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Agenda-setting intelligence, analysis and advice for the global fashion community.

Building Great Bowery, Fashion's Super-Agency

Matthew Moneypenny talks to BoF about how he plans to make fashion industry talent as bankable as Hollywood actors.
The former Germania Bank at 190 Bowery, New York | Photo: Kevin Trageser
By
  • Lauren Sherman

NEW YORK, United States — 190 Bowery is one of the most mythic buildings in all of Gotham. Erected in 1898 as the Germania Bank, it was abandoned and decrepit by the time the photographer Jay Maisel raised $102,000 — less than half of what it cost to build — to purchase the building in 1966. Maisel and his family lived and worked in its (approximately) 37,000-square-foot space, spread across 72 rooms, for nearly 50 years, the structure's neo-Renaissance exterior camouflaged by layers of graffiti. But in 2014, the controversial real estate tycoon-turned-art-collector Aby Rosen — who owns a slew of landmark properties like the Seagram Building alongside famous works by the likes of Andy Warhol, Jeff Koons and Jean-Michel Basquiat — convinced Maisel to sell it to him for a cool $55 million.

For New York City’s creative class, many of whom are struggling to find affordable housing, the transaction was perhaps the most satisfying (and envy-inducing) real estate flip of all time.

Rosen announced plans to transform 190 Bowery into upscale office space. But while there were presumably more than a handful of prospective tenants eager to move into the Germania Bank, it wasn’t too surprising when the name Great Bowery Inc. showed up on the lease.

After all, Great Bowery, the super-agency brainchild of talent agent Matthew Moneypenny, represents many of the creatives who, over the years, helped to shape the New York art scene. In a show of respect — and clever branding — Moneypenny and his partners culled the company's name from the "GB" insignia etched into the building's doorknobs. But the company has its sights set on the future, specifically, the future of fashion as popular entertainment.

Currently, Great Bowery's cohort of 12 businesses include: Trunk Archive, the image licensing firm where Moneypenny has been chief executive since 2007; Streeters, which represents stylists including Karl Templer and Patti Wilson along with many other image makers; Bernstein & Andriulli, whose roster includes photographers, illustrators and CGI studios; M.A.P, home to photographers including Jamie Hawkesworth, Tyrone Lebon and Dan Martensen; and CLM, or Camilla Lowther Management, which looks after photographers like Josh Olins, Juergen Teller and Tim Walker and stylists such as Katie Grand and Clare Richardson.

In October 2016, the company acquired high-end photography and creative agency Wenzel & Co., which represents Mikael Jansson, Vanina Sorrenti, Sofia Coppola (for photography only), among others. Principal Annette Wenzel has joined Great Bowery as a partner alongside Camilla Lowther, Beverley Streeter, Tim Howard and others, and will continue to operate her business under the Wenzel & Co. name.

Then, there are fashion talents such as Grace Coddington and Inez and Vinoodh, who are represented by individuals who work directly for the parent company, although there are no plans to create an actual agency under the Great Bowery moniker. The setup has the feeling — and some of the business efficiencies — of a conglomerate; a collection of companies, living under one umbrella, that benefit from shared resources and back-end infrastructure, but are also often in competition with each other.

Matthew Moneypenny | Photo: Kevin Trageser

“The goal is to [bring together] the best of the best, but also those that are collaborative,” Moneypenny, 47, explains in his office on the sixth floor of the building, which maintains the patina of history with its well-worn floorboards and original fixtures. (The famous elevator, encased in a glass box, now serves as a tiny meeting room.) “The two keys for me were representing an exemplary, interesting roster of talent. But it was also about how collaborative I thought the agency would be, and how collaborative their employees would be. Basically, would they make a good team? I think there are probably still a few agencies in the field that we would all identify as having fantastic rosters that we haven’t had a conversation with.”

Moneypenny’s tanned, movie star looks and win-over-anyone smile are boosted by his busy-bee enthusiasm and optimistic ingenuity. He’s likeable and sharp. The guy who charmingly chooses to snack on a bowl of Hershey’s Kisses instead of the fruit perched nearby. However, it’s also clear that he suffers no fools, with a fierce competitive streak that sits right at the surface alongside those sunnier qualities. Yes, Moneypenny wants his consortium of businesses — with headquarters in New York and London, as well as satellites in Sydney, Paris, Munich, Los Angeles, Toronto, Beijing, Hong Kong and Shanghai — to play nice. But he also wants to win.

In this case, that means nothing less than transforming the way the fashion industry’s greatest image makers use — and capitalise on — their talents.

The seeds of Great Bowery were planted in the early 1990s, when Moneypenny was coming up as an agent at the entertainment firm ICM Partners in Los Angeles. “I went to Vassar [College], and was conditioned to hate LA. When I moved out there, my parents were like, ‘That barren cultural wasteland.’ You know, they came once ... when I was having surgery on my neck and I needed someone to take care of me,” he smiles. “I moved to LA because I loved fashion, but I also loved media, and I thought there had to be a way to blend the two.”

When Moneypenny graduated from university in 1993, there was CNN’s “Style With Elsa Klensch,” Canada’s “Fashion File” and MTV’s “House of Style.” “I learned so much, but I never got that opportunity to really help create fashionable, stylish, elevated programming,” he says of ICM. “Weirdly, 20-some-odd years later, here I am, doing exactly that.”

Moneypenny spent the “first half” of his career at ICM, representing “a variety of interests” in television in both London and Los Angeles. “There’s a lot to be learned from that business model and how Hollywood works with its creatives, and there’s a reason Hollywood agencies grew into the sort of superpower format that they have today,” he says. By building super-agencies that represent hundreds of clients across several different disciplines, the CAAs and IMG-WMEs of the world have leverage when negotiating with the big studios, who hire the talent they represent. “Over time, their [roster of ] clients became these vertically integrated, multi-billion dollar entities that controlled networks and theme parks and film studios and distribution and content creation. Pushing back against Disney or Paramount or Warner Bros. is hard when you’re an agency representing 25 talents.”

More control means “directors who get final cut, producers who get a piece of the backend when their TV shows do well,” he says. “All by-products of agencies gathering enough heft to be able to push back against the client and get those rewards for their talents.”

There's a lot to be learned from how Hollywood works with its creatives.

In fashion, boutique agencies are reckoning with powerful entities too, but have mostly gone it alone against the likes of multi-billion dollar companies like Kering, Richemont, LVMH, Calvin Klein and Ralph Lauren. Media companies have also grown in heft, meaning that, today, a talent's work might be published across several global editions of one magazine. "I think there were five Vogues when I started in this business, now there are 22 with the addition of Vogue Arabia," says Moneypenny. "There were three Harper's Bazaars, and I think there's now 42 of them. So all of our clients became huge, but the agency structure hadn't changed."

By 2007, Moneypenny was running Trunk Archive, an image-licensing company that exclusively represents high-profile photographers, many of whom are celebrities in their own right, including Annie Leibovitz, Bruce Weber and Patrick Demarchelier, but also emerging talent including street style photographer Phil Oh and backstage favourite Kevin Tachman. (In fact, several of Maisel’s photographs can also be licensed through the company.) The business was very much complementary to existing talent agencies. “I was the non-competitive, I was like Switzerland,” he says. “What we do takes nothing off your plate. We make more money for your artists, we’ve got their whole archive organised and we’re not competing with your core job, which is representing them.”

As he got to know the likes of Camilla Lowther at CLM, and Julie Brown and Stewart Searle at M.A.P, as well as Howard Bernstein at Bernstein & Andriulli, he could see that the infrastructure of a Hollywood super-agency could indeed be applied to fashion. "It became very clear to many of us that we should probably look at how we can structure representation in a way that suits this environment and better serves our talent," he says. "It was something that I thought about from the first moment that I joined this industry. There's a reason the big Hollywood agencies are so successful. It's not just the size, but literally how they go about representing, and working in teams."

At first, the talks were informal. “This goes back seven years,” he says. “We all started to talk about how we can work together differently. A lot of it did coalesce around Trunk Archive, but we never specifically went looking for investment to start it. However, we all agreed that the way to come together was the right way forward.”

Enter Thomas Tull, the founder and chief executive officer of Legendary Entertainment, the firm behind many of the last decade’s top-grossing films, including the “Dark Knight” trilogy, “300” and “Straight Outta Compton.” Tull was a film industry outsider — a private equity guy — when he began investing in entertainment. Today, he is a billionaire who disrupted how films are produced and financed.

According to Moneypenny, it was Tull who suggested that he go find an investor. “Thomas is the one that helped me package this conversation — my conversations with Camilla and Julie and Howard — into documents that led to us getting the investment,” he says. After meeting with multiple investment houses, the group partnered with the “very hands-off” Waddell & Reed, an asset management firm based in Overland Park, Kansas, that has invested significantly in retail and other consumer goods stocks, from Under Armour and Urban Outfitters to Nike and Apple.

It's really an executive producing a suite of content for a client, not necessarily image-making it all on his or her own.

As Moneypenny began collecting businesses, he and his partners began forming Great Bowery’s board of directors, which includes Etsy chief financial officer Kristina Salen; Liz Sands, a former A.T. Kearney consultant who now runs an independent firm in London; Alex Carloss, the head of original programming at YouTube; and Alison Moore, the chief revenue officer of SoundCloud. Notably, the board is predominantly made up of people from outside the fashion industry.

The thinking behind this was at once practical — the Condé Nasts and LVMHs of the world are clients, and therefore links to these companies present possible conflicts of interest. But it was also strategic. “We chose board members that we think enhance what we offer our artists and can guide us down these [new] roads,” Moneypenny says. “I think there’s an enormous opportunity for artists in digital media, especially on the social platforms. I think there are opportunities in Netflix and Amazon Prime and traditional content creation, but I also think there are huge opportunities for us with Instagram, Facebook, YouTube and Snapchat. And many of our artists are already participating in those platforms. But I think as their business models evolve, our opportunities are evolving with them.”

Indeed, what is truly at the crux of Great Bowery’s strategy is pushing its clients to diversify their skills and build bigger personal brands. Just as an actress is no longer just an actress, but often a fragrance campaign model, a fashion designer and a Snapchat star, a photographer can no longer simply stand behind a camera, especially as the demand for content has grown. What were once three-asset projects now require the image-maker to produce 30 assets. “I think we all know what the challenges are to our beloved print industry,” Moneypenny says. “But the people who make this media and make this content and tell these stories in a fashion and beauty context clearly have opportunities beyond their traditional milieu.”

Coddington, who partnered with Moneypenny and his team in early 2016 after stepping down from her day-to-day duties as creative director of American Vogue, is an early example of Great Bowery's approach. Not only is she serving as a creative director on campaigns for billion-dollar brands like Tiffany, but she also produced her own fragrance and has other projects in the pipeline that have little to do with styling a fashion shoot. "It's really an executive producing a suite of content for a client, not necessarily image-making it all on his or her own," he says. "Tyrone Lebon for Calvin Klein is a really good example of that. He didn't make all the content himself even though he is also a photographer-director. He shot some of it, but he brought in Jamie Hawkesworth and Harley Weir. They are teams that come together under one image maker and we make all the content that they need, whatever the content map."

Recent projects helmed by photography team Inez and Vinoodh also illustrate this 360-approach, including Anthony Vaccarello's Saint Laurent rebranding, high-street label Express' fall 2016 campaign and and the marketing around Tom Ford's "instant fashion" runway show this past September, which required them to produce six videos, 14 campaign images and a series of celebrity portraits in less than one day.

That content map can include all sorts of products, from feature films to fashion lines. And while many of Great Bowery's yet-to-be announced projects certainly deliver on what seems to be Moneypenny's personal mission — to give fashion the platform it deserves in the greater culture — he is not the only one clued into its potential. Last year, WME-IMG — which represents models, actors and plenty of behind-the-scenes talent through the Wall Group — made its first big push into the content space with the launch of M2M, or Made to Measure, a fashion video network that includes original series, films and runway shows. (IMG has also quietly launched another division recruiting up-and-coming photographers and artists.) Vice, too, has made its fashion ambitions clear by acquiring i-D magazine, Dasha Zhukova's Garage magazine and, most recently, the public relations and branding agency Starworks. Then there is Condé Nast Entertainment Group, which aims to transform the content produced by its magazines into films and television shows, instead of signing off those rights to someone else.

“I am supportive of those endeavours,” Moneypenny insists. But he also believes that Great Bowery offers something that those other entities don’t: a clear understanding of both worlds. “I think the subtlety and nuance of the visual is what will make a fashion channel succeed, not programming that is dreamed up by people who tend to think with either a classic television network head, or a traditional news head,” he says. “I think you need to think with a fashion head, but as a media executive.”

And that is where he wants to win.

This article appears in the fourth annual BoF 500 special print edition, including a collectible directory of the people shaping the global fashion industry in 2016. Click here to order your copy.

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