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Top Boys: Male Supermodels in the Making?

Today, in the first instalment of Cover Stories, we explore the story behind the March cover of Details. As the luxury menswear market continues to grow, an elite group of male models are leaving behind the traditional confines of namelessness and emerging as brands in and of themselves. Will they become household names?
(L-R) Garrett Neff, Clement Chabernaud, Noah Mills, Tyson Ballou, RJ Rogenski, Andrés Velencoso Segura, Mathias Lauridsen, Arthur Kulkov, Simon Nessman, Sean O'Pry
  • Robin Mellery-Pratt

NEW YORK, United States — The March cover of men's magazine Details, set to hit newsstands on February 10th, doesn't feature a leading actor, musician or sportsman. "Men are their own tastemakers now and the Details reader doesn't necessarily need to see it on an actor or an athlete in order to find a way to connect with fashion," Dan Peres, editor-in-chief of Details, told BoF. Instead, gracing the magazine's gatefold cover are Sean O'Pry, Clement Chabernaud and Garrett Neff, along with seven more of the world's most successful male models. To the general public, these names remain relatively unknown. But with the luxury menswear market growing at roughly double the pace of womenswear and a distinct uptick in media interest in men's fashion, could these "top boys" one day command the kind of household recognition as female supermodels like Kate Moss and Naomi Campbell?

“These guys are really recognisable. You see them when you cross the street here in New York City. They are going by on buses. These are the guys that are on billboards and in the huge images in shop windows,” continued Peres. “Men’s fashion is stronger than it has ever been in terms of what the offerings are, but also in terms of dollars and cents and as a business. This cover is an acknowledgement of the extraordinary work that luxury houses are doing on behalf of men and the extraordinary way that this category is growing and blossoming.”

"The industry has definitely come to a crossroads," said casting director Edward Kim of the Edit Desk, who works with publications including Arena Homme+ and Dazed & Confused as well as brands like Uniqlo. "When menswear initially began to emerge as an industry a lot of the male models were disposable — props to the women almost — but that has definitely changed. We live in such a developed and expanding celebrity culture that the fact the models are breaking their way into the public consciousness, solely for modelling, is notable."

The emergence of these top male models reflects the growth of the luxury menswear market, which is expected to hit $18 billion in 2016, according to Mintel. "This guy has evolved and the luxury fashion houses are marketing much more to him," said Peres. "To showcase fashion on fashion models really sharpens the focus and puts the focus on the fashion. This is what they are paid to do; this is why they are paid to do it. They look great in these clothes, it becomes a stronger statement."

The rise of male models has also been driven by the modelling industry’s shift in attitude towards mass-market brands. "In the past, model agents used to not think most mass retailers were prestigious enough or considered ‘fashion.’ One of the biggest [trends] over the last few years has been mass retailers and top models coming together. Everyone is doing it, which was definitely fortified by the recession," said Kim.

Stronger aesthetic values have also helped make high visibility advertising campaigns for the likes of Uniqlo and H&M some of the most prestigious and lucrative a model can land. "Contractually, the value of a campaign to a model reflects the breadth of its usage terms. Its duration, the territories within which it will feature, exclusivity, if any, be it worldwide, or whether it is limited to the brands that are perceived as that company’s competitors,” explained Kim.

By doing these wide-reaching campaigns, which often blanket major cityscapes, top-tier male models have built far broader public profiles than ever before — and as their public followings grow, they, in turn, become more desirable as campaign stars.

"There are a lot of fans and young boys who look up to these guys and this relationship translates into stronger sales for the brand and a more powerful perception of both the fashion brand as well as the talent," said Kevin A'Pana, Clement Chabernaud's agent at IMG Models, the world's leading modelling agency, which represents supermodels like Gisele, Joan Smalls and Karlie Kloss, and relaunched its men's division in 2012.

The growth of social media has also played a significant role in enabling top male models to build their burgeoning brands. “Social media has become very important as the top clients look at this and want those models to shoot for them, it’s a huge PR strategy,” said Lana Winters Tomczak, owner of VNY Models, which signed Sean O’Pry.

"I think with social media there has definitely been a shift," added Garrett Neff, one of the most in-demand male models working today, who broke onto the scene as a two-year Calvin Klein exclusive. "We have been given a little bit of power to put our opinion out there. If you look at people like Cara Delevingne, Candice Swanepoel, Gisele, and not so far back, Naomi and Kate, people who have a lot of power and influence; a lot of that has to do with the places that they could showcase their opinion. Of course, you use social media to build your brand, you have to take the power. Take that control where you can."

Neff has certainly embraced the opportunity, posting steady streams of photos and passing thoughts on Facebook and Instagram, and utilising his access to the gilded and glamorous turning cogs of the fashion machine to his advantage. “The established guys like myself, we wear the clothes, we have access to the best stylists and the best photographers, we learn how to put it together,” Neff continued. “We see it from a different perspective, because we are everywhere. We are also less biased because we don’t have to give advertising credit, so people trust us when they see what we are wearing on the street.”

As a result, “there are more jobs, because you are trusted,” added Neff. “But also the actual rates of the jobs are going up. Rates are up 50 percent of what they were three years ago. That is my trajectory. For people who have been around, who have a following, they command bigger rates for sure.” Neff estimated that the top tier of established male models earn “between $600,000 and $1.5 million per year.”

But the scale of the social media audience that top male models have attracted pales in comparison to that of top female models. On Instagram, for example, Neff has about 20,000 followers, while Cara Delevingne has over 4.1 million.

“There is such a great distance between the most well known male model and the most well know female models. Do I think they will ever exist on the same plane of popularity as the female models? Sadly, I don’t,” said Peres. “I don’t know that the name recognition is going to come quickly.”

Ultimately, Neff agrees, “I still don’t think guys are ever going to be nearly as influential, but it has changed for sure.”

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