MILAN — A quick Google search on Piero Piazzi results in two picturesque descriptions: “The man who invented models” and “The model whisperer.”
To be sure, with a career spanning 35 years, Piazzi, the newly appointed president of Women Model Management Worldwide — and the first Italian to hold such a role in a global network of modeling agencies — has launched the careers of numerous fashion models ranging from Marpessa to Mariacarla Boscono, Carla Bruni and Lea T.
“I was the first was to tap Marpessa,” said Piazzi of his early days at Milan’s Beatrice model agency. “Nobody wanted to work with her because she had bags under her eyes. But I adore women’s faults, I detest perfection. Imperfection is beauty because it’s real and I live in the real world,” said Piazzi, in his easy and communicative way.
Piazzi, who served as Elite Milano’s president and Europe’s business coordinator for Elite World, in September took on the role of president of Women Model Management Worldwide, overseeing all the network’s three agencies and reporting directly to Elite World’s chief executive officer Paolo Barbieri. That coincided with Elite World acquiring Women Model Management Milano, establishing the group as a leading company in the modeling arena, since the French and U.S.-based agencies of the same network had been controlled by Elite World since 2013. The group now counts 2,000 models in the network.
During an interview at the agency’s headquarters here, Piazzi repeatedly spoke of “respect,” which he identified as a “leitmotif” throughout his life. “There is never much respect when speaking of modeling agencies,” said Piazzi, who studied as a lawyer and started his career as a model, working for the likes of Gianni Versace, Valentino Garavani and Gianfranco Ferré. “I ask myself, what will you remember of this job? It may be frivolous, we don’t save lives, but for 35 years I did it with love and a feminine sensibility — I am not ashamed to say,” Piazzi explained.
With his work ethic, Piazzi feels he has succeeded in changing the perception of the job, which in Carlo Vanzina’s 1985 thriller movie “Nothing Underneath,” set in Milan against a backdrop of sex, drugs, serial killers and runway shows, “was portrayed almost as that of a pimp.”
Piazzi will have none of that, as he talks about refusing to write a book — despite this being “his lifelong dream” — for a publishing house that was “only interested in gossip.”
If he wanted, there surely would be plenty of that. After a five-year stint at Beatrice modeling agency in Milan, in 1990 Piazzi went on to direct the women’s division at Riccardo Gay, another agency in the city, which represented all the top models — a role he held until 2000.
“Those were the golden years. Everything changed when in 1995 Gianni Versace put, among the likes of Dalma [Callado] and Pat Cleveland, who moved perfectly, a photographic model who didn’t know how to walk at all: Linda Evangelista. Versace broke the rules, the way models walked changed, no longer a foot right in front of the other, waddling with a hand on a hip. From there on, the walk was more normal, and Carla Bruni, Eva Herzigova [and others] arrived on the scene.”
The industry since then has altered even more, but Piazzi is not nostalgic. “Life changes and we can’t think about the past but look to the future. You may not agree with it, but you can’t refuse the world as it is today.”
Case in point: There are still models who build their careers on editorials, but many media clients ask Piazzi for “social media stars. With the crisis of print and web media planning, they want models that post on Instagram. Bella and Gigi Hadid, Kendall Jenner are extraordinary phenomena.”
Speaking of stars, asked about the success of the likes of the young Kaia Gerber despite a clampdown on underage models, Piazzi said with a small shrug: “That is her mother Cindy Crawford’s choice. There’s nothing to do in that case. Kaia crossed into celebrity status.”
As for his own experience, he emphasized: “I never forget that models are human beings. I never accepted models under 16, and if they were not 18 there had to be a parent with them, they had to continue schooling. This job can’t be the only goal in life. It’s a big responsibility, we are dealing with human beings here, not cars or bolts. Mariacarla Boscono started when she was 16 and I am proud to say that she is still working at 38. She is an icon and was always followed by her parents, finished her studies and never had psychological problems. Women must be protected as Murano glass and models as Bohemian glass. Just one scratch and they break.”
Piazzi believes “it’s not only an issue of physical age, but rather of mental age. At 16 you are an adolescent. I may be antique but sometimes you come from a country where your mother makes 1,000 euros in three months and you make them in 15 minutes. There is a total displacement and confusion of reality.”
He admitted he was in analysis for six years to achieve balance as an agent. “You talk about millions but I wanted to stay in the real world. And I don’t want models to lose that sense of reality.” Attentive to mental health, Elite World also has a service called “Call the CEO.” “If there are problems, we are entirely available,” said Piazzi.
Piazzi, a former president of the model agencies’ association Assem, is currently working on setting up meetings with politicians in Rome to map out an ethical code for the industry because he feels Italy is not regulated enough, conversely to France, vying for medical certificates, for example. “I take the opportunity to dispel the myth that anorexia is intrinsic with models. I saw only two cases of anorexia as an illness in 35 years, and parents were immediately notified,” he said.
“Kate Moss was not anorexic when she started modeling. Nor was Marella Agnelli [citing her as a model of elegance]. They were thin. Now there is a certain fatigue about the thin message. There is a desire for more fleshy models. This is part of the world that we live in through social media. In Italy we are very much behind in accepting diversity and same-sex couples. I am very proud of having launched Lea T, and I learned a lot from her.”
Allegations of sexual misconduct in the modeling world dominated the news in the wake of the #MeToo movement and Piazzi was fully supportive of speaking up, while mindful of putting things in perspective, and “not confusing a peck on the cheek” with sexual harassment. “All kinds of abuses must be reported, it’s about respect,” he said. “Still in 2018 there is lack of total respect for women. Models must be fully respected, they must not leave school. We must check that they are protected by a parent and at the same time we must also check that they are not taken advantage of by a parent. Mothers clog my Instagram account by pushing their 10-, 11-year-old daughters on me for a job, I assure you,” he said shaking his head.
Increasingly, in this fast-paced industry, there are models who may last for only one season. Piazzi compared this to the iPhone phenomenon, discarding the old design as soon as the new one is out. “In scouting you must always be honest and selective, choose carefully [on both sides]. I return to my leitmotif of respect.”
In light of the regrouping of major modeling agencies, asked if he thought there were similarities with increasingly powerful fashion conglomerates, Piazzi said he saw the merger at Elite World as a way to increasingly leverage synergies, sharing the same commercial goals. “I believe in the concept of family. You may be missing something and I may be able to give it you, we can be competitors but help each other out, too. And I never wake up thinking about how much I have to do during the day, but how much I can learn that day. It’s the child in me. I like to learn, this is what gives me energy.”