The Business of Fashion
Agenda-setting intelligence, analysis and advice for the global fashion community.
Agenda-setting intelligence, analysis and advice for the global fashion community.
When New York-based modelling agency JAG Models refreshed its website in June, the look was similar, but the details were different.
JAG kept the bold font, splashy graphics and, of course, pretty faces flashing across the homepage that are synonymous with a modelling agency’s website. Absent, however, are gender-specific “boards” (industry speak for categories or a curation of models) that label talent as male or female. Now, models only fall into two categories — “Models” or “Development.” Listed alongside a model’s measurements and sizes are their pronouns, exact foundation shade and an area called “Hair Notes” which specifies their curl pattern, whether heat could be applied and a preference for braids or natural hair. Below these stats, which were implemented to ensure every model they represent is comfortable working on all photo shoot sets, comes a bio about the model’s interests, personal projects and philanthropic endeavours.
“We had a lot of darker skin models who were on set and the makeup artist would not have their shade,” says JAG co-founder Jaclyn Sarka. “Or we get requests for models to put braids in their hair which can take six hours and they are paying out of pocket. Clients have to pay them for the time and service, and we have to make sure our models feel safe and seen.”
Over the past decade, beauty standards have increasingly been challenged throughout the fashion industry. That includes the modelling world, which has long been synonymous with promoting a narrow beauty ideal. JAG, founded in 2013, was built upon the idea of dismantling that ideal, initially representing many of the most well-known plus-size models and fighting for them to receive equal day rates with their “straight-sized” counterparts. More recently, they’ve extended their inclusivity approach to gender identity.
“It’s the person for us,” says Gary Dakin, JAG’s co-founder, who has worked as a modelling agent since the late 1990s. “It has nothing to do with gender or height, it’s that magical thing that inspires us, and every person we represent inspires us in a different way.”
JAG isn’t alone: the modelling industry at large is beginning to embrace a similar mindset, looking beyond the standard body type or background and instead finding new talent on social media. Agencies are also looking to further prioritise models’ wellbeing and pay equity once signed.
Brands, in turn, are also shifting their marketing approach. Today, casting directors might ask about a model’s activism or musical talent before their measurements. Sarka says they are actively working with clients to change the narrative of how brands approach castings and make the process less about ticking the boxes on a creative brief and more about having an open mind to a diverse array of talent.
How Agencies Evolve
Dakin and Sarka met as agents at Ford Models in New York in the early 2000s where they ran the Curve division (how plus size was referred to at the time) and bonded over their collective efforts to secure plus-size models the same day rates as straight-size models — a US size 4 or below with a height of 5′9″ or above.
After Ford Models was sold in 2007, the new ownership eventually dissolved the Curve division and Dakin and Sarka saw a clear opportunity to build an entire agency around models who didn’t fall into the traditional fashion mould. They currently represent well-known models, personalities and entrepreneurs including Iskra Lawrence, Kamie Crawford and Sabina Karlsson. Their goal is to showcase models who are more than their measurements and ensure positive treatment on set.
“It was important for us to see these models as names, not just numbers. We wanted these models to be seen as real humans not as codes,” said Sarka, referring to the initials and numbers that are assigned to a model. “There was a humanity lacking for us.”
In recent years, numerous other agencies have embraced a similar mission, including Next Model Management in New York, Freedom in LA and Established in London, with each taking its own approach. Next, for example, allows the individual model to decide their division — male or female — said Alexis Borges, president of Next Los Angeles. He added that some gender-fluid or gender-neutral models have chosen to be represented by both boards simultaneously.
“Ultimately we are trying to educate the consumer that they can be inspired to shop off of any model,” said Borges.
The largest and arguably most influential agencies in the industry are also evolving their practices. Elite Models, for example, never delineated their model boards by gender and has taken steps to improve working conditions for its models. In November 2020, Elite introduced an industry-first insurance plan for its models, who typically work as independent contractors. Today, the agency, which does not sell the insurance policy or gain any profit from it, has over 550 models under the plan.
JAG’s less rigid approach to height and weight requirements has in some cases made a positive impact on its business. Sarka cites one of JAG’s models who had previously been with multiple agencies throughout her career that asked her to maintain a certain size and demanded she style her hair a specific way.
“Simply letting go of the stress of having to be a certain size allowed her to grow more confident in her body,” she said. “Once that happened, not only money came in, but prestigious bookings that run the gamut of global campaigns to magazine covers to top runway shows across the world.” Her financial compensation, she added, has risen by 500 percent compared to her work at her previous agency.
“There are countless ways that big agencies try to put models into specific boxes,” said Sakra. “But this is why a big-business approach fails, in our opinion. This assembly-line approach is not only sustainable, it’s … takes away the very traits that make each person who they are.”
According to Dakin and Sarka, the first area of the industry where they found success was with lingerie clients where historically models have had a standard size, shape and look. They specifically cite Lawrence’s 2014 brand deal with Aerie for the Aerie Real campaign as a win for the agency and one of the biggest in the industry at the time for the impact it had on how brands market to young women.
Beyond financial success, JAG’s also seen its approach pay off when it comes to their relationships with their talent as well. Lauren Chan, a former magazine editor, founder of plus-size clothing label Henning and a model represented by JAG, feels that having her agency support all of her endeavours, from writing to entrepreneurship to activism, is helpful in streamlining her work and ensuring it’s in line with her values.
“The industry has come very far in allowing folks to be their own managers and get paid across platforms,” says Chan. “It’s such a dream that some agencies are now working to support talent across all facets of what they’re interested in, especially as someone who wants to make a cultural impact with my work.”
As agencies evolve to meet the public’s demands, the brands they work with are doing so in tandem, increasingly seeking a wider array of talent to cast. “Take a look at Abercrombie, Aerie, Victoria’s Secret,” said Dakin. “Everybody is getting a piece of what we’ve been fighting for.”
While the rise of street and social-media casting has given brands other channels for discovering more diverse talent, Chan feels that agencies can play a significant role in creating industry-wide change.
“With street casting it’s up to casting directors to seek those folks out,” says Chan. “With an agency, you have a diverse board of models that is pushed out all day, every day to all clients … I attribute sweeping change across the industry to agencies who have been building a new frontier.”
The sentiment is not lost on Dakin, who is finally starting to feel a major shift in the industry.
“It is a completely different industry, and the next barrier to breakdown is around gender,” said Dakin. “We are not just selling clothes. There is more to it, for us.”