Money, celebrity and race: The modeling industry laid bare

Story highlights

  • CNN Style spoke to key figures in the modeling industry to find out the issues they currently face
  • Most believe that diversity is still the key issue facing the industry
  • Other topics include technology, new legislation and social media

(CNN)The modeling industry is never too far from controversy. Whether it's the rise (or rejection) of 'plus size', increasing frustrations at a pervasive lack of diversity or eternal fears over health and weight, there has been much to talk about in recent years.

Models themselves are now arguably more vocal than ever through social media, and industry bodies have been making decisive moves in various areas of concern. But what about those behind the scenes?
    The, often silent but powerful, casting directors, bookers and agents whose job it is to find the next big thing and who deal directly with the men and women whose images we become so familiar with.
    We spoke to a few of the industry's most prominent figures to find out how issues of diversity, technology, new guidelines and demand are affecting their business.

    Diversity

    At the end of last season a report was compiled by The Fashion Spot dissecting racial diversity on the runways. Over New York, London, Paris and Milan 77.6% of the time models on the runway were white. New York was the frontrunner for diversity, then London, Paris and Milan.
    Angus Munro is the co-founder of prestigious New York-based agency AM Casting. Their portfolio includes covers for i-D and Dazed & Confused, campaigns for the likes of Dior and Kenzo, and casting for Rick Owens and Kanye West's fashion shows. He echoes the statistics: "Without question the issue of diversity is at the forefront of our challenges. The fact that there is an issue at all is unfathomably disgraceful. However steps forward are being made."
    In London Sarah Bunter, a casting director who works with the likes of Matthew Miller, Peter Jensen and Kenzo through her company Bunter Casting, has lost out on work because of her stance on diversity: "There have been a few instances! One of which resulted in being taken off a job immediately for attempting to discuss the subject."
    Carole White, founder of Premier Model Management
    But it seems times may be changing. Statistically, diversity on the runways is marginally improving each season. Carole White, former model and co-founder of Premier Model Management -- which helped launch the careers of Naomi Campbell, Christy Turlington and Linda Evangelista -- concurs: "I do think the industry is embracing different races much more and you can see sizes changing too. When I first started in this business, a 34B was the biggest chest size (if you were a C cup it was kept quiet). Nowadays we are being asked for DD quite often, so boobs are in for certain elements of the market place."

    Celebrity & Social Media

    It should come as no surprise that social media has totally changed the way agencies and clients promote their products. "Clients use social media as the new advertising medium," explained Carole White. "Models with high social numbers are sought after by clients as they reach a targeted audience which they know has an interest in their product [...] The amount of followers you have is now a currency and is negotiated as such."
    Of course the most successful social media accounts in fashion at the moment tend to be run by non-traditional models. We've recently seen the rise and rise of celebrity models -- first Cara Delevingne and now Kendall Jenner (responsible for Instagram's most liked post) and Gigi Hadid. How do agencies respond to this?
    Angus Munro: "it's my job to deliver what a brand wants regardless of what my personal opinion is. I think some projects need a celebrity or celebrity model. But not so long ago the most successful were famous for being incredible models that people aspired to, not social media phenomena. Put it this way, I would much rather see a Kate Moss campaign than a Gigi Hadid one. One is a fashion icon, the other is an icon created by the internet."

    Technology

    Former hedge-fund manager Peter Fitzpatrick set up New York based service Swipecast in 2015. Hailed as the "Uber for models" the app responded directly to the way social media has already changed what brands look for. Fitzpatrick saw a gap in terms of the tools available: "While technology has helped bring greater efficiencies to other industries like transportation, hospitality, music and healthcare, there has been very little innovation in the fashion industry."
    Founded by Peter Fitzpatrick, Swipecast is an app that puts models directly in touch with brands.
    Swipecast puts models directly in touch with brands, disrupting the traditional system arguing that this empowers models, resulting in them being more fairly remunerated. With financial exploitation of models seen as a major issue in the industry, this seems to be a key benefit, with sign up fees reportedly 30% lower than traditional agencies. Since its inception they now have close to 1,500 active users on the app, split evenly between clients and models, with another 10,000 users on their waiting list.
    But some in the industry are not convinced; "it seems quite a dangerous way for a model to obtain work. Aside from actual safety concerns, models do not know or understand how to negotiate like agents. So to my mind it's of little benefit to them," says Carole White.
    But according to Peter Fitzpatrick Swipecast is, "introducing filters for inappropriate activity, a team that meets on-site with clients, and two-way ratings with a one-strike policy. Our goal is to add much needed transparency to an industry that has historically come up quite short in this area."

    Demand & Trends

    Bunter Casting is a London casting agency founded by Sarah Bunter.
    Sarah Bunter explains current trends: "It's very mixed and changes continuously. 'Authenticity' is a common theme -- brands and designers are aware that their imagery, and therefore their models, must look genuine. Clients want to ensure that their integrity and brand message is clear throughout the whole project and this includes the models.
    The trends for brands to request a more 'streetcast look' has helped with the rise and success of smaller and dedicated agencies such as AMCK, Milk, Established, Tomorrow is Another Day and Named, amongst others. But of course, this is a more realistic approach for boys as the demands on a girl's appearance are often stricter.
    Usually when clients insist on actual streetcasting (without using scouts or smaller agencies), it's because there will be a lot of usage on the imagery but they don't want to spend more budget!"

    Health and New Guidelines

    In December of last year France passed a bill banning "excessively thin" models, requiring them to present a doctor's certificate if their weight is called into question. Additionally any image portraying models as digitally altered must be marked as such. Italy, Spain and Israel have all legislated on too-thin models in the past.
    But not everyone believes in legislation: "No one wants unhealthy models showcasing brands or contributing to young people having unattainable body images. But I do believe that a healthy, slim, well-proportioned body makes the clothes look better on the runways. I know a lot of girls who definitely do not have eating disorders and are naturally slim, who are really worried about the impact on their careers that these guidelines might have."
    The alternative to this is a system that promotes self-regulation through workshops and education, adopted by the British Fashion Council, the Council of Fashion Designers of America and the Danish Fashion Institute. According to the Danish Fashion Ethical Charter brands must carry out psychological and physical evaluations to catch any signs of eating disorders or mental health issues. Similarly the BFC and CFDA do not have restrictions on models weight but instead promote self-regulation through workshops and education.
    Carole White commented, "I think we as agents are all ultra-careful about models awareness of diet and fitness. [...] Most of the skinny girls are young and just that skinny. Their metabolism is fast at that age. I think the media has overstated size zero over the years and so now the public equate skinny with sick. [...] As for Paris' approach, let's see how that works. I'm not really sure, if a girl is skinny, what would a letter do to make her put on curves?"

    Men vs. Women

    The modeling industry is notable as one of the only arenas where men get paid less than women. Aside from the occasional exception, such as Lucky Blue Smith, male models undoubtedly have less star power and social pull than their female counterparts.
    Angus Munro bemoans the inequality: "I cannot understand how male models continue to be paid a fraction of what their female counterparts are doing for the exact same job. If the situation was reversed there would be an outcry. It's entirely unnecessary and offensive."
    But Bunter sees positives in the male modeling industry, "The emergence of men's fashion week in London seems to promote a much healthier idea -- the boys are mostly encouraged to be very positive things; confident, polite, have character, keep fit. There is also an allowance for more diversity in body-shape in menswear -- usually within one board, at one agency, the guys' waist sizes can vary from 26" to 33". There is no need to segregate men based on their size. Have you ever seen a 'plus-sized' mens board?
    Overall, the male models earn less money than the girls - so this, combined with more relaxed requirements, seems to create less pressure for them. The different consumer attitude in menswear creates a more rational and generally calmer industry. The girls work harder in a shorter space of time, aware their careers will not last in the same way - we need to think about why a female model career has less longevity."

    The Future

    So what does the future hold for the industry? We asked our experts...
    Angus Munro: "I'm generally positive for sure... I would love to see some loyalty to the good models that are out there and less desperation for new, new, new all the time.
    Sarah Bunter: "My hope is that consumers realize that they also have the power - so if you don't like what a brand are doing or the image they are portraying, don't buy from them. Fashion shouldn't always be cheap and it shouldn't always be fast."
    Carole White: "Everything is so quick and fast paced now the world is greedy for the next thing. I wonder what it will be."