For decades, the modelling industry pursued a very specific standard of beauty. White, slight and with no imperfections in sight is one way to sum it up. Unattainable and, at times, downright exclusionary is another.
It was just three years ago that Ed Razek, the chief marketing officer of Victoria Secret’s parent company and the architect of “the biggest runway event on earth” told Vogue that the company would never feature transgender or plus-sized models on the catwalk because “the show is a fantasy”.
But society’s tolerance for fantasy-level beauty is on the wane. Since Razek’s controversial comments in 2018, fashion shows and campaigns have featured a wider range of sizes, ages, ethnicities, abilities and sexualities than ever. Even Victoria’s Secret has embraced transgender models.
At the forefront of this a new era of inclusivity are the new-look, boutique modelling agencies that are championing and promoting diversity by putting models from all walks of life on their books. We spoke to the Australian model agencies helping redefining what agencies – and beauty – can be.
“Every time a client took a risk with us they would come back and try it again”
Chelsea Bonner of Bella Management
“I remember when we got our first fax machine at the modelling agency!” exclaims Chelsea Bonner as she reflects on her almost 20-year career at the helm of Bella Management, the first agency to represent size diversity in Australia.
“When we opened in 2002 everyone thought I was mad, but part of my job has been to educate clients along the way”.
Bonner remembers that in the early days she would scour the internet for research that demonstrated that a brand’s sales would increase when they used models who more closely identified with a client’s customer. “I’d say to them, ‘Look, here’s this case study I found from France or London or New York and here is how it could apply to you.’”
And it worked. “Every time a client took a risk with us they sold really well, which I knew they would, and they would come back and try it again”.
But it wasn’t until the advent of social media that Bonner noticed a real shift towards size inclusivity in Australia. “I’d spent 10 years trying to articulate to brands what people actually wanted to see and suddenly everything I was trying to say was validated”.
“Customers were going onto those social media platforms and saying, ‘Hey! Where am I? I’m one of your best customers and I never see anybody who looks like me'”.
For Bonner, it was proof of what she’d known all along – inclusivity sells.
“Our agencies ethos is relatable but still aspirational”
Brigitte Warne of Silverfox MGMT Group
Brigitte Warne can’t help but laugh when she recalls that at the ripe old age of 25, she was once considered a “mature-aged” model.
“I think that that’s a really good way of understanding what the modelling industry was like, and that wasn’t even that long ago”.
But Warne refused to accept the industry’s casual ageism, and in 2016 she and co-founder Georgia Branch opened Silver Fox MGMT: Australia’s first over-thirties modelling agency.
Today Silver Fox MGMT represents more than 500 models – some as old as 90, most of whom have never modelled before.
‘Initially, we wanted to bring former models out of retirement, but because we had no reputation, we ended up doing a casting call. We had over 600 applicants and 99.9% of them had no experience”.
Warne soon found herself in the role of modelling coach, as well as co-founder, and teaching her new recruits the basics of the job, from how to find their angles to how to move in front of the camera.
While Brigitte’s ultimate goal is to improve age representation, she has also tried to create the type of agency she wished had existed when she was a model
‘I remember as a model myself, one of the most intimidating and terrifying things was to walk into your agency and just know that you’re being instantly judged’ she says with a shudder. ‘I don’t want that ever to be the case at Silver Fox’.
Today the agency features an eclectic mix of faces and has been known to represent multiple generations from the same family, including modelling dynasties like the Tozzis and another family whose matriarch, Joyce was modelling up until she passed away last year at the age of 98, “I think that’s a true testament of how long you can be in this industry’ reflects Warne.
“There’s a shift away from the outdated notion of models as coat hangers”
Chris Loutfy and Maggie Wu of Stone Street Agency
Chris Loutfy was working as a photographer when he met make-up artist Maggie Wu on set. The two bonded over their passion for increasing diversity in the fashion and advertising world, but soon became jaded when they realised many brands were happy to use “real people” as long as they didn’t have to pay them.
“We believe genuine change and action is getting diverse talent to the front of fashion and advertising campaigns and getting money into their pockets”, explains Loutfy, who along with Wu co-founded Stone Street Agency in 2018 to provide representation to freelance models, and new opportunities for non-models through street-casting (where the agency opens casting calls to the public to attract new talent).
In line with this mission, Stone Street works with brands that put value (both financially and culturally) on personalities, explaining “we’re seeing a shift away from the outdated notion of models as coat hangers”. It means that when casting Loutfy and Wu aren’t just looking for a pretty face, “We cast models based on their personality, presence and energy”.
“There is a desire on both ends for brands and the population to see models represented as they are, with full and complex personalities, hobbies and interests”.
It’s an approach that’s clearly working, with the agency attracting clients such as Samsung, Nagnata, General Pants and Lee Jeans. With more work coming in than ever Loutfy credits the agency’s success to supportive clients and of course the models. “Ultimately, we believe our talent is undeniable and speaks for themselves, they have brought us to where we are today.”
“The inclusion revolution is sometimes painfully slow, but it is happening!”
One in five Australians have a disability. And yet you wouldn’t know it by looking at the catalogues, billboards and magazines created by the fashion industry.
That’s why former social worker Zoe Proctor and ex-model Laura Johnson launched Zebedee management, a specialist talent agency that represents people with physical and mental disabilities, in 2017. Their mission? “To see disability representation in the media truly reflect the percentage of people in the world who live with a disability”.
“Setting up the agency was a massive learning curve that we are still on,” admits Zebedee press agent and booker Alice Winson, who along with the team at Zebedee today represent over 500 models across Europe, the U.S and now Australia.
“We still feel giddy every time we receive a brief and we see our name on a list of big agencies but we know that’s where we belong.”
And where they belong is on the speed-dials of some of the world biggest luxury fashion houses. In 2020, Zebedee made history when their model Ellie Goldstein, a young woman with Down’s Syndrome, went viral as the face of a Gucci Beauty advertising partnership with Vogue Italia. The picture was posted to Gucci’s Instagram, where it drew 863,000 likes.
“It was powerful for everyone involved,” remembers Winson of the campaign, “to have a talented model, who happens to have Down’s Syndrome in such an influential magazine was a real vote of confidence towards genuine inclusivity.”
“Ellie’s career has gone from strength to strength since’ explains Winson, adding ‘the journey hasn’t been easy, and the inclusion revolution is sometimes painfully slow, but it is definitely happening!”
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