Federico Pignatelli

Is there a battle brewing between modeling agencies and a major photo studio?

Federico Pignatelli, founder and chief executive officer of Pier 59 Studios, Art and Fashion Group and The Industry Model Management, said Thursday he was banning Wilhelmina Model Management and Major Model Management from using his studios. The reason, he claims, is based on his understanding of longstanding unfair business practices employed by those two agencies. He noted that all models and personnel from those agencies will no longer be allowed to work or visit, for any reason, the premises of Pier 59 Studios as of April 30.

Pignatelli doesn’t specify exactly why he’s banning the modeling agencies, or which models specifically have complained about late payments or other grievances. Pignatelli said these two agencies make it “extra hard” for the models to get their money and make it difficult for the model to get out of her contract if the agency isn’t living up to its obligations.

Of course, Pignatelli runs his own modeling agency, so some people are questioning his motives and whether he’s doing this to get disgruntled models to change agencies. Pignatelli said he was in the process of reviewing a letter with his lawyers that these two modeling agencies should receive on Monday. He also plans to send an e-mail to hundreds of his clients on Monday, and will post the ban on the company’s web site.

Nadia Shahrik, vice president of Major Model Management, thought it was hysterical. “All I could do is laugh,” she said. Bill Wackermann, chief executive officer of Wilhelmina, had a long off-the-record discussion during which he repeatedly questioned Pignatelli’s actions but said he wasn’t going to respond on the record until he received the letter.

The Industry Model Management recently hired two employees who were let go at Wilhelmina.

As reported, Pignatelli has been outspoken about late payments to models, creating safe working conditions at studios, and educating models about contracts and visas. He said he pays his models within six to nine days from receipt of payment but never to exceed 60 days from completion of invoicing, regardless of receipt of payment from clients. He claimed some agencies are paying their models 120 to 240 days after the job, and sometimes not paying at all.

“Unfair business practices are unfortunately all too common in the modeling industry,” said Pignatelli. “With my decision to ban these two agencies from Pier 59, I intend to make a strong statement that the time has come and has been long overdue to demand significant changes within the industry and that agencies must afford their models the opportunity to be represented in a fair business manner.”

He noted that when anyone shows up for a job at Pier 59,  a 100,000-square foot photography and multimedia studio at Chelsea Piers that does around 2,500 fashion shoots a year, they need to register and give their names and affiliations.

Pignatelli is aware that this ban could lead to clients leaving his studio. “I’m punishing myself because they’ll go somewhere else,” he said. He said the ban only applies to models of these agencies, and not hair and makeup artists or stylists. He said the latter group tends to get paid a lot quicker than models.

“When agencies do not pay their models in a timely fashion, and by charging them a commission or advances, they omit a grievous offense,” said Pignatelli. “Models are not in the business of loaning their monies to the modeling agencies that are supposed to manage them, only to be charged outrageous fees to collect. Models should not be trapped in contracts that have been breached for lack of performance by their agency and are unduly kept valid against them,” he said.

He added, “I regret if this ban harms some models in the short term and in any way inconveniences clients. Sadly, no change has ever come to long-standing issues by simply talking about it. Change requires concrete action. After much thought and consideration, I have decided to do something that was more than symbolic. I anticipate losing business because of my decision, but I stand by the saying that ‘actions speak louder than words.'”