Models pose a strike in protest at American catwalk invasion

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They are not manning pickets or hanging about on the threshold of Gap thrusting flyers in shoppers' hands, but yesterday the fashion models of Italy followed the example of the nation's pilots, judges, teachers, journalists and just about everybody else except parish priests and went on strike.

It was the first such strike in the history of the industry. Stylists, photographers, hairdressers and all the other backroom staff involved in Italy's fashion business downed tools. The enemy: American companies which set up shop in Milan on the eve of big catwalk events, vacuum up the work and then vanish, and rogue agencies which lure girls into "modelling" work which turns out to be something quite different.

Also in their sights are the "unpatriotic" Italian women's magazines which are accused of obsessively locating their fashion shoots abroad, robbing the local industry of work.

In the model agencies of Milan, telephones went unanswered, photoshoots went un-shot and contracts went unsigned as the industry took a concerted three-hour break to express its disgust with what it calls "unfair competition" from foreign agencies, particularly American ones.

The big American fish in the agency pond are charged with dropping in on the eve of Milan fashion week, setting up ad hoc Italian branches, snagging all the work and then flying off home - without even paying their taxes. The invoices are sourced to Luxembourg, and once the fashion shows are over, they are off.

"They come to work in Italy," fumed Guido Dolci, president of Assem, which represents the top Italian model agencies, "and they don't have to pay taxes, while if we work in France or the United States we have to get a licence and enrol in the chamber of commerce.

"We are demanding that the same rules apply to our foreign competitors as apply to us."

Piero Piazzi, a legendary Italian talent scout and manager of an agency called Women Model, known as the "king of models" in Italy, commented: "They take the work in the period of greatest interest. But they shouldn't then just shut up shop. They should stay in business with their office and employees. It should be like in France, with the licences, inscription in a register and the deposit of a sum of money as a guarantee."