collective influence (and substantial social media followings) as a force for good to promote activism inside the fashion industry and drive change, while providing a network of friendship and support to one another. Whether renting a bus and travelling together to Washington D.C. to participate in the People’ March for climate change, or starting the hashtag #myjobshouldnotincludeabuse to raise awareness of the terrible harassment faced by many within the industry,  the Model Mafia demonstrates the powerful potential of female communities, and the achievements that can happen when women unite to support one another. 

For the anniversary meetup, each woman has brought a dish to share, as well as clothes and skincare donations for CAMBA Family Shelters – a local organisation offering a helping hand over the holiday season.  There’s a spot of pampering too with FACE LOVE facials, as well as a talk from Moon and Bloom founder, Heidi.  

The model activists also wore jewellery made by another community of women activists – Hakhu Amazon Design, whose jewellery line has been created to provide a sustainable source of income for the Ecuadorian, indigenous women that handcraft each piece.  Each item worn by the models, photographed here by Nyra Lang, raises money to support indigenous people and communities who are in resistance against oil exploitation and are fighting against climate change.We spoke to some of the inspiring Model Mafia on their hopes for 2019 and their reflections on the changing industry:

What are your hopes for Model Mafia in 2019?

Áine Campbell

“My vision for 2019 is one of leadership and collaboration. The Model Mafia is brimming with brilliant ideas and a multitude of talents. Our aim is to empower the group’s many leaders to tackle big issues, knowing that they can draw on resources and support from their community.

We’re planning a number of exciting partnerships with local and global organisations to make 2019 a year of impact; from fashion-focused topics like sustainable and ethical manufacturing of clothes, to broader issues like women’s rights and climate change.

It has been beautiful to see our group blossom into a fully-fledged force for good. It’s given us great momentum to propel the Model Mafia into 2019 and I have no doubt that it will be a dynamic year of meaningful advocacy, collaboration and community building.” – @ainerosecampbell

Cameron Russell

“My hope for 2019 for the model mafia is that we continue to support each other as friends and supercharge one another’s work. That our community continues to learn about what is possible when we work with each other, when our highest ambition is to resource and lean into the leadership that is relevant for each different moment. I hope that we continue to discover our strengths, and learn where we can grow. I am excited to see what comes next, I have no expectations, but rather a loving curiosity to follow and nourish the people in our community and the people in partnership with us.” – @cameronrussell

What role can the fashion industry play in driving change?

MaryAnn Elizabeth

“We have all heard the phrase ‘it takes a village’ and the truth in this wisdom cannot be denied. The Model Mafia represents the power of community and their collective action in just two short years, focusing on issues of sustainability, equality and diversity in fashion, has made impressive changes.

As an advocate for age inclusivity within the fashion and beauty industry (and beyond), I believe the Model Mafia represent a collective wisdom of like-minded, intelligent, creative women, divergent thought leaders sharing their time and energy to create positive shifts in the fashion industry and (beyond) through action and involvement. I truly believe If we surround ourselves with other women who have similar goals and objectives, our own will feel less impossible. We all know that even on our most confident days the tasks we face, the goals we set out to achieve can feel daunting, I know the Model Mafia is a community that will inspire me to do the important work, and in return, I hope to inspire!” – @maryann.elizabeth_

Sara Chishti

“Model Mafia is committed to partnering with philanthropic organizations to increase awareness, visibility, and support for many incredible causes. I was inspired to get involved after seeing the work of fellow MM model, Ebonee Davis, and watching her life-changing Ted Talk. To see Ebonee recognize the sheer influence she had as a model, as well as the overwhelming power of the fashion industry in reducing stereotypes and redefining the perception of marginalized peoples, was a total paradigm shift for me. It made me want to use my power intentionally and join a community of others in doing so as well.” – @sara.chishti


What is the one change you would like to see in 2019?

Kenza Fourati

“I hope in 2019 we see more empathy towards each other, animals and the planet…. Just thinking of the Guatemalan father and the terrible journey he had to go through to the border to lose his 7 year old daughter there…there are no words. We need to make an effort to understand other people’s perspective with more love.” – @kenzafourati

Jessica Perez

“I’d like for the discourse in media to be centered around facts.” – @jesslperez

Sinead Bovell

“More support and empathy towards causes outside of one’s own needs and experiences. Globally, this could solve a lot.” – @sineadbovell

What is your personal sustainability pledge/hack for 2019?

Summer Rayne Oakes

“To teach people how to better care for their plants. Taking care of our environment seems like a Herculean task for most of us, so starting with something as humble as a houseplant is a good entry point for people. When someone takes the time to tend to their plants, a garden, or a community space, for example, it ultimately brings them closer to the earth.” – @homesteadbrooklyn

Hartje Andresen

“For 2019, I pledge to streamline my sustainable lifestyle. By that I mean making it even easier to be eco-friendly by decluttering my apartment of any excess appliances or those that waste energy, donating or repurposing all the clothes I haven’t worn in a while, investing into insulating our apartment better, installing water-saving faucets and shower heads, keeping reusable bags, wraps, straws and food containers handy, and making things like composting a habit. As a new mom, I pledge to minimize our impact on the environment by using eco-friendly diapers and eliminating single-use plastics, baby wipes and paper towels. I also pledge to encourage other moms to do the same by educating and inspiring them, and holding them accountable.” – @iamhartje

Helen Henderson

“My sustainability pledge for 2019 is to use less plastic. I recently rewatched ‘A Plastic Ocean’ and was shocked and dismayed all over again. I participated in ‘Plastic Free July’ this summer, and while it was difficult, I developed some great habits. I now bring my own containers to the bulk foods store, try to buy unpackaged produce, use canvas grocery bags, a stainless steel water bottle, a reusable coffee cup. In 2019 I want to continue to find ways to reduce my plastic use.” – @helen.s.henderson

Dominyka Gajauskaite

“As a human race we tend to have a lot of guilt for many things that are happening in our society, whether it be climate change, the ‘me too’ movement, deforestation etc. But guilt is not action and it’s not sustainable. It can become a huge block and mean unproductiveness. My pledge for 2019 is not to just keep saying ‘I lead a sustainable life’ – I carry a reusable water bottle, have my keep cup and groceries bag, and I shop vintage. My pledge is to get involved in meaningful projects, small or big, where I can help elevate communities who are less fortunate and start living more outside of the ‘sustainable bubble’.” – @dominykag

How is Model Mafia driving change in the fashion industry and what inspired you to get involved?

Brana Dane

“We are experts at using social media to market ourselves and when we choose to turn this skill on its head we can direct it towards a cause. The results are staggering. Specifically, we came together on the #MeToo movement and helped bring it to the fashion industry. We are constantly raising awareness for our environment, marching in the climate march in DC and recently pairing up with Pure Earth and the Rainforest Alliance. This most recent shoot to support the Hakhu project  is very much in line with our ethos; supporting female leadership and protecting Mother Earth. As a group, we are changing the conversation within the industry.” – @branadane

Angelica Lovquist

“I initially joined Model Mafia hoping to find a community and friendships in an industry that can be quite isolating, but as I got involved I discovered so much more. Model Mafia has quickly grown into an incredible system of collaboration, inspiration and mutual support.

‘Model Mafia is driving change in the fashion industry through open and honest conversations around the major challenges, from lack of diversity to safety and sustainability. We are a very solution-oriented community, and are members are actively involved in a diverse set of projects, including awareness building, activism, supporting development organizations worldwide, and running our own sustainable businesses. There is power in numbers and together we are building the momentum that fuels real change.” – @angelicaloevs

Katharina Rembi

“The Model Mafia is the first community for all types of models, providing a safe space for each individual to express their creativity and talk openly about issues regarding the fashion industry. You always have a feeling of support and togetherness. Personally, I strongly believe in the power of community. Together we can tackle the issues we need to face regarding sustainability in the garment industry, sexual harassment in the workplace and women’s rights. Important issues, we take on as a strong force of amazing ladies, coming from all over the world with tones of different skill sets. I get inspired by each member of the group, not to give up, do better and always strive for the best! We multiply our voices, so we can be heard in every corner of the fashion industry. We partner with amazing organizations and are able to create a platform for them to be seen, through all of our channels and connections. Which is worth everything in the times we live in. I’m grateful for Áine and Cameron, who have navigated this endeavor and I can’t wait for the new year and the incredible projects we are going to support, so remember to follow and share, because you will hear a lot from us!” – @katharinarembi

Meisha Brooks

“Model Mafia provides an open community that functions as a vehicle to bring awareness and support to whatever cause a member is passionate about. It’s very grassroots and I really enjoyed the immediate feeling of comradery in the group.” – @meishabrooks

Shivani Persad

“The Model Mafia is driving change by supporting the members and their efforts. Every model in the Model Mafia is working on world changing projects. The support that we receive from the Model Mafia is what helps us succeed. It’s like my sisterhood of support and a community I count on that constantly reminds me of why I need to continue my work.” – @liveshiv

Cleo Abram @cleoabram

“In May 2017, the Model Mafia drove together to the People’s Climate March in Washington DC. We met up before the sun rose in New York and boarded a bus we’d rented to take us to DC. I brought a camera, and interviewed other models along the way about why they were marching. That trip changed the way I viewed my job and opportunities as a model, and our place as models within the larger fashion industry. Being around these powerful women showed me how models can use their role to call attention to issues within the fashion industry and the world. And more than that, we have a responsibility to.
The Model Mafia is as straightforward as it gets: We’re a group of people determined to use what we have to make the world better. We do that in small ways, like amplifying each other’s independent projects on social media, and larger ones, like donation drives, attending marches and organising charity shoots.
We’re here to support each other, personally and in our work to improve the industry. We bring like-minded models together to do good, in an industry that so often pushes us apart.
The Model Mafia gives me hope that we can make the fashion industry more sustainable and inclusive, and gives models a way to work toward that world.” – @cleoabram

How has the industry changed over the past two years since Model Mafia was founded? What has been your biggest achievement?

Carolina Fontaneti

“A lot has changed since I started modelling 15 years ago, but the last two years have been the most revolutionary! I was finally able to raise my voice about issues that have always concerned me.  It’s been done with love and with the support of the amazing community we created. Knowing that I have like-minded friends who have my back no matter what, gave me strength and courage to repurpose my role in the industry. Every time I’m on a shoot, I try to shed light on subjects such as the waste of food, single use plastic, abusive behavior within the work space and lack of respect with the privacy we need to perform our job. I noticed more inclusiveness of body types, ethnicities and personalities. When I started, we (models) could arrive and leave the studio without saying a word. Now more and more, we’re requested to talk and be true to our beliefs, and I want to take advantage of this in the most loving way possible – because that’s my true essence.  I’m thrilled that I have been contributing to brands that are aligned to what I stand for, and it was all due the amazing web of support our community has provided.” – @carolfontaneti

Kaye Li Taylor

“Since Model Mafia was founded, eventually the industry had no choice but to listen to our demands. There is so much power in the collective voice of this community. We don’t all walk the same path, however we do share similar experiences of being objectified in this industry. Our biggest achievement has been the issues we brought to the forefront with the Me Too movement. Starting the hashtag #myjobshouldnotincludeabuse was not only to bring awareness to the harassment many face within the industry, but also to create a space for those affected to heal.  We also marched for the future of females in the women’s march. So that women are heard, supported, respected and protected. So, I ask you this, what are you using your voice to fight for?” – @kayelitaylor

For the photoshoot above (by Nyra Lang), all models are wearing pieces of jewellery created by the Hakhu Amazon Project, a collective of female artisans in the Ecuadorian Amazonian, proceeds from the sale of which supports indigenous people and communities who are in resistance against oil exploitation and are fighting against climate change.

Read our interview with Hakhu Amazon Project co-founder Nina Gualinga.

See the Model Mafia walk the runway for the Commonwealth Fashion Exchange at F4D’s First Ladies Luncheon in New York.