PARIS, France — Like just about any model working today, Liu Wen publishes an Instagram feed featuring off-the-cuff snaps — and no shortage of selfies — documenting her peripatetic life for her fans and followers. But Wen is not just any model: she is China’s most successful supermodel, a runway fixture, the face of countless major advertising campaigns and Estée Lauder’s first-ever Asian global spokesmodel, with a direct connection to over 2.9 million followers on Instagram alone.
During the recent Paris Couture Week, Wen didn’t walk in a single show. Instead, she sat front row at Chanel as part of her ambassadorship for the house — standard practice for luxury brands and their paid muses — where she shot and posted a video of the show’s finale and Eiffel Tower set. Her upbeat video campaign for Chanel's new bag style, the Gabrielle, also appeared in her feed, where it has already garnered over 250,000 views, almost ten times more views than the same video on Chanel’s own YouTube account.
Supermodels with super-sized social media followings are not new. But as brands shift their marketing spend online, models and their agencies stand to gain. In many ways, the rise of model-publishers has changed the parameters of what constitutes a successful model. “A sense of identity is the new hip size in our business,” says Chris Gay, co-chief executive officer of Elite World, whose New York division — The Society Management — represents Wen, Adriana Lima, Natalie Westling, Kendall Jenner, Ruth Bell and many more top ranking models. “If you are Liu Wen, you are arguably one of the most powerful voices in all of China. That was unheard of in our business ten years ago, five years ago.”
The keyword is voice, not face. The first generation of supermodels that reigned in the 1990s — including Naomi Campbell, Linda Evangelista, Christy Turlington, Cindy Crawford and later Kate Moss — broke barriers in the business of modelling by turning themselves into personal brands — and in some cases, household names — fuelled, in part, by the rivalry between Elite founder John Casablancas and Ford Model’s Eileen Ford, who crafted glamorous personas for their top talent. But they nonetheless relied on magazines, tabloid newspapers and television to reach consumers. Now, models armed with smartphones and Instagram are not only personal brands, but individual content creators and their own direct-to-consumer media channels.
Gay says the rise of Cara Delevingne marked the turning point. As the power of veneer gave way to a growing thirst for “authenticity,” Delevingne took to social media to engage directly with her fans, sharing images of her psoriasis, a skin condition, alongside behind-the-scenes snaps from campaign shoots and fashion shows. “She was the first person in our business who probably, more than anyone, brought that to life — the power of that influence,” he explains. “There were not many people that at that particular moment in time that knew how to channel that."
“These [models] were brought up with the device in their hand,” says Ivan Bart, president of IMG Models, which represents Gigi Hadid, Chrissy Teigen and Ashley Graham. “I think where maybe other celebrities were trained not to show too much because they have to show their public personas, these kids came out of nowhere and they didn’t care if they had curlers in their hair or were singing a song. And that became really intriguing… It’s a return of the supermodel.”
When Kendall Jenner made her runway debut in February 2014 — albeit endorsed by high fashion gatekeepers Katie Grand and Marc Jacobs — she was far from a new face for an audience that had grown up with reality television. Estée Lauder signed her before the end of that year and she shared the news directly with her then 16 million Instagram followers. (Today, she has over 82 million followers on the platform).
“We have talent that has a larger distribution than all of Condé Nast,” says Gay. “It’s a new ballgame.” The same can be said for brands. Kendall Jenner and Gigi Hadid each have more Instagram followers than luxury megabrands Chanel and Louis Vuitton.
We have talent that has a larger distribution than all of Condé Nast. It’s a new ballgame.
This presents a major opportunity for model agencies. “Before, it was a food chain and we were probably the last piece in that chain,” says Simon Chambers, co-founder of Storm Model Management, which represents Jourdan Dunn and Lottie Moss.
“Now you are not just sitting there and saying, ‘Okay, this person is only the face of the brand and that’s all they can be,’” says Gay. “It’s a much more complex and much more fluid place to be, which gives us a heck of a lot more leverage in the business.”
“When you realise that the talent is a key distributor of the message, in a sense, the talent becomes a media buy,” continues Gay. “They really are business to consumer now and that’s an incredibly powerful place to be,” he adds. “Models can produce their content, they can distribute it and so now you have a much different seat at the table as somebody that is potentially producing and packaging that all together.”
When you realise the talent is a key distributor of the message then the talent becomes a media buy.
Gigi Hadid’s relationship with Tommy Hilfiger is a good example of the kinds of deals that popular girls can now strike. The IMG model is the face of the brand and its fragrance, while simultaneously co-designing a Tommy Hilfiger ready-to-wear collection — “TOMMY X GIGI” — under her own name. (Hadid has 35 million Instagram followers; the brand has only 4.7 million but is more popular than the model on Facebook.)
Of course, models have long lent their name to branded collections through lucrative licensing agreements (the strategy made former supermodel Kathy Ireland one of the richest self-made women in America). But the practice has become much more common (see Karlie Kloss and Express, Jourdan Dunn and Missguided, Kate Moss and Topshop) and the tie-ups are more flexible and grant models more control.
In order to seize these new opportunities, agencies have evolved their own operations. Managers now look at projects from all angles — print, runway, social, video — and are working more closely with different departments at brands and publishers. All this while supporting models’ ongoing efforts to brand themselves through Instagram.
While the agencies that spoke to BoF all insisted that they do not dictate the content their models post online, a model’s Instagram feed can make or break her career and the pressure to create authentic but appealing content, consistently, is high.
“We always talk about social media and what is your voice and how is it doing — we are always tracking it,” says Bart. “I remind our talent every day, just know whatever you’re posting is here to stay. ‘What is your brand and what are you trying to say?’ I’ve been in rooms where we’ve told the talent, ‘We’re just finding your social media boring. We want to see more of your personality.’”
Gay says his agency provides models with social media training on things like optimal posting times, but there are limits to how much a model's social media presence should be managed. “The truth of the matter is their Instagram and their social is extraordinarily personal to them,” he says. “They might just be interested in cooking waffles. Quite frankly, something that is as eccentric as that might be what draws a whole different audience to them. You have to stick with what they know.”
They really are B2C now and that’s an incredibly powerful place to be.
Brands are listening too. “You can be strategic in the fact that if you really feel like one of your clients should be in the beauty space and looking to attract a cosmetic brand or something — posting more about your beauty regime,” adds Bart. “You are gearing the conversation to opportunities you are looking for. Brands pick up on it, they see it.”
At Storm, the agency has applied many of the practices of its blogger and influencer division, established four years ago, to its modelling division. “A lot of learning was shared,” says Chambers. “It’s gathering pace all the time. I think in the early days there was just this land grab of: ‘we must just go to the people with the biggest feeds,’ whereas now brands are much more into someone with a really engaged community, who is very much of our spirit, of our customer demographic,” he continues. “The arbiters of whether it works or not is the comments. You have to read the comments.”
“Creating your fame and hitting different demographics on different platforms — it’s also the key to success,” says Bart. “We could give you all the road map and the tools, but you really have to be the driver of your own success.”