The role of a mother agent is monumental because they make a profound difference to a young girls life. We spoke with 5 different mother agents from across the globe: Aylin Hadli from Girls Club in Germany, Luis Menieur from the Dominican Republic, Jeff and Mari Clarke from St. Louis, U.S.A., Bolajo Fawehinmi from Few Models in Nigeria, and Toni Korpineva from Brand Model, in Finland, to lift the curtain on their misunderstood and undervalued job. After all, with power comes responsibility.
Liv Sillinger photographed by
Hedi Slimane for Celine's campaign
for VOGUE Germany
Maren Behringer for Prada show Spring Summer 2017
Soso Korell exclusive for Versace Spring Summer 2018.
How long have you been running your agency and how do you think the industry has changed since when you first started working in the industry?
Luis: I have been a Mother Agent for 10 years. When I first started in 2008, there were only 4 models of colour: Jourdan Dunn, Chanel Iman, Sessilee Lopez and Arlenis Sow now the industry has really welcomed girls from all over the world, with ethnically diverse models gracing the most successful covers of Vogue as well as the runway. The biggest change is that social media is now vital for a girl to gain more clients.
Toni: I launched Brand Model Management in 2005. The change has been dramatic mainly due to globalisation which is one reason why the Kardashians took over. We as an industry, failed to see the new middle class, the new generation of global audience - and if the audience doesn't get what they are looking for, they will find it elsewhere. In this case, from social media. You should always read the forecasts if you don't want to get your feet wet.
Bolajo: Few Models was founded in Nigeria, so the modelling industry has changed even since we first started. They appreciate our rare beauties that are challenging the stereotype.
Jeff: I have been in the industry for 25 years. It has changed greatly because of the internet, a result of this is that the audience is far greater than it ever has been before. This makes room for more models, more agencies and inevitably more competition.
What skills must you have to run an agency successfully?
Jeff: We believe you must maintain a love for the models, to believe in them, support them, and challenge them to keep growing. It's also important in today's world, to stay plugged into the international industry, how it changes and what trends the casting directors are looking for.
Bolajo: Commitment to work and consistency are the major skills you need. To enforce skills, we sometimes create master classes for scouts and model agents.
Aylin: The number one skill is discipline. No one tells you what to do so you have to be your own boss. Besides that, it is a must to be a multitasker because there is way more than just booking a job or confirming flights. Accounting is very annoying but actually makes 50% of a good and healthy company, so it is extremely important to have a good accountant. You should also be a good networker and socialiser.
What is the communication like between you and the other agencies that represent your girls abroad? How do you sign them to agencies who could be on the other side of the world?
Luis: I have been working with many agencies from day one. I speak with them every day, they are like family to me and have helped my business grow. We are equally as important to one another, it's a symbiotic relationship. As soon as I get Polaroids of a new face I send them immediately to other agencies.
Toni: Mostly through email but I prefer face to face. I believe the story of each of the talents should be told first before you show the Polaroids. Of course, in most cases, agencies spot our talents from our feed or website, and ask for them. We're currently creating an exciting new app, to connect all parties in this industry. It will be introduced next year, and took a huge amount of work to put together.
Bolajo: Amazing, they are always easy to communicate with. The actual process of introducing models to foreign agencies takes weeks and can also take a day, it de-pends on how excited they feel about a new adventure.
Aylin: I only work with agencies that are reliable and answer my e-mails/calls. As soon as I have the feeling the communication is not 100%, I prefer to work with other agencies. It is most important I trust them if I sign a model with them as I need to be involved all the time. We can't risk losing a model!
Mother agencies often have a far closer relationship with their models. What kind of issues and situations do you need to solve once your models are working abroad with bigger clients?
Luis: We speak with them all the time, even if we are far away from them it is important for them to know we are always there to help. Sometimes they don't speak English very well for example or we inform them more about the photographer, brand, or designer.
Toni: I'd say, a manager is next to parents and partner. Often, we need to even replace family, as unfortunately not all have a support system surrounding them. To really pursue modelling, it's even harder if you don't have a stable personal life and solid sense of self esteem.The first responsibility of a caring mother agent is to make each talent see WHY she's in this business, WHAT she wants to achieve, and get COMMITMENT.
Jeff: We always say it takes one thing to get a model traveling and working, and an entirely different skill set to help them maintain a successful, professional career. It's our job to make sure they are taking care of themselves and keeping the daily grind in perspective. Mindset is everything. Obviously it's important that they are physically ready, but equally important that they have the ability to communicate with confidence and to not be overwhelmed with the casting process and rigorous schedule. We build a close relationship with our models so we can really assess that they are ready for everything this business takes.
Bolajo: The basics when we find a model has always been their parents first, we always seek their approval because it is important they understand what we do. Once this is done we proceed to the development stage, and during this period, we invite them to the agency for two weeks and generate classes on what they need to know about castings, Polaroids, how to dress and communicate with clients.
Aylin: I literally take them all by the hand and we do everything together as it's the most important thing to me that the young girl doesn't feel alone. The very first shoots I am always with them. I start working on their books with good test shoots. I help them with their styling sometimes, we go shopping together, I suggest casting outfits but I always let them choose what they like the most, as it's important to show their own personality. Of course the model also needs to do some little jobs nationally so she can get an idea how a job is, how it feels, it's totally different from a 2-3h test shoot. This procedure can take 4 weeks, but also a year, depending on the girl, also on her availability as most of the girls are in school so we have to work around their daily schedule. As soon as the girl gets closer to her final exams in school, I show them to casting directors.
Arlenis Sosa for the cover of TIME Magazine in 2009.
Annibelis Baez for McQueen show Spring Summer
Rafael Mieses closed J.W. Anderson show Fall Winter 2018
Ana Maria Figueroa for Prada show Resort 2018
Some agencies and magazines are now launching models careers once they have turned 18. What is your position on this matter?
Toni: Everyone should be treated as an individual. Depending on their upbringing, some girls are completely ready at 16 years old and some completely immature at 23 years old.
Jeff: We believe the development process can and should happen before they are 18. Having said that, we do support the 18+ idea when it comes to New York in particular as it's a a whole other level over there. Before they travel, we utilise smaller markets to better prepare them for the time they can model full time. We work to develop their confidence, communication skills, and knowledge of the fashion industry. We are never in a hurry. We would rather do it right with the goal of building longevity. Too many aspiring models get lost without proper guidance.
Aylin: My philosophy is not to start a girl internationally when she is not (almost) done with school. It's too hectic for the girl and she gets in trouble with school. I don't want to be the reason a young woman gets bad marks on her final exams. I prefer to wait 6 months longer and I believe that this is the best way to have a long lasting relations-hip with the girl.
What are the risks of introducing a girl younger than 18?
Jeff: The vast majority of the time they are not equipped emotionally for the ups and downs of long days of castings, shows, etc. The reality is that models need to be able to navigate professionally with creative teams, and casting agents, etc... that takes maturity. It takes time.
Aylin: Yes, this is my philosophy from day one. Girls at the age of 15 or 16 don't understand everything. They don't have enough life experience to know what they can say NO to. Their personality is simply not ready to travel the world by themselves, always be with new people, and always be alone in the hotel. They need to learn about life and therefore they should live at home, go to school, get the right education, a social life, learn how to deal with problems before they end up jetsetting worldwide. It's necessary for every human to learn about how the real world functions. Modelling is not forever, there is only a small percentage of models who model forever, the rest will be a model for 5-10 years and then "real life" starts and therefore they must be prepared. They break up from school, they earn lots of money in a short time and they spend it all, because they don't have a relation to how much money it actually is. They are not careful with which people to hang out with, they don't have an understanding of what's happening around them. Of course I am not talking about ALL girls, there are some girls who are already a bit more grown up, but in general girls under 18 are just not ready to survive by themselves in this industry and stay healthy.
I didn't learn until I was in my twenties the importance of a good diet and sleeping when your travelling so much modelling places a high demand on your body. Is this something you instil in them from a young age?
Luis: Modelling is energy, people are feeding off your energy all day. If you don't sleep or eat well you will look tired and not get booked again. We tell the girls to learn about nutrition and fitness so as their bodies change, they are equipped to understand what is happening and what they need.
Toni: Balance is everything. Sleep, rest, working out the best way for your mind and body along with the right diet but without going crazy. Learning yourself, from head to toe, is something people should do as early as possible. That's the foundation of health.
Aylin: The day we decide to work together and sign a contract, I talk to the girl and also to the parents that modelling means good healthy eating and taking care of their body. When a client con-firms a girl for a shoot, they want the model to be in their best shape, that is what they get paid for. I never use the word diet when I talk to models because a diet is not what we are looking for. Going to the gym is a must for every girl, it doesn't matter what shape they are. They need to stay fit, modelling is hard for your body, there are days where you stand in front of the camera for 10-12 hours.
What would you change within the industry?
Luis: Agencies often perceive their girls as money making machines and forget that they're human. I would like them to nurture them better.
Jeff: We would slow down the high demand for constant new faces, allowing for more models to build careers with longevity.
Caitie Greene photographed by
Steven Meisel for VOGUE Italia Cover May 2016
Grace Hartzel photographed by
Inez & Vinoodh for Tom Ford Campaign Fall Winter 2016
Alanna Arrington photographed by Michelangelo di Battista for Harper's Bazaar May 2018
Myla Dalbesio photographed by Silja Magg for Glamour Cover September 2015
Aylin: First of all: for everyone to be nicer, it doesn't cost a damn thing! I am tired of seeing my models sad and not motivated. We are all so lucky to call this our job as we get to work with many creative minds, travel the world - we are so blessed - so why would you be so mean to a young girl who is far away from home and did absolutely nothing to you? This goes out to clients, casting directors but also agents. Second of all: Clients should pay on time, so the model doesn't have to wait 6 months. And on top of that, some agencies always find new costs to put on the models statement, so in the end the model gets 20% of the rate which is a shame. I want the industry to become a more honest and fair place for the models. We - clients and agents - have the power to make a change.
Are social media platforms now more important for a model than her actual portfolio? What are the good/bad consequences of so much exposure for models?
Jeff: The great thing about social media is that a model can use their voice for positive change. The down side... we think sometimes too much exposure can end up looking like an over saturation of selfies. Not inspiring whatsoever.
Aylin: Yes, social media is extremely important nowadays. 90% of the clients want to see the girl's Instagram before they confirm. It can be good and bad, it depends on the girl and on their feed. For some girls it's good as they bring out their character and personality online which clients love. On the other hand it can be really bad because the models might post too much content of their nightlife, smoking cigarettes or drinking alcohol etc.
Obviously modelling can't really be a long term career (unless you make it to supermodel status.) How do you equip the girls to prepare for life after modelling?
Luis: Save, save, save!
Toni: This hypothesis is all wrong.The truth is, that the biggest group of consumers is 40+, especially in Western world. To test this, I decided to sign 25-30 years old 'New Faces' , and it's been a success: one of the fastest risers is Mariangela Bonanni, who was 28 when we first met, and turned 30 this year.
Bolajo: First off, one of the reason we have a very small board is because we look for models with the potential to have a long lasting career, this is our priority. However we also encourage
them to be involved by coming home regularly and starting up new projects to keep them going. We have models signed to us as talents as well, so we encourage them to start up a skill once the time is set to do that.
Aylin: When I start working with a girl, I always tell her that she needs other interests too. I ask them what they want to do in life, what they want to achieve, what their dreams are. As soon as it gets slower in their career and I feel the model should not rely on her agencies, I talk to the girl, tell her that I think it's time to get into university or find a job. Of course she can still model and do some direct bookings, but the focus should be something else. I don't want the model to feel like she wasted much of her time by waiting for agents, clients etc. I want the model to be happy and fulfilled and therefore I will always be honest to the model.
Amongst your many successes, what has been a particular highlight for you?
Luis: When Arlenis Sosa got the Lancome contract only after 2 months of modelling in 2008. She's from the Dominican Republic and opened the world's eyes on the varying definitions of beauty.
Toni: Personally, projects like turning the Miss Venezuela runner up into a successful fashion model, or turning the Monster Energy Drink grid girl and chef into a L'Oreal and Shiseido campaign girl. Working on multiethnic beauty and pushing forward alternative looks and appearances has been the true success story. You can repeat an existing formula, or you can create your own. I always preferred the latter, even it's time consuming and you learn by mistakes. But once you succeed, you have the signature way, and a concept people can't copy overnight.
Bolajo: This is so hard to choose because there's actually so many, all the girls are literally on fire. Olamide, Ruth and Eniola have worked with Calvin Klein. Ayobami and Elizabeth have worked for Zara. Bola Edun and Eniola have done Victoria Secret. They all make us so proud.
Aylin: Just recently Liv Sillinger shot the global Celine Campaign with Hedi Slimane, walked the show and worked for months in the atelier together with Hedi as his muse.
What do you think the next biggest change will be for the modelling industry? A .I . models, combining mens and women's fashion week into one, etcetera?
Toni: I just had an interesting argument in Slush (the biggest startup event in Northern Europe, in Helsinki) with tech investors who challenged us, asking if A.I. could replace models. Yes, as soon as A.I. plays football as well as Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo, and acts as well as Matt Damon and Scarlett Johansson, and conducts symphonies like EsaPekka Salonen - sure. But there's always a human factor. Human beings love idols. They love looking up to someone, and to dream. And as long as human beings are creating and designing, they want to create with other human beings. Fashion weeks used to be like elections in democracy; it was a change maker. In general, shows are now only one part of the industry, more of a playground for the brand to show their DNA and heritage. It makes sense for Chanel, Dior and Prada to have shows, as they are institutions.
Climate change and anti-consumerism are big challenges for the fashion industry, and 3D printing will also change some parts of it. No t-shirts drying up lakes, or cheap materials causing huge chemical issues in badly run factories. Due to all this, it will also ask more from a model to consider what she or he stands for, and if the agencies are not developing and growing up, they won't get intelligent, educated and aware young people signing with them. 'Everybody wants to work for Victoria's Secret! It's the dream of every girl!' well, come to Scandinavia and ask again. Grow up, and learn the new world.
Jeff: I'm hopeful that with the expanding range of diversity in the modelling world, alongside it would be wonderful to see models in the middle considered for high fashion. Not traditional straight size, or plus size, but the models who fall in between.
What do you consider is the best part of your work?
Luis: That I can completely change a girls life.
Jeff: Witnessing the transformation of a models life. Being there from the beginning, working with them on their mindset, and being with them with each passing milestone.
Do you have any advice to any agents who want to turn independent and start running an agency from scratch?
Toni: Don't do it without endless patience, and time to invest in every person you decide to sign. Listen, solve, organise: you might become the most important person for these people after their parents or partner. If you want to have fun and make money, pick an industry where you're not gambling with real people. This is a delicate field of actions, that always have consequences. But also remember: you're not changing the world, so it's supposed to be fun. Fashion and talent industry without fun has no meaning at all.
Jeff: Well, I would never want to talk someone out of their dream. That being said, this industry becomes more and more competitive everyday. I think it's harder to compete with the big agencies in today's world.
And to finish, what advice do you always give to your new faces?
Luis: When one door is closes another one opens.
Toni: Accepting there's only one 'you': never compare.
Jeff: Work to be your personal best and don't overthink.
Bolajo: No rush, it will happen when it's meant to happen, when it does, stay true to yourself, understand your craft and never stop pushing.
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