Veteran talent agent Christian Carino is known for orchestrating lucrative deals for stars like Beyoncé, Margot Robbie and Kerry Washington that help to extend the scope of their commercial reach without damaging their personal brands. A few years back, he and his bosses at the Creative Artists Agency (CAA), one of the most powerful talent representation firms in the world, which also works with Jennifer Aniston, Gwyneth Paltrow and Kanye West, decided that fashion stars — in particular, top models — could benefit from their approach.
“The services that these women are offered, the level of business development that is offered, isn’t comparable to the way that we represent actors and music artists,” Carino said. “When you look at the way some of the elite women are valued and compare them based on levels of cultural influence and social currency, they are valued at a fraction.”
Taking Aim at ‘Dysfunction’
This thesis became the foundation of CAA’s fashion division, which officially launched in 2020. Since then, Carino and his team have built a roster that now includes Indya Moore, Cindy Crawford, Slick Woods and Luka Sabbat. Along with brokering arrangements with models including Jillian Mercado and Ebonee Davis — models make up the majority of the unit’s talent — Carino lured behind-the-scenes players including photographers Annie Lebowitz and Nick Knight, and multi-hyphenates such as A$AP Rocky. The group also works with designers Tom Ford and Tommy Hilfiger, as well as Prabal Gurung and Kerby Jean-Raymond. The focus is on the A-List, but also on diversity. Out of 50 clients in the CAA fashion lineup, 48 percent overall and 60 percent of modelling clients come from underrepresented groups.
When you look at the way some of the elite women are valued and compare them based on levels of cultural influence and social currency, they are valued at a fraction.
At first, executives toyed with launching a separate agency that would live under the CAA umbrella. They also considered acquiring another agency, but couldn’t find one that made sense.
“The analysis we did showed how dramatically disadvantaged women are in [the fashion] business,” said Carino, calling it “dysfunctional.”
“The levels of sexual assault in modelling were as bad, if not worse, than in the general talent space, and it seemed that people were left unprotected,” he added. “The difference between my experience having lived in both worlds was the lack of accountability [in fashion].”
In the end, CAA decided to build a fashion division from scratch to address both pay inequities and misrepresentation. Carino hired former IMG agent Josh Otten, casting director Gilleon Smith-Mercado and others for support, positioning the new offering as being at the centre of the industry’s cultural awakening. The company also forged a strategic alliance with fashion communications firm KCD.
Since it began developing the division in 2018, CAA has advised on Kylie Jenner’s $600 million beauty deal with Coty, Jean-Raymond’s creative director role at Reebok and Beyoncé's partnership with Adidas. More recently, client Leyna Bloom became the first transgender woman of colour to be featured in Sport Illustrated’s famous swimsuit issue. These are, in many cases, not small deals, and reflective of the commercial power many fashion talents possess — something much of the entertainment industry long ignored.
“Fashion is much more serious than people give it credit for on the outside,” said Bryan Lourd, a CAA partner.
For the models that make up most of CAA’s fashion roster, the agency’s big sell is not only a more holistic approach to career development, but also more lucrative terms. Most modelling agencies take a 20 percent fee from the model on any job they book, plus a 20 percent fee from the client. CAA, on the other hand, takes a 10 percent commission from the talent, just as it does for an actor or musician.
Traditionally, even highly successful models have short careers, depending on major deals over the course of a few years to provide long-term financial stability. There are exceptions to the rule, of course, including early-90s supermodels like Naomi Campbell, who is still working today, but very few have managed to cross over successfully into other arenas.
That’s changing, however, as social media platforms give them far greater reach: Gigi Hadid’s 64.8 million Instagram followers are arguably just as valuable as those of any major movie star, maybe even more so if she is able to get more of those followers to buy the products she promotes.
Models still have trouble crossing over into acting and other creative domains. (Cara Delevingne, for instance, has received tepid reviews for her film performances, although she continues to score roles.) But what they can do, with the help of the right agent, is negotiate better pay for their endorsements and campaigns, predicated on quantifiable reach. At least, that’s what CAA is selling.
A System Under Pressure
For CAA itself, diversifying its revenue streams has never been more important. The pandemic decimated the firm’s live events business, and halted work for many of its talents for months on end, forcing them to explore new revenue streams, such as social media product endorsements.
But the world of talent representation was already in flux pre-Covid. Once a volume, purely transaction-based business, simply sourcing the deal is no longer enough. For years, CAA and its competitors relied on a strategy called “packaging” to mint money. Its access to stars across different mediums, from actors to book authors to directors, meant it could bring together a group of top CAA talent for one project and sell it as one deal to a studio or network, resulting in what could become years-long residuals for a successful series or film.
But packaging — the thing that made CAA and competitors like Endeavor and United Talent Agency (UTA) so incredibly rich — is on its way out, as unions like the Writers Guild of America argue that the agreements undervalued individual contributions, putting agencies, not talent, first.
The flattening of the celebrity food chain is another threat. While top A-listers continue to earn top dollar, they’ve been forced to expand their scope as new sort of celebrity has emerged on social media and the American entertainment industry no longer holds as much power over global consumers.
Paydays are now often lower than they were at the peak of Hollywood’s global power. As a result, A-list models, actors and musicians are relying less and less on traditional agents to broker their deals. Instead, they lean heavily on their managers, who often now play a hybrid role of career nurturer and deal-maker: a strategic advisor for each mini empire.
Many up-and-coming talents — especially those who are considered “influencers” first and foremost — are forgoing agents altogether, choosing to engage with brands directly. And in a throwback to the old studio system, when the major studios “owned” the talent, many YouTube and TikTok stars are often represented by the platforms themselves, cutting out the middleman.
“There’s a new media dynamic... I don’t need an intermediary.”
“There’s a new media dynamic,” said John Demsey, group president at Estée Lauder, which owns beauty brands including MAC, Tom Ford and Clinique. “I can be in a direct conversation with Netflix, I don’t need an intermediary.”
Trouble Cracking Fashion
What’s more, Hollywood’s track record in fashion is spotty. CAA itself previously made a play for the market, without success. In 2011, the group hired Mitch Grossbach, a sales executive from Ford Models, to develop a new division, although the focus was more on designers and bloggers rather than models, despite the fact that the latter was a more reliable revenue stream.
The effort quickly stalled, with Grossbach selling his idea to Relativity Media, a talent agency that also produced television shows and other projects. Clients who stayed with CAA were transferred to its licensing division, a sort of catch-all for talents who don’t belong in any specific sector but possess commercial potential. And by 2015, Grossbach left Relativity as that firm faced bankruptcy.
CAA’s biggest competitors are also in the game. In 2019, UTA acquired top influencer agency, Digital Brand Architects. Endeavor has made significant headway in fashion, acquiring top modelling agency (and owner of New York Fashion Week) IMG in 2013 for $2.3 billion as well as The Wall Group — which represents fashion stylists, makeup artists and other behind-the-scenes image makers — in 2015 for an undisclosed sum. It also owns Art + Commerce, another behind-the-scenes agency.
But while IMG remains a leading modelling agency for both new and established talent, and Endeavor has had success billing itself as a one-stop-shop for fashion marketers, there have been setbacks. For instance, it failed to showcase those presumably bankable resources — which included access to top models, industry insiders and archival footage — effectively on M2M, a streaming service dedicated to fashion content. (The channel launched in 2015 on Apple TV, but stopped producing original content in 2019.) A spokesperson for IMG said fashion projects — like the Rihanna Savage X Fenty show for Amazon Prime — are now developed by Endeavor Content. (Some of the team from M2M moved into this division after a reorganisation.)
When it comes to live events, New York Fashion Week, once a major marketing platform, is struggling for relevance. Made Fashion Week, once a platform to launch younger designers that was acquired by IMG in 2015, was put on hold during the pandemic, with plans to relaunch in 2022.
Hindsight regarding its own missteps — and those of others — may have sharpened CAA’s current focus on A-list talents that are looking to make A-list rates.
Consider the case of Winnie Harlow. Growing up in Toronto, Harlow dreamed of pursuing journalism. Instead, she took up modelling, but became a public advocate when a friend posted a video on YouTube about her experience with vitiligo, a condition that causes skin to lose its pigment. By 2015, she was fronting campaigns for Diesel, Desigual and others.
From the beginning, Harlow has seen modelling as a pathway to a “wider” career.
“My team and I have always had goals that go beyond modelling,” she said. “I wanted to build my own businesses and brands, and move into acting. It’s not just about having jobs.”
So in the autumn of 2019, Harlow — with the support of her longtime managers at First Access Entertainment — struck a deal with CAA. Since signing, she has been cast as a judge in the second season of Amazon’s fashion competition show “Making the Cut,” appeared in a yet-to-be released feature film, brokered new commercial endorsements — including a partnership with haircare brand Paul Mitchell — and began developing a wellness ventures with 100.co founders Kim Perell and James Brennan that is set to go to market later in 2021.
Harlow’s success is a proof point for CAA.
“I want to see progression,” she said.