In 1990, a sixteen-year-old Kate Moss was shot for cult British style publication, The Face, by Corinne Day. The following years of Moss’ career would prove to be the defining period inventing the categorization of top-earning models.
Prior to Moss, a supermodel was partially defined by her range and versatility. Chanel one day, Catalog the next. Vogue to Cosmo. Post-Moss, a clear and distinct line was drawn. Following or in line with the ascension of Moss came a line of women whose beauty was anything but conventional sharing “supermodel” monikers with Amber Valletta and Shalom Harlow.
Guinevere Van Seenus, Hannelore Knuts, Kirsten Owen, Stella Tennant. Suddenly these were the girls landing prestigious bookings and demanding massive paychecks. Models who were too special or interesting to shoot mainstream fell into favor, changing the way agencies packaged their girls. Before this era, a model like Guinevere may have had a great career but she would never be called a supermodel. It was no longer about finding superstars that could do it all. In this new framework, you had a commercial girl pigeonholed into a category of work and editorial girls pigeonholed into theirs with a few stars in between that could seamlessly float from one category to the other. With these new undoubtedly edgy girls, there was a lot less room for many of the mass appeal models in the prestige category. Maximum exposure faces of the late 80’s like Claudia Schiffer, Karen Mulder, and Rachel Hunter in this new era probably would never make it on Vogue covers and Paris runways.
A distinct line was drawn. Agents and scouts were able to make a clear distinction of what kind of “supermodel” a model would be. They knew what to look for, which clients to call and how to develop their portfolios. There are tangible features commonly identified with commercial appeal. Rounder, softer faces, simple broad smiles and most often features that are not too specifically or overtly ethnic. While high fashion requires a level of quirk; but how hard is it to manufacture quirk or groom a bombshell? More and more agencies figured out how to tailor almost any girl to what the demand called for. Through a series of management practices and image hacks managers have been able to design high fashion models rather than find them. A new, nuanced framework started to form; one where models were able to reinvent themselves as the industry climate changes.
In this Post-Moss industry, models are often chosen for blue status and very little is left to chance. The traditional and romantic process of girls being “discovered” or adopted by editors and photographers is significantly less commonplace than it was twenty years ago. The decision to take an otherwise standard, commercial model and steer her career towards elite status rests on several factors that trump aesthetics. Politics being the primary factor. Politics are most mostly played to remain in good standing with a particular mother agency (foreign agencies, typically based in the model’s birthplace, that govern the models overall career). To stay relevant and to ensure acquiring top girls in the future, big agencies must maintain their good standings with other mother agencies worldwide. However, many models take more work than others to satisfy the high fashion goals of their mother agencies.
To force a new path, NYC, Paris and Milan agencies take a variety of steps to route a girl toward a specific destination. Agencies have been known to virtually delete a models past career if it doesn’t fall in line with the new trajectory. Changing everything from hair color to name. There is one model currently occupying a spot on the Top 50, a favorite of Gucci, who five years ago was a consistent e-commerce model for Macy’s and Nordstrom. With an NYC agency switch, she got an edgy makeover and a change to a more succinct (less ethnic) last name. The objective here making her a brand new model and more importantly making her commercial past Google-proof. An agency may also decide to let the model travel for three months or to create some distance, a palette cleanser of sorts for clients that see that same model over and over again. A trip also gives the model an opportunity to physically prepare for a new direction, oftentimes this means getting her body from a commercial 4 to a more editorial 0-2.
Politics extend far past relationships with other agents. Agents also protect the aesthetics of industry influencers; continuously churning out new generations of models that fit into their client's very specific, very identifiable style. There are a number high-profile producers, photographers, stylists, editors who spark a domino effect of bookings. What they do matters and the rest of the industry follows suit. People such W’s Style Director Edward Enninful, longtime Prada casting director Russell Marsh and, of course, the embodiment of influence Steven Meisel. There is a handful of people who, based on their yes or no, can affect what jobs are confirmed in the coming years. These people, seldom book girls you never see again because their booking has validated the model and other less influential (but perhaps equally significant) piggybacks. Agents looking to take a particular girl from obscurity to high fashion capitalize on their relationships and make the option of using this particular girl more attractive to the right people. An agent’s job at the end of the day is to use their resources to get the talent they represent, the best quality and highest quality of work and managing the balance. However, the agency is also solidifying their trusted relationship with their client by inventing Muses for them. Therefore, the physical grooming of a model is often to attract specific influencers. Different producers and editors are known for using girls with specific qualities. For example, while W Magazine /Edward Enninful may have a penchant for strong, standout women with a large presence (Joan Smalls, Saskia de Brauw, Raquel Zimmermann) Love Magazine/Katie Grand prefers a more quirky lolita quality (Edie Campbell, Natalie Westling, Grace Hetzel). How a model is physically groomed has a lot to do with that agencies’ relationship (or developing relationship) with a particular editor. A girl groomed with Love in mind will be thinner, have an edgier haircut or color and do the preliminary English titles that tend to precede Love such as iD or Dazed. A girl groomed for Enninful, however, will be packaged in an entirely different style. Another very standard tactic for agencies is to barter already established girls in the promotion of new girls they are attempting to steer. This is referred to in the industry as a package deal. In this scenario, a top girl commanding all the top bookings is requested for a show. The producer of this show is highly influential and is desperate for this girl. The show, while very popular is not important for this girls’ career and she has options for better, more quality shows. However, there is a girl that is being positioned for an editorial career for whom this show would be life changing. For this girl, being in this show and more importantly beginning a relationship with that director could mean the difference between mediocrity and a Top 50 spot on Models.com. So the package deal involves saying “yes you can have our star girl in your show, if and only if we can confirm our hopeful star”. The deal is made.
One's ability to predict the level of success of a new face is no longer based on having “a good eye”. Predictability is based a number of elements that are easily computed by anyone who monitors the industry closely enough. In a recent iD article, Felicity Kinsella references a recent study conducted by Indiana University tracking the course of a high-end model’s success. The study’s findings concluded that, to no one’s surprise, the measure of a model’s success is heavily dependent on being taller, wearing a smaller dress size and having a great social media following than competitive models. While this observation is blatantly true, these things act only as a jump board for grooming an editorial model. Models, specifically their appearance and positioning are often manipulated to the tastes of a handful of people.
Models have infamously short careers and model managers are increasingly under pressure to extend the life of a model as far as possible. Whether for the benefit of the agency or the clients they cater to the development or re-development of a model is not particularly an issue of discovery or innate talent. While there are models who come out of the gate with all the natural makings of rapid, high fashion growth, they are in the minority.
The majority, however, have been carefully customized for optimum profit.