The Agency Wars
Posted on 29 June 2017
Models today are everywhere. They are no longer just posing on the pages of a glossy magazine. They are posting videos of their photo shoots, hash-tagging where they’ve been and letting us into every aspect of their lives. If a brand wants to book a model, they need only visit one of the hundreds of agencies and they will have hundreds of photos to choose from. But the life of a model was not always this way.
Before 1965, modelling was still in its infancy, but the gradual rise of fashion photography meant an increased demand for models. Throughout the sixties the two ruling agencies in the country were Ford and Wilhelmina. Even though Eileen Ford thought of Wilhelmina Cooper (a former Ford model) as a traitor, they tried not to step on each other’s toes.
Eileen Ford, photographed for Life Magazine by Nina Leen (1948)
From the early 1950's to 1977, Ford Models reigned supreme. While not unchallenged, they were generally secure in their primacy. They grew their stable of models, their relationships with agencies around the globe and, most importantly, their reputation
As biographer Robert Lacey explains: “The title ‘Ford model’ carried a cachet all its own. Ford models were seen as the aristocrats of their profession: thighs that stretched for miles, and a general impression of extra sparkle, height and slenderness—stature, in every sense of the word, including mental discipline and punctuality.”
Enter John Casablancas. Fresh from Paris and a member of the European jet-set elite, John was young and open-minded to the decadent and dynamic ways of the late 70's. He juxtaposed Eileen Ford in such a manner that she seemed like a nun in comparison.
Founding the Elite Model Management in 1972, John took it upon himself to flip the existing business model on its head. He is widely credited for developing the popular concept of ‘supermodels’ and ‘celebrities’ being viewed as people and personalities, rather than just being known for their faces.
John encouraged his models to go out on the town, be free and to party - they were the poster girls for the expanding sexual revolution of the 70's.
John was very skilled in PR, he knew how to manipulate the press and to garner their attention. He created crazy stunts like his infamous T-Shirt Parties where models were dressed in nothing but his branded white t-shirt and all guests had to do the same or weren't allowed in. People went wild for it!
Each agency was promising models more money, causing models to switch back and forth between the agencies. Model earnings rose by 400% during this time. In 1977, the daily fee of a top model was $750. Within two years, it rose to $2,000.
From the 80's and beyond, the likes of Cindy Crawford, Naomi Campbell, Kate Moss and the Hadid sisters have dominated the world of modelling and become household names. The industry has become less about the clothes and more about the model. The supermodels’ celebrity cult status meant they were now the ones calling the shots.
The (sometimes) spoilt behaviour of some and huge fee demands even saw John, the one who started it all admit: "one of my biggest regrets is that I created the supermodel. They can be impossible. Impossible."