NEW YORK, United States — When Peter Fitzpatrick launched modelling agency Silent Models in January of 2010, Instagram had yet to be born. Fast forward five years and social media platforms have reshaped the modelling world, opening up new opportunities from scouting to marketing. But the former hedge fund investor turned entrepreneur is still frustrated by what he sees as inefficiencies in the way the industry functions.
“Your typical model works one or two days per week,” Fitzpatrick explains. “Agents have favourites and certain girls fall through the cracks. Wouldn't it be great if there was a way for a model to network and access opportunities in real time, in a safe environment?”
Enter Swipecast, Fitzpatrick’s new application, which has just launched for Apple’s iPhone. The app, which employs a marketplace model and is something like Uber for modelling, allows photographers, designers, stylists and brands to book models directly, bypassing traditional agency middle men (and their fees). While agencies traditionally charge a 33 percent commission and clients regularly take up to 90 days to process payments, Swipecast pays models 90 percent of the total fee for a job — taking only a 10 percent commission — and processes payment within one to two days. On both sides of the marketplace, models and clients are vetted and verified. As with Uber, there is also a two-way rating system.
Fitzpatrick believes Swipecast will be most useful in underserved local markets, where sourcing talent through agencies is difficult. He also sees it being used by young designers and other creatives who may not be able to afford typical agency rates, as well as models eager to maximize their income by taking on additional jobs.
To use the app, models must first upload a portfolio. Vetted clients — including photographers, brand reps and stylists — can browse candidates, filtering by everything from hair colour to place of residence. Notable creatives signed up for the beta version include Ellen von Unwerth, Purple magazine’s Olivier Zahm and stylist Katie Burnett. Swipecast plans to woo additional users by offering credits to independent magazines and emerging designers.
Over time, Fitzpatrick hopes the app will also be used to book other kinds of creative talent, from hair and make up artists to stylists and photographers. “A lot of stylists don’t even have agents,” he notes, estimating that the total addressable market for creative talent in fashion is worth over $30 billion per year.
Indeed, Fitzpatrick is betting that the fashion business is ripe for the same kind of disruption that “sharing economy” start-ups like Uber and Airbnb have brought to the taxi and hotel industries, generating huge valuations in the process. (Uber is currently valued at $50 billion, while Airbnb is valued at $25.5 billion).
Fitzpatrick insists that Swipecast will not replace modelling agencies. “But the reality is that there are thousands and thousands of models that don’t have agencies,” he says. “You also have models looking for an agency, say in New York, and their mother agency isn’t helping them much.” What’s more, many agencies ignore jobs that pay less than $1,000 per day.
Rachel Finninger, an American model who gained traction during the Resort 2016 season with appearances at Gucci and Calvin Klein — and more recently appeared on the Valentino, Dior and Elie Saab couture runways — has been using a beta version of Swipecast to keep connected with the behind-the-scenes talent she meets on sets and backstage. “I’m not using it to book gigs, but I think it’s a great way for models to take their careers into their own hands,” says Finninger, who is also represented by Silent Models. “It’s a great way to keep in touch with people, a Facebook-meets-LinkedIn-meets-Instagram if you will.”
Instagram, in particular, now plays a significant role in a model’s career. Most of today’s top stars have amassed large followings on the platform. Karlie Kloss, for instance, boasts 3 million followers on Instagram. Cara Delevingne has 17.3 million followers. Increasingly, creatives and agencies are turning to social media platforms like Instagram to scout fresh talent. “We absolutely find people via Instagram,” says casting director Jennifer Starr, whose past and present clients include Calvin Klein, Ralph Lauren, Gap and Pirelli. “And I always refer to someone’s Instagram to get a more ‘real’ sense of who they are and what they look like in life.”
In January 2015, W magazine fashion and style director Edward Enninful posted a call for submissions on his own Instagram with the hashtag #EdwardEnninfulScouts. “I’m a big believer in supporting up and coming models and I see W as a talent incubator,” he says. That initial post garnered over 12,000 comments, with more than 27,000 posts featuring the #EdwardEnninfulScouts hashtag. The response spurred a competition with IMG Models called the #WmagModelSearch. That hashtag was used more than 24,000 times on Instagram, with more than 1,200 official entries.
A month earlier, IMG launched its own hashtag, #WLYG, which stands for @weloveyourgenes, the handle of an Instagram account run by the agency’s development department. More than 50 models have been signed through the hashtag, according to Ivan Bart, president of IMG Models. “It was our vice president, Jeni Rose, who started looking at Instagram several years ago,” Bart says. “She has a very astute eye, which is a tremendous gift, and also the time, patience and skills to really look at the people who are on there.”
Feels, another modelling app, which launched May 1, 2015, encourages amateur models to shoot and upload professional-grade images in the hopes of being scouted. “They’re not allowed to upload selfies,” says founder Dawson King. Feels demands that users sign over the rights to their images, so that brands can use them on their own social media or for campaigns. Users are also encouraged to tag which brands they’re wearing in each photo. The app has partnered exclusively with London-based Storm Model Management, which is afforded first rights to sign any of the models on the app. (Feels just launched a similar partnership with London-based Metropolis Studios for signing musical talent.) While Storm director Simon Chambers will not disclose how many models the agency has signed via Feels, he says his team has been meeting with new prospects on a daily basis since launch.
Using apps like Swipecast and Feels, an aspiring model might benefit from added exposure, a brand on a budget might be thankful for a discount and a regional business might appreciate being able to find local talent from a vetted source. But not everyone is sold.
“There is a level of accountability when I book a model on a big job through an agency. I know they will show up and be on time and be professional, for the most part,” Starr says. “In the past I have cast models on the street. It’s a bit of a risk, right? If you don’t really know them, you can’t vouch for how they will act on set. Also, [through an agency] their participation is well understood and defined contractually, which is good for both the model and client.”
Indeed, what these apps aren’t likely to do is transform the way deals are done at the top end of the market, where stakes are high and agencies will continue to play a major role. “I think clients have more direct access to models then they ever have through social media, but that ups accountability of the agency,” continues Starr.
Then there's the task of assessing how a model will move and interact on set, something that's hard to gauge online. Adds Bart, “Even in the era of online and digital, human interaction is the key.”
Editor's Note: This article was revised on 12 August, 2015. An earlier version of this article misstated Ivan Bart's title. He is president of IMG Models.