Models on the catwalk

Modeling agencies are having their share of problems as they cope with the repercussions of the coronavirus pandemic.

Like most industries, their challenges range from slow payments to layoffs to little or no work for their models. The situation also extends to makeup artists, hairstylists and photographers who, like models, are considered independent contractors. But agencies say they’re doing a lot more digitally to get their models work during this time, a trend that will likely continue as the world enters this new, abnormal normal.

According to Susan Scafidi, founder and director of the Fashion Law Institute at Fordham Law School, under the CARES Act, “models along with the other independent contractors who make up the fabric of the fashion industry — photographers, stylists, makeup artists, and so on — can apply for special Pandemic Unemployment Assistance guaranteed by the federal government and administered by each state.” She said that even models who are non U.S. citizens but are working here legally may be eligible.

She said individuals must certify that they cannot work for one of a list of specific reasons related to the coronavirus, ranging from personal illness or caregiving responsibilities to workplace shutdown. “Models who work remotely as paid influencers, however, are not eligible to collect unemployment,” she added.

Faith Kates, owner of Next Management, said, “We were one of the first people to basically shut down because of how close in proximity the girls are to makeup artists and hairdressers in the studios. We realized it was going to become dangerous for them at some point.”

“We were very clear with the models and the customers, so we could protect the talent. All the talent and all the hairdressers and makeup artists are all freelancers. Not every model is Naomi Campbell. People think these models have all this money. Some of these kids, they go to work every day and they don’t make millions of dollars. They do OK, don’t get me wrong, they do fine. But I don’t know how long they can sustain themselves. The hairdressers, the makeup artists, the tailors we represent and the manicurists — how long can they realistically sustain themselves?” she asked.

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Kates said she didn’t have to lay anybody off at her modeling agency yet. “As you saw what’s going on in California, it’s indicative of where this is going. All these Hollywood agents are laying off masses of people. We’re part of the supply chain. Now we’re getting calls from big brands that owe us a lot of money asking us if we can wait or change the terms to be more favorable. That’s scary. No one has the cash flow,” she said.

Models backstageNina Ricci show, Backstage, Fall Winter 2020, Paris Fashion Week, France - 28 Feb 2020

Nina Ricci RTW Fall 2020  Delphine Achard/WWD

A lot of her models went back home. “We helped them get home before we closed down. We got them home to wherever they lived. We’re in touch with the models, and the artists to make sure everyone’s OK. So far, I haven’t heard anybody has the virus yet, but it’s inevitable that someone’s going to. Before we closed down, we got calls from clients who said they wanted girls who hadn’t been in Milan and Paris. I don’t want the liability either. I don’t want to get one person sick,” said Kates.

Joey Grill, chief executive officer of Click Models (who owns Framework Entertainment and Industria), said, “I would say we’re in the same boat as everybody else in the country, if not the world. We just don’t know which direction the economy will take in order to restart our productivity.”

He outlined many of the issues facing modeling agencies.

• A significant number of models live in different areas of the world. Traveling is an unknown and will probably affect the ability to continue traveling.

• There’s a major concern of the viability of the businesses of designers and retailers going forward. “I have quite a lot of money in receivables. I don’t think I’m different from any other modeling agency. We’re unsure of whether the clients will be able to pay their bills. My guess is we’re not their first priority. I don’t think the first check they’re going to be cutting is to pay models or any part of the business cycle that is not deemed essential to the survival of their own companies. I think they will make the payments, they’ll stretch them out until they accomplish essential payments to keep their businesses viable.”

• He said he’s concerned  the stimulus package won’t be enough. “So much of the retail industry wasn’t financially stable to begin with. This is one of those events that can create a cash flow problem that big companies can’t overcome. On the positive side, of which there isn’t a lot right now, there’s always going to be a need for promotion and for advertising and being able to get your brand into the public eye. That part of it will come back. I think that there is that opportunity for brands and stores to be able to connect with their customers once their customers feel secure enough to spend some money. Although the time frame, I wouldn’t venture to try and figure out.”

• Another issue for model agencies has to do with all the individuals that are part of what makes the advertisement, the magazine, or any cumulative job that has a lot of independent contractors. “I think the model industry doesn’t stand alone, it requires really talented photographers, editors, stylists, and hair and makeup people, and who knows where they will be and whether they’ll be able to remain working [at the same level]?”

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Asked whether brands have been calling and asking to extend terms, Grill said, “Nobody’s gotten to that yet. Nobody knows at their own companies if they still have jobs. Nobody’s in a position to make commitments on behalf of companies, when there’s a fairly possible chance those commitments won’t be honored to the letter anyway. So much of our industry is affected by China and Italy, and they are two of the hardest hit countries for fashion and designers and editorial and manufacturing. We’re one piece in a chain of a process. We’re not the first part of the chain and we’re not the last part of the chain. We’re in the middle. We’re completely dependent on how the rest  of the reconstruction goes,” he said.

“I’m much more concerned about the clients who have booked models for the last 30, 60 and 90 days and have not yet paid, and going forward, who will be left to use models and whether they will actually pay their invoices. I can’t imagine that the rates aren’t significantly adjusted as to the earnings. There’s going to be a lot more people chasing a lot less work,” he said.

Asked how things might change once this is over, he agreed there will be more e-commerce and that will grow substantially. He feels companies are going to be more price-conscious about doing big productions. “A lot of companies will say this working at home thing isn’t that terrible. With the advent of new technologies and current trends, they’ll be able to have more off-site e-commerce shootings and fittings, and designers are using technology so the talents aren’t traveling into their design houses,” he said.

Grill said he laid off almost everybody at his firm. “By doing that now, I’m providing the opportunity to have a business there for them to come back to their jobs. Making a hard decision is never easy,” he said. He has agencies in New York, Philadelphia (which is still operating) and Atlanta, which still has work. “New York still has castings online, and has some video production. There are some models who are doing fittings with their design clients by Zoom and other technologies. It’s fallen off 90 percent.”

Models on the catwalkJil Sander show, Runway, Fall Winter 2020, Milan Fashion Week, Italy - 19 Feb 2020

Models on the catwalk at the fall 2020 Jil Sander show.  PIXELFORMULA/SIPA/Shutterstock

Julia Haart, ceo of Elite World Group, said, “We’re staying pretty connected. The unity I’ve seen in this company is generally mind-blowing. I think the issues that all the modeling agencies are facing is that all the photo shoots and ad campaigns are canceled, and everybody is staying indoors and working indoors. We are a people business. The whole business is contact and connection and photo shoots and ad campaigns.”

She said she realized that in addition to being a modeling agency, if one aggregates all their talents’ digital reach, they have more than one billion viewers on Instagram and over three billion when you aggregate Snap Chat, Weibo, YouTube, etc. She said she considers the company a media company in addition to being a modeling agency. “No one has ever utilized their talent’s social channels as an actual station,” she said. Consequently, Elite built a digital group, EWG Digital, which give clients the ability to utilize their talent’s digital space as a media network. “Clients can serve their content through our talent’s social media platforms. We have clients who have production that has been made, that has product that needs to be moved and are in trouble if they cannot sell. They’re coming to us for solutions and how they can advertise their products in a time where they can’t make photo shoots. We’ve been able to give them a digital solution because we built this over a year ago. From a model’s perspective, they’re ecstatic, because this is something they can do from the press of a button in their bedrooms. We’re helping our models make money at a time when everyone is afraid,” she said. The way it works is brands can send products to the girls’ homes and they can get someone to photograph it on them.

She noted that Elite is not laying anybody off. “We’re talking to the models on a daily basis. We feel that once the world opens, many of the brands that we work with do have production that’s already been ordered and paid for and done. So once the months that were typically slower for advertising, I think there will be 150 to 200 percent of the amount of work, there will be a huge uptick in the summer months. I think those will be extremely busy. We’re still giving jobs to the models today,” she said. She also noted that Elite is donating 10 percent of its bookings to hospitals.

“I do think the world is going to change. People will understand that digital is here to stay. They’ll start looking for more digital solutions. She said so far, everyone has even respecting their contracts, and they’re paying on time. “They’re sticking to the terms of their contract. We haven’t seen people reneging on their terms.”

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Simone Aptekman, a model with The Industry Model Mgmt and co-creator of the agency’s Model’s Bill of Rights, said under the CARES Act, “they’ve now included benefits for independent contractors and freelancers.” Along with that, independent contractors and freelancers can receive $600 a week until July 31.

“What’s interesting about the modeling industry is our paychecks are so backlogged. I’m still expecting payments from jobs I did two months ago for instance. Net 60 days is normal and net 90 is normal. So a lot of models for this month and next month are living off their work from two to three months ago, so for now, we’re kind of OK.

“There seems like there’s uncertainty that these companies are going to pay because they might claim that they’re under pressure and they don’t have the finances to make their obligatory payments right now,” she added. “I have a feeling that might happen. My agency is set up to cut checks from home and have made the necessary actions to make sure their models are paid. What’s great about them is the other day they did an agency-wide Zoom call for every model who’s  in the U.S. right now and we all met and they informed us of all this information. Of course, I’ve done my own research. They want to see how we are, and see what our capacities are to do work from home.”

Models backstageSacai show, Backstage, Fall Winter 2020, Paris Fashion Week, France - 02 Mar 2020

Sacai RTW Fall 2020  Vanni Bassetti/WWD

She said a lot of times a model will have an Instagram and a decent following base, and a company will reach out and say, “Can I send you a swimsuit, and if you have a pool, can you take some pictures?” The model will get  paid for the post or they can keep the swimsuit and it’s a product trade. “If you have an agent, you’ll tell them to speak to the agent so you’re not being taken advantage of,” she said.

She said all the bookers at her agency are working from home. “They’re all trying to move ahead of the curve and get us work in creative ways digitally,” she said. She said Pier59 (which has the same owner, Federico Pignatelli, as The Industry Model Mgmt) has been advanced in starting shooting VR ahead of everyone. Because of their relationship with Pier59 Studios, Industry is able to send studio equipment to models to enable them to work from home, incorporating this into their digital strategy.

Overall, she said many of her fellow models, who are on the younger side, have gone home to be with their families. “A lot of models have headed back to Minnesota and Nashville, and I see them at home with their dogs and their parents. “I think models are agile in general and are used to moving around a lot,” she said.

Once this over with, does she think models will have hesitation to travel and fly?

“For a lot of models, it’s your entire livelihood. It’s a risk you would take,” she said.

Overall, she noted, “The agencies that are able to pivot into this digital realm are going to be just fine. Influencers have really taken a large piece of pie and they achieve everything digitally. Instagram makes it really easy to get endorsed, or view a paid partnership, or run an ad. I think it will just amplify a trend that was already happening.”

Nowadays, she said, it’s so personality driven. “They’re really looking for models who can play the ukulele or do a back flip. It’s not about how beautiful are you. It’s about your personality. Do you take yourself too seriously, or can you have fun and make people happy during a tough time?”

So what’s your talent?

“I play the piano, so I actually told  my agency, I have a keyboard in storage, so I’m going to put a mask on and get my keyboard. And I sing. If a client requests it, I’m ready.”

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