Thursday, 31 December 2009

MODEL PROFILES: TYRA BANKS

Born December 4th 1973, Tyra Banks has become one of the biggest names in fashion. A truly modern woman, Banks has made her name in modelling and television, bringing the two together to form one of the most successful reality television franchises in history.

A career made of firsts; Tyra signed with Elite Model Management aged 17. Banks’ modelling career began in Paris, when during her first week in the fashion capital; she wowed so many designers that she booked a (then unprecedented) 25 shows – a record for a newcomer.

She became the first black model to feature on the covers of GQ and Sports Illustrated magazines, and only the third African-American model to secure a cosmetics contract. The contract was with Cover Girl, an affiliation that continues to this day with Tyra’s show America’s Next Top Model.

One of the most sought after faces of the Nineties, Tyra was a consistent presence in magazine editorials and did campaigns for brands as diverse as Ralph Lauren and H&M, plus runway duty for designers Bill Blass, Chanel, Oscar de la Renta, Michael Kors and Yves Saint Laurent. Banks also scored numerous magazine covers ranging from Cosmopolitan, Elle, Vogue and Harpers Bazaar. In 1997, she received the VH1 award for Supermodel of the Year, and in the same year, became the first ever African-American to grace the cover of the Victoria’s Secret catalogue.

If Tyra’s career had stopped at this point, there would be plenty to discuss. Her pro-active barrier-breaking paved the way for girls like Chanel Iman and Jourdan Dunn. Banks bridged the gap between commercial and high-fashion like few other models: her work with lingerie brand Victoria’s Secret made her a household name in America, while still commanding respect in the world of high-fashion.

Nearing the end of her own modelling career, Banks began to examine what else was on offer. She did some television and film work, and found her interest in television re-ignited (she had initially planned, before modelling, to go to university to study television production). Tyra came up with the idea of merging her two passions: television and fashion. She would create her own reality show. The concept would be simple: ordinary girls from across America would have the opportunity to audition for the show and a small group would be selected to travel to New York to live and work as models. They would go on photo-shoots, participate in challenges, and every week, one hopeful would be eliminated. The process would be repeated until there was only one girl left: America’s Next Top Model.

The first series (or cycle) was aired in 2003 on a small television network in the States. It was an unexpected hit, and Tyra suddenly found herself in great demand. In 2005, she made the decision to officially retire from modelling to concentrate on her television career, and we all know what happened next.

America’s Next Top Model became more than a successful reality show, it became a phenomenon. Watched in 170 countries, the format was shipped out to 17 countries that now hold their own respective model searches. Many of the contestants have found success, including Alice Burdeu (winner of Australia’s Next Top Model series 2) who has become a favourite on the runways of Europe and New York, walking for the biggest names in fashion, including Marc Jacobs, Lanvin and Alexander McQueen.

The show has captured the imagination of the public and the desire to see the next series shows no signs of slowing down. Six years on, with the 13th cycle due to air in the UK this January, ANTM is still hot property and there are few other shows that can make such a claim.
The real triumph of the show is what it has done for modelling’s PR. Previous to the show, modelling was perceived (rightly or wrongly) as a closed book, but Tyra’s idea to overcome this was to explode myths and break down stereotypes, proving that when it comes to high fashion, the only thing to fear is fear itself. Knocking sideways the idea that models are invariably blue-eyed blondes, the public’s fashion education began in earnest.

You will now be hard-pressed to find a fashion-conscious teenager that doesn’t know the meaning of ‘editorial’. The exploration of the fashion industry, from the inside out, proved to be the show’s calling card. The viewer was given privileged access to what goes on at a photo-shoot, taking an in-depth look at the respective roles of the stylist, photographer and creative director, seeing how they work with a model to create an image. It did modelling a tremendous service in showing that fashion is first and foremost a business.

It also shows the (decidedly unglamorous but very necessary) process of go-sees - another term every teenager is now familiar with. Contestants during every series are expected to visit designers, giving them a real flavour of the day-to-day business of a working model. By attempting to replicate the real-life model experience as closely as possible, Tyra educated both the contestants and the viewers in how fashion really operates.

The show also educated aspiring models as to what the fashion industry wants, and despite its ever-changing perimeters, the essential wish-list stays the same: versatility, personality and an unforgettable walk. Even now, these are non-negotiable if a model wants to make the transition to supermodel.

The secret to the show’s success is that it doesn’t just want to find the next big thing, but a model that can, like Tyra, do it all. A few years ago, the idea of a model that commands the runway, does print work and campaigns, all with equal aplomb, was seen as unrealistic. But Tyra’s insistence on finding girls who could be all-rounders has paid off. Post-recession, the fashion world is looking for ways to pull in more revenue, and the models that are doing well are those who are triple threats.

Take a look at the names of the moment – models like Lara Stone, Agyness Deyn, Chanel Iman and Karlie Kloss. Lara has shot campaigns for Hudson Jeans and is now the Spring / Summer face of Versace; Chanel walked her first Victoria’s Secret runway earlier this month, and Karlie is about to appear in a campaign for Dior. Between them they have sold everything from cut-price cashmere to lingerie, and this is the way ahead. Limiting yourself to one branch of modelling means limiting your money-making potential, and these days, no-one can afford to be elitist.

The decision to allow the public to see the process behind the image was a canny move on the part of Banks. Even though we have seen so much of what goes on behind the scenes, the magic is not lost. The transformative ability to turn an ordinary girl into a goddess with the help of lighting, styling and airbrushing still manages to draw us in. Fashion is no longer just about the polished, finished product.

It is this very process that keeps us watching America’s Next Top Model. Over a decade spent working in the industry has given Banks an insight into fashion is that both knowing and forgiving. Banks has re-aligned people’s expectations of the fashion industry. Fashion is about standing out, not fitting in, and America’s Next Top Model cracks the myth that fashion is about conformity: it consistently celebrates the unusual, the edgy and the editorial.

Tyra’s pet project has transformed the way we see the modelling industry, changing it from a spectator sport to something far more approachable. It’s more than entertainment – it’s given modelling a whole new level of respect. Blowing apart the notion that modelling is for simpletons, the show ardently proves that posing for the camera, as with any skill, is harder than it looks.

In less than twenty years, Tyra’s career has gone from ingĂ©nue, to entrepreneur, to media mogul. In 2005, she launched her own talk-show, aimed at young women, and can now count herself as one the most successful models of her generation, with an estimated income of $23 million in 2008 alone.

With news breaking this week that Tyra is to cancel her talk show but continue working with ANTM and foster new projects, where her career goes from here is anyone’s guess. Having left an indelible mark on the modelling world, she has made her fortune by preparing the next generation of models for the challenges that are already being faced by the fashion industry. Far from being out of touch, Banks understands very clearly where modelling and fashion are headed, and what is for certain, is that somehow, somewhere, she will continue to be a part of it.

HELEN TOPE

Sunday, 20 December 2009

MODEL PROFILES: ANJA RUBIK

Born 11th June 1985, Anja Rubik’s success stems from fashion’s ability to turn a classic beauty into a very modern commodity.

Anja, born in Poland, took an active interest in modelling from early childhood. At the age of 15, she decided to pursue the goal of becoming a model and took part in a local modelling contest. This would prove to be a pivotal decision: there Anja was spotted by a Parisian agency that immediately recognised her potential.

Anja’s debut into the fashion world marked her from the outset as someone to be reckoned with. She debuted at the A/W shows in Paris, walking for Givenchy, Rochas and Nina Ricci. A hit with Paris, Rubik moved to New York two years later to pursue modelling full-time.

Success came quickly for Rubik. In February 2003, she appeared in the A/W shows for Burberry, Jil Sander and Stella McCartney: all names that can seriously boost a girl’s portfolio.

With http://www.style.com/ naming her the rising star of 2005, Rubik landed contracts with Emporio Armani and Emanuel Ungaro. In the autumn of 2005, she became the face of the Jimmy Choo brand and walked S/S runways for Donna Karan, Marc Jacobs, Ralph Lauren and Proenza Schouler.

In 2006, Anja’s career went supernova when she signed a contract with cosmetics giant Estee Lauder. If Rubik needed proof that her career was moving in the right direction, this was the moment that did it. A long-established beauty brand, to sign up Anja (at that point still relatively unknown) was a gamble, but one they clearly felt justified in taking.

With a campaign shoot in Alaska for all-American label Tommy Hilfiger, Rubik capped off an amazing year with 50 runway appearances including couture shows for Dior, Chanel, Jean Paul Gaultier and Valentino. Being selected for a couture show is the one of the highest accolades a model can receive, and with Anja’s popularity continuing to grow in Paris, the demand for the face that merged the best of commercial and editorial also showed few signs of letting-up.

With eight Vogue covers to date, Anja Rubik has become one of the top beauty faces working in fashion today. In addition to her numerous fragrance, beauty and eyewear contracts, Anja has walked runway for every notable designer, ranging from Dolce & Gabbana to Loewe, Vera Wang, Thakoon and Gareth Pugh.

Classic beauty, like the little black dress, never really goes out of fashion, and like the LBD, Anja’s look is one that will always be in style. Anja’s list of credits bear testament to the fact that there is always a place in fashion for beauty. Whatever fads come and go, classic beauty finds favour in the fashion industry because it is creates immediate style shorthand by utilising pop culture icons like Marilyn Monroe and Grace Kelly. The blue-eyed blonde continues to fascinate because the look is loved by designers, used over and over again by advertisers to sell virtually any product, and directors such as Hitchcock dedicated much of their careers to exploring our obsession with the blonde.

Nowhere is this ongoing obsession more evident than in Anja’s signing with Chloe. The signature fragrance for the French label, only launched in 2008, feels far more established, but the campaign, introduced to the fragrance industry in late 2007, featured Anja alongside actors Chloe Sevigny and Clemence Poesy. The trio, simply styled, represented a very fresh, modern slant on femininity. Deliberately underworked, Chloe’s brand of new femininity has been so successful that the fragrance can already claim modern classic status.

Luxurious and aspirational, but striking the crucial balance between cool and allure, the success of the perfume has proved that the reported demise of the print ad is somewhat premature. By adopting a clear-headed approach to marketing, its subdued glamour has made the fragrance a worldwide hit, ensuring that not just the fashion literate have heard of Chloe.

By hiring Rubik as the only model to front the brand, Chloe cleverly tapped into Anja’s accessible and easily identifiable beauty. No previous knowledge of fashion required: anyone can look at a Chloe advert and understand the connection between model and product. Anja is the perfect match for Chloe because she herself represents a modern femininity that has nothing to do with flounces or frills. It dials into a simpler aesthetic: something that is refreshing in an age where even reality TV contestants are groomed to within an inch of their lives.

Anja’s reputation rests on her ability to make elegance approachable. Ice-cool hauteur isn’t in vogue anymore: advertisers can’t afford to alienate consumers, and the models who are doing well right now are the ones who can tell a story in a single frame. Being relatable isn’t the same as being over-commercial or not high fashion. Making that link with the person buying the magazine or passing the billboard is a skill and one definitely worth cultivating.

High-fashion and beauty have not always been synonymous, but Anja, with her impressive CV of covers, editorials and runway credits, clearly operates within the realm of high-fashion, but is still recognisably beautiful in the contemporary sense of the word. Being ‘pretty’ used to be a distinct disadvantage if you wanted to get taken seriously, but not anymore. The respective successes of models like Lara Stone and Jessica Stam show that fashion has widened its own horizons to allow faces like Anja to not only work in the modelling industry, but to succeed and excel.

Faces like Anja get the attention that they do because they simply don’t come around that often. Finding that lucky mix of genetics that permits Anja to be equally convincing in couture as she is in a Gap commercial is a rarity even in the modelling world where outstanding beauty is par for the course.

Its rarity is what makes beauty so desirable. Everybody wants it; and those who do have it are the subject of intrigue, fascination and envy. It’s still, even in these times of shaky finances, the most potent form of currency we have. Anja’s extraordinary body of work shows that, whatever is on fashion’s agenda, beauty takes pride of place. It not only sells magazine covers and bottles of perfume, but it sells the promise of something better than we already have, and at the end of the day, that is what fashion is all about. A face that represents the ultimate in versatility, Anja Rubik is well on the way to becoming one of the most formidable forces in fashion history.




HELEN TOPE

Sunday, 13 December 2009

MODEL PROFILES: CARMEN KASS

Carmen Kass has been a visible presence on the world’s runways for over a decade.

Born in Estonia, 1978, Kass is working (and working hard) at an age where most models are getting comfortable with the idea of being retired. But Kass is still commanding attention, with current campaigns including Michael Kors, Narciso Rodriguez and Max Factor.

To be relevant for this long, and without the backing of a media empire, takes some doing. Truly a ‘model’s model’, Kass is well regarded within the industry, and still maintains a steady balance of editorial print work with runway appearances. Her longevity has endured because Kass delivers impact on all fronts. Most models have a leaning towards a particular medium, or actively prefer print work (editorials and covers) to runway, but Kass is uniquely placed because she is equally strong at both disciplines.

Kass was discovered in 1992 by an Italian modelling scout. Travelling through Estonia, the scout stopped off at a supermarket and discovered 14-year-old Carmen.

In 1996, Kass moved to Milan (and then Paris) to pursue a modelling career. She did not have to wait long for success, as in September the following year she found herself walking in runway shows for Chanel and Versace. Not a bad start by anyone’s standards.

Her career blossomed, with fragrance contracts from Dior in 2000, a Pirelli calendar shoot in 2001 and several runway credits including Givenchy, Balmain, Marni, Oscar de la Renta and Valentino Couture.

It became self-evident very early on in Kass’ career that she would make an indelible mark on the runway. Her walk, once seen never forgotten, quickly became her signature. The stride that embodied confidence and sensuality was a fashion crowd-pleaser in the years before the Brazilian stomp became the industry standard.

Hired to walk in the Victoria’s Secret Fashion Show in 2002, Carmen (at that point not well known outside fashion circles) worked the runway with effortless aplomb. Kass, not necessarily the most commercially beautiful, stormed the show and was consequently signed up for the next show in 2003. Hiring Kass was a gamble for the lingerie brand, but it was a decision that paid off and explains why they are so keen to hire new names, their latest recruits including Chanel Iman and Rosie Huntingdon-Whiteley.

The strength of Kass’ walk helped her forge connections with designers: she opened and closed the Oscar de la Renta shows for Autumn & Winter, and Spring & Summer 2002, doing exactly the same for Roland Mouret’s shows in 2005. Her walk took her to the heart of couture, walking for Givenchy, Valentino and Versace, plus additional catwalk credits with names such as Gucci, Carolina Herrera and Yves Saint Laurent. In 2004, it was reported that she was now able to command $200,000 for every catwalk appearance. Clearly designers considered it money well spent.

In 2006, Carmen entered the ‘campaign’ phase of her career, signing contracts with DSquared, Michael Kors and Chloe, and in 2007, landing 10 campaigns in 1 year including Versace, Gap, Ferragamo and, once again, Michael Kors.

Her affinity with the Michael Kors label continues to this day, as Kass remains the face of his fragrances, as well as opening and closing his catwalk shows in 2008 and opening the Spring & Summer 2010 show in New York just this September. Also walking for designers such as Isabel Marant, Balmain and Proenza Schouler, it is astonishing to think that Kass is still working with the best of the cutting-edge designers 12 years after her catwalk debut.

Her ongoing popularity isn’t hard to analyse. Notoriously difficult to replicate, Carmen’s walk defies interpretation. A good walk may be an advantage for any model, but a great walk really does last forever.

Imbibing clothes with personality while keeping them the area of focus, is the most difficult part of runway modelling (after mastering the heels). A model’s job is to give a designer’s vision a sense of identity and purpose on the runway so buyers and editors can assess the collection and crucially who would be its potential customer. To get an idea of how to pitch a designer’s work to their reader or customer, the coal-face of the fashion industry has to be able to recognise, at a glance, who the designer is really designing for. Fashion is about fantasy, yes, but at the end of the day, fantasy doesn’t pay the bills. Having a great model that understands this is the best asset a designer can have. Carmen Kass, with that cool, analytical brain, understands very clearly the fiscal connection between fantasy and reality. One feeds the other, and together they form a coherent brand for the designer. Knowing your customer is as crucial as having a sartorial point of view. Trying to survive without either is virtually impossible.

A competent walker will always find work, but someone who really makes their walk a part of themselves will see the benefits. Carmen is so well-loved because she is a true original: there is no-one else like her. She is not a headline-grabbing ‘classic beauty’, but her look has stayed the distance because it is versatile, and unique.

The importance of the runway walk is once again front row and centre with new kid Karlie Kloss. The American model has wowed the fashion circuit with her controversial ‘death stare’ swagger. Like Carmen, Karlie’s fame is attributed to her ability to imbue any designer’s collection with personality and character. Such is her popularity online; that a video of her giving a runway tutorial claims over 45,000 hits. Now with a fragrance contract with Marc Jacobs to her credit, Karlie is hitting the big-time and looks destined to follow in Carmen’s footsteps, racking up 64 shows in autumn 2008. Whether Karlie’s ascent would have happened so quickly without that devastating sucker-punch of a walk is impossible to gauge, but it proves that a seriously good walk can still take you places in the fashion world.

What is fascinating is how interest in fashion has not only developed, but diversified. There is a definite shift of attention towards the ‘live’ element of fashion: its runway shows. With facilities like YouTube, having a pass to Bryant Park is no longer required to see the latest shows.

Virtually all the major players of Spring & Summer 2010 are already available to view online.
Done right, runway shows can be miniature pieces of theatre, with the big names really putting in the hours to make a truly memorable show. Alexander McQueen, Marc Jacobs and Prada all make the effort to produce a show that will be talked about as much as the clothes. Again, its fantasy paired with reality: pitching a dream to sell a jacket. What’s more, it works.


Prada’s pre-historic theme with models teetering on 6” heels; any Alexander McQueen show of the past 5 years, and Marc Jacobs taking us on a guided tour of American fashion history. These moments become markers in fashion’s progress because, unlike theatre, we can re-play and re-visit them on demand. They become as much of the fashion experience as buying a copy of Vogue or visiting a boutique. Technology is fusing fashion to the next decade, and where it goes from here – well, you can’t help but get excited by the possibilities.


Just when you thought fashion had lost the personal touch, it has found a way to make itself accessible. In the next decade, the challenge will be pursuing this line of thought. Designers are realising the power created by making that one-on-one connection, and the return to favour of models that exhibit guile and daring on the catwalk is no accident. Aloof and abrupt just doesn’t cut it anymore. We want personality and wit but most of all, we want to be entertained.

HELEN TOPE

Monday, 30 November 2009

MODELS CONNECT: HOW TO FIND AN AGENCY


In the search for an agency, technology can be your best friend. However, typing in ‘modelling agency’ into any search engine will result in you getting more information than you can handle, and much of it, indiscriminate and irrelevant to the type of career you want.

Research

Start off by researching models you admire. Find out who represents them – this is a good starting point to ensure you only make contact with legitimate agencies. Do your homework, find out who the top agencies are and visit creditable sites like www.models.com to see which agencies hire models that most closely represent your look. Success in modelling is all about marketing, and doing it with insight and intelligence. Try to imagine your own look in an existing market – where would you place it? High fashion, commercial, plus-size, sports and athletic modelling – it’s a big modelling world out there. Having an awareness of where you might fit in is crucial.

Don’t be afraid to contact the bigger agency names. Yes, they are inundated with photos every day, but each one of these is checked to see if that person has modelling potential. Don’t assume that you’re better off trying just the smaller agencies. Be ambitious for yourself, contact every relevant agency, but be prepared for knockbacks. They come with the territory, and this point in your career is just the beginning. Try not to take rejection personally, because it rarely is. It’s just business.

Modelling may seem like an artistic pursuit, but the fact is for everybody concerned, it is a money-making venture. Think ahead: formulate, plan and plot your course of action, even if it’s only week by week.

Enthusiasm is infectious, and showing agencies that you have a ‘game plan’ can be the thing that tips the decision in your favour. If you’re really serious about becoming a model, make fashion your business. Read the trade publications (Vogue, W, Elle, Nylon, Harper’s Bazaar). Study who is out there, and why they keep getting re-hired. What are they doing that’s right? It’s rarely down to dumb genetic luck. The very best models get to the top because they are fearless about pursuing their goals. If you are really passionate about a career in fashion, let it show.

In person

When you’ve found an agency that captures your interest, look closely at their website. Many model agencies have very specific means of application. Some like you to send in a couple of photos in the mail: usually one head-shot and a full-length body shot. Others prefer you to upload a recent photo of yourself onto an online form, plus your personal details such as age and height. Others hold regular Open Days where would-be models are invited to attend an appointment with a booker to assess their suitability.

Open Days are becoming increasingly rare, with limits on time and resources to carry them out. If the agency you’ve found specifies a particular date and time, stick to it. Don’t assume that the booker will still be free to see you half an hour after the set time has elapsed.

Treat an Open Day appointment like a prospective go-see, only this time the agency is the client. Be friendly, attentive and polite. Mounting a charm offensive won’t hurt your chances one bit, and shows you understand what kind of behaviour would be required at a real life go-see.

Go prepared and present yourself as a model: your hair pulled back, clean, moisturised skin and no make-up. When picking clothes, it pays to go simpler. A vest and a decent pair of jeans are classics for a reason. Don’t make the rookie mistake of piling on every fashionable item in your wardrobe. An agent isn’t interested in admiring your fashion mojo: they just want to see potential.

Whatever the outcome of approaching an agency ‘in person’, don’t be afraid to ask for feedback. This can provide invaluable insight in helping you find a model agency sooner rather than later. Learning what you do wrong can really help you in the long-term. Mistakes can be corrected, but a know-it-all attitude? That’s not so easy to fix.

The key thing to understand about finding an agency is that to find success, a multi-angled form of attack is advisable. There are the lucky souls who get snapped up by the first agency they approach, but the reality is that for most people, it takes a little more work.

To get the result you want, it pays to cover your bases. After all, if you were job-hunting, no sane person would download their CV onto a recruitment website, sit back and wait for the phone calls to come pouring in. As with most things in life, if something’s worth having, it’s worth that extra effort to get it.

New technology: online model agencies

One angle you may not have considered is online model agency. They are steadily growing in profile, and while never a guarantee of securing work, it is definitely worthwhile exploring this option.

When looking for representation, it is important to know that the role of an online modelling agency is very different to that of a traditional agency. The main role of an online modelling agency is to primarily house electronic portfolios. They provide online space for you to display your photos on the internet.

The agency will offer a basic portfolio space on their website for little or no cost, and if you want something a bit more advanced, be prepared to pay an additional fee for running costs. This is a legitimate expense, as the more involved a person’s e-portfolio becomes, the more space and upkeep it requires.

The benefit of using this type of agency is that your work can be viewed by interested parties from around the world, thus maximising your earning potential. But online modelling agencies do not offer any of the other services routinely featured by more traditional agencies – do not confuse the two, or risk disappointment.

However, there are some similarities to bear in mind when shopping for an online agency. As with normal agencies, NEVER sign up to any agency that promises you work. No agency, however prolific, can guarantee a model work. The industry is notoriously fast-paced, and work fluctuates at all levels.

When choosing an online agency, look at the e-portfolios of other models on the website. Do their photos suggest that this model aspires to be in the same sector as you? Always try to match yourself to an agency’s existing book of models – you are far more likely to get work this way than trying to squeeze a square peg into a round hole. Also, if the agency seems clearly focused, in terms of what is offers prospective clients, this is also good news as a client will be more inclined to scout the better-developed sites for talent than the ones that are clumsily managed.

When selecting portfolio shots, keep in mind what constitutes a portfolio shot. Beware any e-portfolios with models posing with parasols or staring winsomely off-camera. This is the calling card of a makeover shoot, and as such is completely unsuitable for a professional portfolio. Whatever the cost of the shoot, a soft-focus glamour shot of you wrapped in a feather boa is unlikely to win over any client. Models Connect offers specific advice on the difference between portfolio and makeover photos. If in doubt, keep your fledgling portfolio shots simple, direct and uncluttered. No parasols necessary.

Keeping your expectations in line is another thing to remember when posting your shots to an online agency. As a method of securing work, it can be a long shot, but something worth doing if you are serious about securing a foothold in the industry. The more methods you try, the higher the likelihood of securing a response will be.

Where Models Connect can help

Models Connect can also assist you with your search. The website (www.modelsconnect.net) functions as a halfway house between a virtual agency and the ‘real’ world. It houses e-portfolios like an online agency would, but where Models Connect differs, is that it can offer a level of service including advice, tips and most importantly, the potential for booking jobs with its selection of clients.

To get the best results from Models Connect, you can sign up to have an online profile that can only be viewed by Models Connect’s base of vetted and approved clients, but you can also access your account and forward your details onto other agencies or interested parties, and manage your own career.

Where Models Connect’s main strength lies in how it can connect you to a body of clients, who are actively searching for new faces, for a wide variety of projects. Upon signing up, you will be assigned your own booker, who will ensure that if you’re suitable for a potential job, that client will be made aware of you.

Combining your search for an agency using the latest technology and exploring more traditional routes is the best means of achieving your goal. Think proactively, and this will translate into action, which shows potential agencies and clients that you are serious about building a career in the fashion industry.

Approach your search for an agency with intelligence: plan and strategise. Needing, at the very least, a Plan B in the modelling world is absolutely essential. Do your research, be aware of scams (see Models Connect for advice on how to avoid scams), remain alert to opportunities and keep an open mind. Your future could be closer than you think.

HELEN TOPE

Sunday, 22 November 2009

MODEL PROFILES: COCO ROCHA

Born September 10th 1988, Coco Rocha has secured her reputation on her ability to merge avant-garde with commercial.

Raised in Canada, but of Irish, Welsh and Russian descent, Rocha holds a unique place in modelling history. Combining modern athleticism with unique features that manage to be timeless, Coco represents the best of both worlds.

In 2002, Coco Rocha was discovered by agent Charles Stuart at an Irish dancing contest in Vancouver. Rocha had never previously considered a career in fashion, but she signed with Elite, and began to discover her value in the fashion world.

Rocha’s career started slowly but began to take off in 2006. Her first major breakthrough was appearing in a Balenciaga ad campaign. Wearing oversized platform wedges and a bowler hat, Rocha’s arrival on the fashion scene set the tone for the rest of her career: quirky, original and unexpected.

Her next notable assignment was a shoot with Steven Meisel for Dolce & Gabbana. Famous for being a ‘hit-maker’ in the fashion industry, Meisel has a gift for spotting new model talent. After working with Rocha, Meisel immediately rated her as a model that was worth watching. Website http://www.style.com/ was of the same opinion later that year when they named Coco their ‘rising star’.

The body of 2006 was a collective of great experiences for Rocha. An Italian Vogue editorial with Gemma Ward; a spot in the Chanel Couture runway show and additional shows for Vera Wang and Balenciaga. Coco topped off a brilliant year with an editorial in French Vogue, shot by legendary photographer Terry Richardson.

2007 would prove to be a seminal year for Rocha. Beginning the year by renewing her contract with Balenciaga, Coco also signed up to do a campaign for Lanvin. In February, Rocha achieved two Vogue covers in the same month, posing on the cover of Italian Vogue with Hilary Rhoda, plus an additional cover for Japanese Vogue with Russian model Sasha Pivovarova.

By themselves, these are noteworthy achievements, but in every great model’s career, there is a moment, a tipping point where everything falls into place. This moment came for Rocha in April 2007. She was booked to appear in the Jean Paul Gaultier runway show. Gaultier, charmed by the Canadian, found out about her dancing background and insisted she open and close the show. But Coco wasn’t to walk down the runway: she had to dance it.

Coco’s exuberant bursts of Irish dancing caused a sensation. Anna Wintour dubbed it ‘The Coco Moment’, and Rocha had arrived. The ‘moment’ lasted beyond the initial rush of publicity and translated into very real accolades. The next month, Rocha was featured on the cover of American Vogue. The theme of the cover was already decided: the world’s next supermodels.

Coco was in rarefied company. She shared the cover with Caroline Trentini, Raquel Zimmermann, Sasha Pivovarova, Chanel Iman, Jessica Stam, Hilary Rhoda and Agyness Deyn. Two years ago, these names were specialist knowledge only. Two years on, every one of these names evokes a face, an image and a glittering career. Vogue’s star-spotting was absolutely on the money.

On paper, the concept of Coco as a model should never have worked. Her years of dance training, while doing great things for her posture, should’ve worked against her. Contrary to popular belief, dancers don’t usually make good models, as their training forces them to resist the broken-down, angular poses required to model some of the extreme silhouettes in contemporary fashion.

But Coco took the best of her dance training and channelled it into the requirements of modelling. Applying an intelligent approach to movement, Coco’s popularity with photographers and editors boiled down to her ability to create shapes and lines for the camera.

Look at Coco’s body of work and you will see in her photos that she is a mistress of movement, providing a masterclass in how to create photos that are visually dynamic. Her energy, applied with restraint where needed, translates brilliantly onto film. Rocha is a rare breed: a dancer whose skills adds to, rather than impedes, the modelling package.

In September 2007, she opened a Chanel runway show, scoring the ultimate ‘insider’ job. If you are hired by Lagerfeld, you must be doing something right. In 2008, Coco was photographed for the famous Pirelli calendar by Patrick Demarchelier, and featured in a US Vogue editorial, dressed as famous cartoon characters. Who better to interpret Catwoman and Poison Ivy? Coco managed a difficult task with wit and verve, while still keeping the overall tone fashion-friendly.

Coco’s versatile face made her useable for commercial projects as well as the high-fashion fun. In 2009, she became the face of DeBeers diamonds and has a long-running series of campaigns with YSL skincare and fragrance, plus clothing campaigns for designers as diverse as Zac Posen and Liz Claiborne.

This disparity explains what makes Coco so in demand. She bridges the gap between the worlds of mainstream fashion and the avant-garde. Look again at the list of girls featured on the 2007 ‘Supermodels’ Vogue cover. The list shows how fashion’s take on beauty has shifted over the years. Girls like Agyness, Jessica, Coco and Sasha would’ve been sidelined in the Nineties as purely avant-garde faces.

Over a decade ago, as a model you were either positioned by your agency as an edgy, avant-garde girl or glamour personified. The careers of models such as Stella Tennant and Kristen McMenamy in the 1990s were sharply defined from those of more mainstream girls like Niki Taylor and Christy Turlington. Stella and Kristen did couture, Niki and Christy sold lipstick. Tastes for models would come and go: one year, it was all about the quirky, androgynous models, the next, fashion would celebrate classic beauties. What Coco and her peers represent is a departure from this idea that beauty has to be one thing or the other to be relevant. It has instead been replaced with a merging of the two ideals. Beauty can be just as sellable when it is off-centre, as it is in a Valentino gown.

The idea that a quirky-looking model could be editorial and commercial is something that has only truly evolved through this past decade. The complex requirements of a label like Balenciaga makes certain demands of a model, but now the mid-range labels, and even high-street brands are beginning to catch up.

Retail branding in the same decade has not just had an overhaul; it has been rewritten from scratch. High-street brands such as Reiss, Gap and All Saints are marketing themselves with the same level of sophistication as the designer names, because this is what the consumer now expects. Shopping isn’t just about the clothes you leave the store with; it’s about the whole experience. From the decor to the sales staff, the bar has been visibly raised and those stores doing well are outperforming their competitors because they have embraced everything high-fashion has to offer, including its models. Coco has secured so many contracts with brands on the high street because she offers a taste of high-fashion beauty that is both editorial and relatable.

Coco‘s quirky, off-beat appeal has seen her working with everyone from Gareth Pugh to Gap. Conservative designers love her, legends like Meisel and Wintour are fascinated by her. There is never a sense, in looking at Coco’s career, that there is a place where she doesn’t belong.
Models like Coco represent the future of modelling because they are the very definition of versatility. Seeing someone like Coco succeed shows how fashion has worked, actively and consciously, to become more inclusive to models that fall between the extremes of ‘quirky’ and ‘classic’. Coco’s amazing run of success has paved the way for new models such as Karlie Kloss, who has just signed a deal with Dior. The new girl personified by Coco is avant-garde, and she is establishment: part of the fabric of fashion, she is here to stay. Quirky isn’t a passing phase anymore.

HELEN TOPE

Sunday, 15 November 2009

MODEL PROFILES: CRYSTAL RENN

Her name may not be that familiar, but Crystal Renn is the face of a revolution.

Born in Miami Florida in 1987, Crystal’s connection with the modelling industry began when she was just 14 years old. She was approached by a model scout and asked if she had ever considered a career in fashion. At 5’9” and a (British) size 18, Renn had assumed that being a model was not a realistic goal.

In her biography ‘Hungry’, Renn describes how the scout showed her pictures of Gisele Bundchen and other models that were just beginning to break into the fashion world. With a little work, it was implied, Renn could have a career just like them. Renn was told that to succeed, she would need to lose weight.

Crystal went on to lose a massive 40% of her starting body weight, doing so by adopting a dangerous regime that equated to near-starvation. She began to work, but the career that was promised to her, never materialised. On the fringes of fashion, Crystal found that maintaining the massive weight loss was an all-consuming struggle. Just getting out of bed, let alone attending go-sees every day, presented an almost overwhelming daily challenge.

It was becoming clear to Renn that things were not progressing the way she’d hoped. Her body, existing on a tiny amount of calories just to survive, eventually rebelled. Crystal experienced a health crisis and rapidly gained 70lbs.

After her health had stabilised, Renn found herself at a size 16. Her career as a ‘regular model’ was over. Instead of giving up altogether, Renn reassessed her priorities. She still wanted to model, and be part of the fashion world, but not at the expense of her health.
Renn made the decision to reposition herself in the market as a plus-size model. In America, the plus-size industry is very well respected – and potentially extremely lucrative for girls who happen to have the right look.

Renn, already a fashion insider, discovered that plus-size work demanded the same stringent adherence to focus and discipline as regular modelling. At 5’9”, with excellent photogenic features and a toned, well-proportioned body, Renn was exactly what the plus-size industry was looking for. Returning to modelling in 2004, Renn signed with Ford Models – an agency that is known for supporting the careers of plus-size models. With Ford behind her, Renn found to her amazement that work began to flood in.

In 2006, Renn was invited to walk in the ready-to-wear show for Jean Paul Gaultier. A plus-size model in a show of regular-sized models, Renn was not the politically correct token gesture. Gaultier, interviewed later about his choice, simply responded that she had been picked for the show because she was beautiful. Renn’s appearance caused a sensation, and this kick-started her new career.

If Renn ever had any doubts about moving to the plus-size sector, her fears were allayed when offers began to pour in. High-street names Mango and H&M signed her up for campaigns, plus cover shoots with Italian Elle (December 2008) and Harpers Bazaar in Russia (December 2006). Renn made history by becoming the first plus-size model to feature on the cover of Harper’s Bazaar.

The accolades didn’t stop there. She scored lucrative, long-standing campaigns with high-end department store Saks 5th Avenue in New York, and British plus-size retail leader, Evans. In Britain, she racked up considerable press attention by becoming the face of Evans. It is a brand that has not received much attention in the popular press, but Renn’s appearance on its shop fronts triggered a revival of interest in what plus-size fashion has to offer. By hiring a model of Renn’s calibre to represent them, Evans suddenly got taken a whole lot more seriously. Plus-size modelling had just found its first supermodel.

Image is central to the fashion business, and Renn gave plus-size fashion a much-needed editorial edge. Blurring the line between ‘beauty’ and ‘size’, Crystal Renn exploded the myth that plus-size fashion had to be a compromise. By choosing Renn to represent their brands, these high-street names were giving power back to the consumer, by giving them choice.
By employing models like Renn who apply the same work ethic to a plus-size brand as they would a cover try, retailers took a massive step forward, persuading consumers that they were also being taken seriously. There is serious money to be made for those who get plus-size fashion right, and in these difficult times, failing to connect with potential customers is no laughing matter.

The increase in fashion literacy over the past decade, has seen a significant change in how the public approach fashion; what they buy, and what they don’t. There is a definite shift occurring in how fashion – for all sizes – is being designed, made and sold. Attention to detail and catwalk influences have never been more important: striking the right note can mean the difference between survival and extinction.

Where Crystal Renn fits in is with the overall perception of the plus-size industry. Image is central to fashion, and for too long, plus-size fashion had fallen behind the times. Not only did plus-size stores have to revamp their stores and merchandise to offer a shopping experience comparable to other names that has also upped their game: in order for plus-size to operate on a level playing-field with its competitors, it needed a revolution, and every revolution needs a figurehead. Plus-size fashion needed someone fashion-forward, relevant and above all, aspirational. That is why Crystal Renn’s career has gone from strength to strength. She is the face of a new generation who are refusing to see beauty in narrow, definitive terms.

The idea that only thin can be beautiful is just as dubious as the popularly trotted-out line that only ‘real women have curves’. These ideas are old-fashioned at best, and at worst, unhelpful and divisive. Beauty is not an ‘either / or’ scenario, and approaching it in such linear terms helps no-one feel better about themselves.

Fashion is often painted as the ‘bad guy’ of body politics, creating impossible standards for ordinary women to live by. Leaving aside the issue of lighting and airbrushing (even Gisele doesn’t look like Gisele when she gets up in the morning), the beauty of models such as Renn is that they pose a direct challenge to our own ideas about what constitutes beauty.

It is an important lesson for any woman at any age. Beauty is about more than numbers –when it works, it works, but trying to explain how or why – that’s another challenge altogether. There is a long way to go, but modelling is endeavouring to move forward in a more inclusive way in determining what is beautiful – now.

The weight gain that Renn had seen as being so catastrophic to her career was in fact the very thing that saved it. By learning to live with her body, Renn’s face made her name and her fortune.

HELEN TOPE

Sunday, 1 November 2009

MODELS CONNECT


How to become a model

In preparing yourself for a life in front of the lens, it is essential to do your research. By being intelligent in your approach, you can make the business of building a career a lot less painful.

There are a huge number of agencies out there, and doing your research – which agency signs ‘x’ type of model – will save you a lot of heartache. There are many different types of modelling, and if you are not suitable for one, it doesn’t necessarily exclude you from another.

· Be realistic. If you’re best suited to commercial modelling, only pursuing high-fashion agencies will be a very lonely and frustrating experience.
Know your limitations, but also know your selling points. What is it about you that would make a great model? Stand in front of the mirror – pose, pout, but most importantly, assess. Be honest with yourself, and be open to possibilities you may not have considered. High-fashion modelling may be one of the most covetous areas of the business, but many commercial models earn more than their high-fashion counterparts, simply because there is more work to go round.

· Undoubtedly the most important stage in the process to becoming a model is mental attitude. Developing a thick skin is crucial – rejection is part and parcel of the modelling experience. Even the most successful names in the industry aren’t perfect for every single campaign or magazine cover.

· Upkeep is essential. To be a working model, you must be in peak physical condition. Keeping fit is not just about muscle tone, but also stamina – a successful model can often work long hours and keeping fit and healthy is half the battle won. It’s a model clichĂ© as old as the hills, but plenty of water is also a must. It will hydrate your skin, making it healthy, glowing and eminently photographable.

· Being disciplined is fundamental to approaching a career in the modelling business. Focus and discipline aren’t the most exciting tools in your armoury, but if you’re serious about wanting a modelling career, you have to take modelling itself seriously. A model set on reaching the top puts the work first. Partying can wait – most models only have a short window of opportunity, and it’s up to you to make the most of it.

· Be prepared to push yourself – a model’s reputation rests squarely on their previous work. No matter how good you are, there is always room for improvement. No model was born knowing how to create a great photo: it takes time and practice.

· Perhaps the most important thing to consider when thinking about a modelling career is money management. Whether you are just starting out, or further down the line as a more established face, work can be patchy. You can find yourself working around the clock one month, and sitting at home twiddling your thumbs the next. Spend wisely, save what you can and in the early days a second source of income will be vital.
Modelling is rarely 9-5: the hours can be exhausting and the competition for work unrelenting, but the pay-offs can be substantial. Not only in terms of financial reward, but being able to do the thing you love every single day. If you succeed as a model, appreciate it. You’ll be doing something you love for a living, and life doesn’t get any better than that.

How Models Connect can help
Now that I’ve sold you on the dream, it’s time for reality. Getting noticed in the modelling industry is tough. Making yourself visible is no easy task, and it is precisely that which will get you noticed. Models Connect can help you make that progression from ‘aspiring’ model to ‘hired’.
By registering with Models Connect, you can gain access to our list of clients, who scour the Models Connect database every day, looking for a model that fits a particular brief. Models Connect acts as an intermediary, offering regular updates to clients of new Models Connect members who have recently registered. The result? You become instantly visible – and bookable.
Joining Models Connect is a straightforward process. Fill in the online registration form at http://www.modelsconnect.net/, and upload two recent photos of yourself: one face-on head shot and a full-length body shot. Choose the shots carefully – they should be taken against a plain background and resist the temptation to pose. Adopt a neutral expression as this gives clients the best chance of determining if you match what they are looking for. Bear in mind that these photos will be the first impression you will make with prospective clients. Take this part of the process seriously as it may make the difference between being booked and being left on the sidelines.

After you have uploaded 2 photos you are happy with, your account will be reviewed by a member of staff within 5 working days of your initial application. Once your application has been approved, a personal booker will be assigned to you and will be in touch.

As a footnote, Models Connect receives upwards of 2000 applications a month, therefore any applications not filled in fully or missing uploaded photos will result in your account being terminated, and you will have to begin the registration process again.

Assuming you’ve filled in all your details correctly and uploaded your photos, what happens next? Your lovely new profile will then appear on the Models Connect database which is viewed by clients on a daily basis. If for example a client needs to find a girl between 18 and 21, 5’8” with red hair, and that description matches you perfectly, your profile will be drawn up in the search and will be available for the client to view more closely.

If the client views your profile and decides you might be worth contacting, they will either make direct contact with you by email, or by sending a message via the Models Connect website. This will be relayed onto you, so you can take further action.

One crucial benefit of Models Connect is that all clients are screened beforehand: you can only be contacted by Models Connect’s trusted and experienced client-base which includes several properly accredited and reputable agencies, and professionals from advertising and media. Building connections is all part of a model’s career, and by registering with Models Connect, you’re getting a head start.

Another benefit of Models Connect is that you are not just limited to sitting around and waiting to be contacted. You can use Models Connect proactively to maximise your own career prospects. You can manage your profile by sending some of your uploaded photos and details to anyone you like, and even go a step further and have your own webpage hosted on the Models Connect website. Self-promotion is nothing to shy away from: it could make all the difference.
While Models Connect offers a new technology solution for models just starting out, there are other less reputable sites and agencies out there and being able to recognise a scam is very important. You want your experience of the modelling world to be a positive one – not one where you end up dejected, discouraged and seriously out of pocket.

How to avoid scams
The key to avoiding modelling scams (Models Connect Scam section) is that if they promise you the earth, their ability to deliver on that promise is set at zero. The top agencies are experts in what doctors refer to as ‘managing expectations’. As you probably have figured out for yourself, there is no such thing as guaranteed success in the modelling industry. The fashion world is notoriously fickle – what is right one week may be out of vogue the next.

When undertaking research, the internet can prove to be your best friend. However, type ‘modelling’ into any search engine and you will come up against some of the greatest pitfalls too. If you receive or see any of the following, avoid like the plague:

· Online invites (via Facebook or any chatroom);

· Companies inviting you to pay large sums of cash to attend an ‘Assessment Day’ with a ‘top photographer’ to grade your suitability for the modelling world.
There is a booming industry catering to the aspirations of would-be models, and it is something you need to be aware of. You will have seen the leaflets - a studio will offer you a professional makeover followed by a professional photo-shoot with a professional photographer. It’s worth noting how many times their literature will use the word ‘professional’.
At best, these studios can offer a day of harmless fun, dressing up and a few snaps. At worst, they can be predatory companies preying on the hopes and ambitions of would-be models. If any of these studios offer you ‘professional’ advice (there’s that word again!) in return for purchasing a set of photographs, turn them down flat. These firms, whatever they may say, have no clout with the real modelling world.

Bear in mind that these makeover studios are in the business of making money, not discovering talent. If you’re still not convinced, refer to the Models Connect Scam section advice on makeover and portfolio photographs (www.modelsconnect.net/?page=66) the difference between a makeover shoot and a fashion portfolio is night and day.

However, modelling is not a totally gratis gig. There are costs that you will be expected to meet:

Travel expenses to and from castings and shoots
Grooming (hair, make-up, skincare, fitness)
Z-cards (these are a model’s ‘business card’ which you would be expected to take with you on any casting to leave with a client). Some agencies will pay for the printing expenses themselves, but others may charge you a fee.
When starting out a career in modelling, it is important to factor in these expenses. Grooming alone is a continuous expense and, at times, expensive.

The thing to keep in mind is that modelling agencies do not charge upfront, but recoup costs once you start booking jobs. They take a percentage of your total fee, and that is how modelling agencies make their money. When you do well, they do well.

Finally, and more seriously, if you get to the point where contracts are involved, be wary and read all legal documents before signing anything. Check credits, check client lists, testimonials – check everything. Don’t be afraid to get legal advice before signing anything – any legitimate agent will not be offended by this.

Most importantly, trust your instincts and repeat after me: if it sounds too good to be true, it probably is.

HELEN TOPE

Sunday, 18 October 2009

MODEL PROFILES: JOURDAN DUNN


Her career boasts one of the most famous ‘discovery’ stories in modern modelling history. Born 3 August 1990, Jourdan Dunn was found by a model scout whilst out shopping with her friend at the Hammersmith branch of Primark.

She was approached by an agent from top agency Storm, the same agency that is also responsible for launching Kate Moss’ career, and Jourdan signed with them in 2006.

In February 2007, Jourdan made her runway debut at the Autumn / Winter shows for Marc Jacobs, Ralph Lauren and Salvatore Ferragamo in New York and Milan. In September, Vogue named her a ‘rising star’.

Jourdan’s success continued, with runway appearances for Alexander McQueen and Hermes in Paris, and in February 2008, Dunn got the attention of the mainstream press when she became the first black model to walk for Prada in over ten years. The last black model to do so was Naomi Campbell.

The year continued to bring new honours, including accompanying designer Peter Som to the Costume Institute Gala in May, scoring her first Italian Vogue cover in July and also undertaking an ad campaign with British high-street giant, Topshop.

The cool, street-wise series of images, shot by Emma Summerton, launched Jourdan into the big-time: every fashion-conscious teenager now knew her name and face.

The lucrative professional relationship between Dunn and Summerton continued with editorials in Italian Vogue, and in November, a cover of British Vogue, with Dunn appearing alongside Eden Clark and Rosie Huntington.

In November 2008, Jourdan was nominated for and won ‘Model of the Year’, as voted for by the British Fashion Council. She topped the year off with a cover of French Elle. In February 2009, she opened the Autumn / Winter collection for Jason Wu, plus appearing in shows for Oscar de la Renta and Vivienne Westwood. She also had the honour of closing shows for Betty Jackson, Issa, Thakoon and Twenty8Twelve.

This brief summary of Jourdan’s career to date (temporarily on hiatus due to a pregnancy announced in July this year, with the baby due in December), shows that designers are definitely willing to hire (and re-hire) a black model.

Race in fashion is a contentious issue – even more so than weight. It has been said with alarming regularity that fashion, as a whole, is racist – deep down to its very core. It is true that even a cursory glance over a variety of fashion publications that the editorial balance is skewed in favour of white models, both in terms of editorial content and ad campaigns.

But the astonishing rate, at which Jourdan’s career blossomed, belies this idea. How can fashion be racist and still rave over beauties like Dunn? Jourdan herself was interviewed by iD magazine and refuted the notion that the industry will only hire a small number of black models at any one time. A brief scan of Jourdan’s friends within the industry also questions this commonly-accepted idea: Emanuela de Paula (Brazil-born), Sessilee Lopez (America), Honorine Uwera (Rwanda) and Arlenis Sosa (Dominican Republic). This is not a roll-call of an industry only interested in promoting a blonde, blue-eyed template of beauty.

These names are not necessarily well-known outside the immediate fashion industry, but Jourdan has certainly not been alone on her rise through the fashion ranks. Chanel Iman has also scored much press coverage as well. The fashion industry thrives on finding new faces – and ethnicity doesn’t seem to be the primary decider in whether a model gets signed by an agency.
By choosing to focus on Iman and Dunn almost exclusively, the press have been omitting other girls who are making a name for themselves. Models like Emma Pei and Toni Garr may not be household names, but they are well-respected and making a handsome living.

So Jourdan is right to challenge the idea of only a few black models working at any one time – we have ample evidence to the contrary. What is more puzzling, and perhaps more unsettling, is the question of why these girls aren’t better known? Is there a cap on success in the fashion industry if you are not white?

We all know that modelling is basically a sales pitch in heels. Whatever is being modelled, sells not just the thing itself, but an aspiration, an idea attached to it that if you buy this dress / bag / tube of lipstick, you will become more beautiful by association.

A quick glance of Jourdan’s CV throws up something troubling. She has had plenty of success on the runways and in landing high-profile editorials and covers, but aside from affiliations with high-street stores Benetton and Topshop, Dunn has no other campaigns to her name. True, Jourdan hasn’t been working that long, but if you compare her CV to that of peer Karlie Kloss , who has already landed a coveted fragrance contract with Marc Jacobs, you can’t help but think that something else is going on here.

We consider ourselves to be living in a multi-cultural society, but the facts do not compare well when we look a little closer at the wider fashion world, beyond the runways and the editorials of high-fashion. If fashion truly does reflect what is going on in society today, then why was Jourdan the first black model to walk for Prada in over a decade?

Many fashion insiders are reluctant to get drawn into the racism debate, not necessarily because they have something to hide, but because with this issue, there are no easy answers.

Casting agents for the big cosmetic firms hire faces on one key component: sell-ability. The controversial, but indisputable fact, when unit sales are directly compared, is that a white / non-ethnic model will sell more tubes of mascara than a black model. This then creates a vicious circle: cosmetic companies may want to go with someone more ethnically-diverse like Jourdan or Chanel, but if a white model sells more products, they have to make a decision based on economics, not aesthetics. By not using a black model, the cosmetic company are then continuing the self-fulfilling prophecy that a white model sells more units, and are then even less likely to use a black model for their next campaign. Consumers then only see white faces in beauty campaigns, and subconsciously make the semantic leap that a paler face is to be interpreted as inherently beautiful. They then respond by buying the tube of mascara, again fulfilling the prophecy that in terms of sales, a white model is a more profitable signing.

This leads back to one question. Why are cosmetic companies using white models so much in the first place? Is it because the public can’t see a black model as being beautiful, and by implication, aspirational? Does the problem lie with the cosmetic companies, or with us, the consumers? Are they in fact only following the agenda that we have set out for them? Who really decides what is beautiful? The problem appears to lie not with reality, but with perception.

For centuries, the template of beauty was not predominantly, but exclusively, white. Beauty was built around European features: big, child-like eyes, small noses and chins. The differing facial proportions on faces outside Europe – Africa, India and Asia – were not considered beautiful because they did not match the European ideal.

The preference for petite features is of course grounded in issues not just of race, but of power and inequality. Those who had the lion’s share of the power set the terms of what was considered beautiful. If you did not match the ideal, you were not beautiful – even if in reality you were actually better looking than your European counterparts: reality and perception – very different things.

The uncomfortable truth is this template has been clearly internalised by all of us. Why else would sales of a magazine cover featuring a black model perform so badly in comparison to those featuring a white model? Even now, it appears the struggle for equal and comparative pegging in the modelling industry is lagging behind the times. If lighter skin and features that lean towards European proportions are still seen as preferable, is there any hope for the industry at all?

The fact that the race issue is being discussed so openly means that there has been a revival of interest on diverse kinds of beauty within the modelling industry. Jourdan Dunn, Chanel Iman, Devon Aoki, Alek Wek, Arlenis Sosa and Emma Pei are proof that the fashion industry is more than willing to employ ethnically-diverse models – not as a gimmick, but because these models are extremely good at what they do.

While this is a debate that will continue to spark discussion, what is good news for models entering the industry today, is that the fashion world itself has no qualms about hiring new faces from around the world.

Part of this has to do with new designers such as Peter Som, Derek Lam and Thakoon coming from diverse backgrounds themselves. Their own history and personal understanding of the race issue makes them in turn more aware – and awareness is the key to breaking down barriers.

American designer Jason Wu used an array of black models for his recent Autumn / Winter and Spring / Summer runways to prove this point. To say that fashion does not regard ethnically –diverse models as being beautiful is simply not true. The problem is with perception: and that problem is centred squarely on consumers’ shoulders. We are the ones not buying it; we still prefer a magazine with a white model on the cover and vote with our cash accordingly. Cosmetic companies choose primarily European models not because of some hidden agenda, but because it is what sells. If we really are serious about wanting to see a more even representation of models out there, on the catwalk, in magazines and campaigns, a conscious effort is required to make it happen.

This changing of attitudes will take time, but there is definitely cause for optimism. The flourishing success of Jourdan Dunn’s career shows how high-fashion is willing to embrace new talent. There is no easy solution to the race issue, but while designers and editors continue to explore the wealth of diverse modelling talent available, there is hope that perception will eventually follow reality. The whole point of beauty is that it is beyond definition.

Fashion likes to think of itself as cosmopolitan and part of that attitude is its openness to new kinds of beauty from around the world. But it will take the continued efforts of high fliers such as Jourdan Dunn to keep reminding us that fairness and equality are always in fashion.

HELEN TOPE

Sunday, 11 October 2009

MODEL PROFILES: ERIN O'CONNOR


Described by Karl Lagerfeld as ‘one of the best models in the world’, Erin O’Connor brought a very English sensibility to the Parisian world of haute couture.

Born in Walsall on the 9th of February 1978, Erin O’Connor was born into an ordinary, working-class family and growing up, had her sights set on becoming a school teacher.

This all changed when Erin and her classmates were taken on a school trip to Clothes Show Live in Birmingham. Taking its lead from the iconic 80’s television show, the live event is a yearly trade show with top names from fashion, hair and beauty coming together to exhibit and promote their latest products. The event is also routinely attended by scouts from the top modelling agencies, hoping to find someone who has modelling potential.

This is exactly what happened to Erin: already grazing 6ft tall (without heels), the 17-yr-old stood head and shoulders above the crowd. Scouting agent Fiona Ellis from Models 1 spotted Erin immediately and knew she had found something special. She approached Erin, and with a little persuasion, she was signed up and began the business of becoming a model.

Erin had all the raw materials – angular, androgynous features, phenomenal height and a body built to showcase fashion. But it wasn’t until a photo-shoot in Brazil when Erin had her hair chopped off by master-stylist Guido (often seen working on contestants on ‘America’s Next Top Model’), that things began to happen – and happen rather quickly. Erin’s new, super-cool look grabbed attention from Paris, the home of haute couture.

Where Erin found her home was with Chanel. Walking the ready-to-wear runway for the label in early 1997, and then progressing to Chanel Couture in July the same year, O’Connor had found her niche. That editorial awkwardness, with the help of a confidence boost from booking shows with Fendi and Gucci, transformed into insouciant glamour that was perfect for couture.

Catapulted from her discovery at Clothes Show Live to the very top of the fashion industry, her strong features and faultless posture made haute couture the natural choice for O’Connor.
Possessing an unusual face, Erin lacked the poster girl prettiness of Niki Taylor or Kate Moss, herself just hitting the big time. Erin’s high-fashion, aristocratic bearing whispered of sophisticated, Wallis Simpson-style glamour. Erin had more in common with the Dior couture models of the 1950’s than her own peers: she wasn’t able to rely on perfectly-set features, but for couture this wasn’t necessary. However, a cast-iron self belief would prove essential.

Couture is the most difficult branch of fashion modelling to master, simply because the clothing demands so much of the model. Avant-garde and theatrical, couture demands a powerful performance on the runway: even a hint of self-doubt will show on a model’s face and the illusion is lost. Couture requires nothing less than 100% self-confidence, or it will overpower the model wearing it. Ideally the outfit and the model should work together to create a dream-like state of beauty and elegance which is what sells couture to its tiny but wildly affluent customer-base. They want to see the clothes at their most powerful, persuasive and most seductive, and only a good couture model can deliver that.

O’Connor’s unconventional, swan-like quality made her the ideal candidate for selling a $50,000 gown. In an interview with The Telegraph, Erin admitted that she never saw herself as the type of model who excels at modelling lingerie or swimwear. She was more of a specialist look, and had to tailor her career aspirations accordingly. Not being that classic all-rounder did her no harm whatsoever. By leaning on her strengths, O’Connor made her name by recognising her limits. She would never be anyone’s idea of a lingerie model, and that was just fine with her.

Her career, after the early triumphs of Paris, went on to even greater heights. She won ‘Model of the Year’ at the 1999 Elle Style Awards, and the year after that, signed a fragrance contract with Jean Paul Gaultier. The perfume, ‘Fragile’ played up to Erin’s image as the face of high fashion and even scored her a guest role on sitcom ‘Absolutely Fabulous’ in 2001.

Erin continued, for the next five years, to walk ready-to-wear and couture runway shows, even opening the Valentino Couture show in 2005, and closing the Christian Dior Couture show the same year. Erin’s affiliation with the world of couture was firmly set.

Britain doesn’t have a strong track record of producing great couture models, and Erin was not only a working-class heroine to aspiring models, but a tall, proud vision of what Britain had to offer the fashion industry. During the Nineties, the British fashion scene was not on such firm ground as it is now. A few standout names commanded respect, but otherwise it played second fiddle to New York, Paris and Milan. Good, but not quite good enough.

The arrival on the scene of not just a passable couture model, but a truly great one, could have not been more fortuitous. Erin O’Connor showed the fashion world that Brits were not just about avant-garde: they could do sophistication too. Ten years on from her discovery at Clothes Show Live, Erin was still an active presence in haute couture: opening and closing shows not as a ‘former name’, but as a working and bookable model.

With the recent celebrations surrounding London Fashion Week’s 25th anniversary, it is clear how far British fashion has come, and how differently it is regarded by the world’s fashion press. Names such as Christopher Kane, Richard Nicoll and Gareth Pugh are at the fore-front of modern fashion. London will always have an avant-garde flavour, but what has happened over the past five years is that it has acquired a level of polish that simply wasn’t there ten years ago.

If Erin’s career finished here, there would be plenty to be proud of. But Erin’s career took an unexpected turn in 2006, when she was invited to take part in a televised ad campaign for British high-street favourite, Marks and Spencer. A hallmark brand, M&S has been a highly visible presence on the high street for 125 years. But with sales falling dramatically, its image needed a drastic overhaul.

Using the best of British modelling talent, the campaign featured Erin alongside Twiggy and Laura Bailey. Loosely based on a ‘James Bond’ theme, the tongue-in-cheek approach won over customers immediately. Glamorous but fun, there was Twiggy flying the flag for the over-50’s, Laura Bailey’s chocolate-box prettiness and Erin’s unique brand of high-fashion, off-centre beauty. The intention was self-evident: the more people M&S could appeal to, the better.
Known chiefly for selling reliable, dependable basics, M&S had no option but to modernise itself and its stock. People’s expectations of fashion stores were evolving rapidly and in order to keep up, M&S had to give the people what they wanted: clothes that were fashion-relevant, fun and good value for money.

The public responded to the advert with immediate effect. Erin’s profile went through the roof. From the rarefied world of Parisian couture, to one of the most recognisable names on the high street, Erin had now done it all. Modelling the revamped high street designs, Erin applied that same couture sensibility to a £99 coat, giving the merchandise a high-fashion gloss that reintroduced the brand to women under 35, a demographic that had previously turned its back on the store. With Erin’s couture cache, M&S made major bank. It was the marketing strategy that saved the store from extinction.

It did Erin’s career no harm either. Applying everything she had learned from haute couture to M&S was a smart move. It gave the store major fashion points for having the guts to hire her in the first place, and made Erin a star. She was no longer the ‘weird-looking’ fashion girl – she had proved that her unconventional look could also take her to the very heart of mainstream fashion. In itself, it was a staggering achievement, but furthermore, was evidence of how fashion had evolved.

Fashion was at last ready to think of modelling in lateral terms: if one of the most successful couture models could sell sweaters to middle-class England, then the idea of segregating models was surely just limiting their potential. The idea of a high-fashion model being unable to do more commercial projects is now a thing of the past.

In 2007, Erin’s career again took a different path. Never afraid to try new things, O’Connor signed on to be Vogue’s blogger. She would write about her own experiences, new projects and offer a true insider’s glimpse into the fashion world.

Two years on, a fashion blog is nothing new. But where Erin’s writing differs from the thousands of commentators out there is that she has lived and breathed the experience. Erin offers a unique viewpoint, and presents a real coup for the Vogue website. In a week where fashion editors have acknowledged that networking site Twitter provided the best running coverage of the Spring / Summer 2010 runway shows, the link between fashion and technology looks set to grow even closer. Those on the inside are well-placed to push fashion further into the digital age as it grapples with survival both now and beyond the recession.

Erin O’Connor’s career has taken her from high-rise to haute couture. Her chance encounter with model scout Fiona Ellis in 1995 took a working-class girl right to the heart of the modelling industry. Erin showed Paris that British girls could master the poise required for couture modelling, and that an aristocratic swagger was not necessarily reliant on a double-barrelled surname.

Defying expectations has been the business of Erin O’Connor’s life. By side-stepping convention, she built a career based on her strengths. Erin surpassed the limitations of her unusual look, and found a home working for the very best designers in contemporary fashion. Doing all this while keeping a cool head is no easy task, but Erin did it. Scour Google for past and present interviews, and time after time, journalists enthuse about a talent that hasn’t lost the will or ability to be nice.

Erin reached those giddy heights in her career precisely because she stayed grounded. By staying true to herself, inside and out, Erin wised up to the fact long ago that nice girls don’t always have to finish last – and just look at where it took her.

HELEN TOPE