The first scenes of Girl Model, a new documentary exploring the questionable ethics of the modelling industry, take place in a casting call in Siberia, where hundreds of rakishly thin teenage girls are being scouted and ruthlessly critiqued. One’s hips are too big. Another has pimple problems. Another, who is 16, looks, in the words of the scout, “at least 25 already”. Finally, 13-year-old Nadya is picked from the crowd, signed up to a contract and sent to Tokyo to work, casting her into an adult world shown to be as exploitative as it is distorted, as predatory as it is morally bankrupt.

For co-director Ashley Sabin, the experience of filming forced her to confront some uncomfortable questions, which translate to the screen, about the way the modelling industry is regulated, about whether it does enough to protect its underage workers – an issue certain to be on the agenda as London Fashion Week approaches.

“It’s definitely bleak – it’s a business run by adults and that means there’s a bottom line,” Sabin says. “But they’re dealing with young girls, 14, 15 years old, and when you add that to the mix, it can appear very cold. And it’s very cyclical – if one girl doesn’t work out, there are many more in line; if one girls moves on, there will be someone else waiting.”

Nadya, of course, is promised work, guaranteed that she will be earning almost from the point she steps off the plane. The reality is far different – she is already in debt to her agency and, under the constant threat of being sent home should she gain any weight, is left to fend for herself. It is a miserable existence, shorn of illusions. There are no fabulous parties, no designer clothes. She is bonded labour.

“When you see it close-up, it’s not very glamorous at all,” Sabin says. “Still, young girls will look up to models and the fashion industry because of all the tropes about what those worlds embody.”

Although Girl Model tries to avoid imposing explicit judgements of the adults in charge, they do an excellent job of outing themselves as people whose compasses have stopped working. In one particularly baffling scene, Tigran Khachatrian, the powerful president of an agency, while rifling through photos of 12-year-old models, speaks of “trying to save all these young girls” as a “religious matter”.

“To have a good effect of education,” Khachatrian explains, “we sometimes take them to the morgue and show them young girls or boys who took drugs and passed away. That has an everlasting effect. If the model is still too hard-headed, we have the autopsy done in front of them.”

Rachel Blais, a Canadian-born, London-based model, who has been working for nearly 10 years, having lived in New York, Paris, Milan and Tokyo, insists much of the ethically skewed behaviour shown in Girl Model persists throughout the industry, regardless of timezone. “Those things can happen anywhere, although London is a market that’s probably a bit more protected,” Blais says. “Something needs to change – you have kids thrust into this world of adults and there’s no regulation in the industry. If you’re
18, at least you’re a bit more yourself by that age, and you have a better sense of where boundaries are.”

Blais, 26, argues minors should simply not be employed as models and be left alone until they have finished school. That, she acknowledges, would be too great a sacrifice to be borne by an industry that fetishises youth – in the words of one scout in Girl Model, the Japanese market “likes skinny girls who look pre-pubescent”.

“It’s easier for the industry to use young girls because they can do whatever they want with them,” Blais says. “When you’re young, you don’t even know your rights exist. When you’re 15 or 16, that focus on how you look and whether you’re working becomes overwhelming.”

Blais had her own experience of industry pressure. After being scouted on the street, she began, at age 16, travelling for work; at age 18, her agency tried to persuade her to have liposuction, even enlisting her mother in an attempt to persuade her. “I kept saying no to different requests and then your agency starts to make suggestions – it’s never said straight out – like, ‘maybe you should think about hanging out with some photographers’, or ‘is there anything we can do to help you lose weight?’.

“It’s always underneath, like they’d call up and say: ‘You’re OK with doing topless, right?’ So you feel bound to say yes. The girls are so young. They live in fear of their agencies.”

And, for every model who ends up fabulously wealthy, there are untold hundreds who, by their mid-twenties, are left on the shelf, having abandoned their education for an industry that has defaulted on its promise of fame and fortune. Blais insists that, to survive, models must recognise everything around them as illusory and fleeting.

“Even the girls who appear in Vogue don’t make that much money,” Blais says. “You have to pay for everything; you have to pay for your own flights, for your own book. And if you complain too much, you stop working.

“I don’t know how girls can protect themselves, aside from thinking about their futures outside the industry. You need to be on top of everything but without sharing it because it makes people nervous. The industry sells these girls a dream and then that dream collapses.”

Girl Model opens at selected cinemas on February 10. London Fashion Week runs from February 17-22, with several smaller shows held in the lead-up