It started with a series of raids. In March 2015, investigators from the UK’s Competition and Markets Authority swept through the offices of some of London’s top modeling agencies, seizing hard drives and documents. The investigation, led by Stephen Blake, senior director of the CMA’s Cartels and Criminal Group, was searching for evidence that the agencies were acting in collusion.
Now the CMA has officially alleged that five agencies—FM Models, Models 1, Premier, Storm, and Viva—used their positions on the council of the Association of Model Agents to run a price-fixing racket. For about two years, the CMA says, the agencies exchanged confidential information, including pricing information for their models, and “in some instances agreed a common approach to pricing.”
It sounds like something out of a crime thriller about an enterprise more sinister than modeling, but if the allegations prove true, they would violate the UK’s 1998 Competition Act and possibly article 101 of the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union, which deals with trade between EU member states.
Modeling is an industry like any other. Rivals compete on price to get business. In this case, models work jobs for fees, part of which goes to the agency. If the agencies agree amongst themselves not to accept assignments with low pay for their models, clients have no choice but to pay up. Prices are set artificially high.
The CMA believes that’s what these agencies were doing, and says their scheme hit a “range of customers, including high street chains, online fashion retailers and consumer goods brands.” The agencies are also well-known. Storm has had a hand in hundreds of careers, including those of Kate Moss, Cara Delevingne, and Jourdan Dunn. Premier has worked with Naomi Campbell and Claudia Schiffer. Models 1 has represented Linda Evangelista and Twiggy.
Only Viva and Premier, which declined to comment, have thus far responded to a request for comment. “Viva is reviewing the Statement of Objections provided by the CMA and the specific allegations made against it,” a representative said in a statement. “Viva will be responding to the Statement of Objections in due course.”
We’ve reached out to the other agencies as well with the exception of FM Models, which appears to no longer be available and The Guardian reports ceased trading this year.
Viva pointed out that the CMA has not formally charged any of the agencies with anything illegal. “These are provisional findings only and no conclusion can be drawn at this stage that there has been a breach of competition law,” the CMA said in its allegations.
If they are found to be in violation of the law, the agencies could be fined up to 10% of their total annual turnover.
Lesser-known models in the UK might not be happy either. There have long been allegations that models are often underpaid. More price competition could drive wages down.