A FORD IN THEIR FUTURE
Byline: Kathleen Nicholson
NEW YORK — Katie Ford is trying to get settled in her seat before the photographer begins clicking. It is clear that the 41-year-old president and chief executive of Ford Models Inc., one of the world’s best-known agencies, is much more comfortable editing film than she is being captured on it. When a Polaroid is produced, she examines it, pronouncing, “My mother would always pose like this,” placing her hand under her chin. “I don’t want to do that.”
It has been two years since she took the helm of the agency that her parents, Eileen and Jerry Ford, started 50 years ago. Comparisons are normal, but Katie Ford doesn’t mind. She just wants people to know she is penning her own story as she steers Ford into the future, with plans for global expansion, Hollywood management, licensing of the Ford name and tapping the Internet.
The agency’s past and future will be celebrated at a pre-show-week party on Wednesday at 142 Mercer Street. Some of the thousands of Ford models from every decade will be there, wearing clothes from their favorite designers, along with 700 guests from the industry, who will toast to “50 Years of Ford: The Future,” hosted by Travel & Leisure and sponsored by Pantene. The magazine’s October issue lauds the art of the location shoot with a photographic retrospective of Ford models shot all over the world. Pantene, also celebrating its 50th anniversary, will salute the Ford women who have lent their locks — from Carmen to Elaine Irwin Mellencamp — as Pantene models.
But right now, Ford has no time to indulge in the thought of cork-popping. There are tests to edit, bookers to catch up with and final plans for the next day’s move of the agency’s old offices at 344 East 59th Street to the new headquarters at 142 Greene Street in ultrahip SoHo, before flying off to Paris and Milan for the runway shows.
“It’s important for me to see the girls at the shows, to see what the new fashion trends will be,” she said. “You have to stay ahead.”
That’s also why she’ll squeeze four cities into four days on this trip for scouting.
Turning over rocks is something that Ford Models prides itself on. There’s a legion of scouts on the hunt, open-call days that attract hordes of hopefuls, a Supermodel of the Year contest held in 36 countries and mail-ins that pour into the agency’s eight offices worldwide.
A recent search through CBS’s morning show procured 20,000 applicants. The agency saw “a few thousand” of them.
When talk turns to her new crop of promising young women, Ford perks up, rattling off a bio on each, including country of origin, personality traits and a list of their latest work. And if these models aren’t household names yet, Ford thinks it’s just a matter of time. For example, there are Erin O’Connor from England, 15-year-old Adriana Lima from Brazil, and Korina of the former Yugoslavia — the latest Guess girl. O’Connor was a darling of the European runways and has done American and German Vogue. Lima has done Vogue, as well, and has just shot the Anna Sui Jeans campaign.
“The meteoric rise of some of the girls today has to do with the death of the supermodel,” Ford explains. “The runways are no longer clogged with the Claudias, Christies, Lindas and Cindys, which means there’s more opportunity for new faces. We have three girls at the agency that took off in less than six months — Tomiko, Karen Elson, and Maggie Rizer — which is quite amazing.”
Asked to describe the face of the Nineties, Ford said it’s the diversity of the agency’s portfolio, as opposed to the blond, blue-eyed signature face from the Seventies and Eighties, like Cheryl Tiegs or Christie Brinkley.
“It’s a different time. Everything is less dictated and looser these days — from manners to fashion,” she said. “Society has changed because the cultural mix has changed. Society is also less dogmatic about what it expects.”
And if society has changed, so has Ford’s management style.
“I’m a different person from Eileen,” said Ford, who bears a striking resemblance to her mother.
The legendary model Carmen, who signed with the agency in its first year, 1947, says Katie possesses her mother’s keen perception and knowledge of the marketplace and her father’s sweetness.
“Eileen gave me an image, and Katie gave me a name,” said the model, who is still busy doing editorial, runway and even some acting. (She has a small part in a Woody Allen film being shot in New York.) “I’m so connected with the younger generation through Katie. Whatever she wants me to do, I do.”
Carmen appears in this month’s Italian Elle and, within the last few years, has been in television commercials for major brands such as Coca-Cola and Pantene. Those are the campaigns that earn big bucks for both model and agency.
Although Ford is a privately held company, its president pegs global billings for the year somewhere over $40 million. She said most of the business is in New York, and catalogs can be the most lucrative for a model, although not as prestigious as editorial or runway work.
“You’d be amazed at how well fit-modeling pays — as well as doing straight runway,” Ford said. “You know the runway is prestigious but not necessary for a girl to be successful. Vendela did very well, and she never did runway. She was considered too short. If she were starting now, she’d be OK, because there are smaller girls doing shows now. The runways are good for the models because they keep in touch with the designers, editors and stores.”
Introducing models to clients and editors at the appropriate time is all part of charting a model’s course.”We plan their career as much as we can,” said Ford. To that end, the agency advises its charges on how to wear their hair, how to dress, how to walk.
“It usually takes six months to two years to get a girl’s career off the ground — to the point where the public knows her,” said Ford.
And Ford says she absolutely knows within a few weeks whether or not a girl has top-model potential.”If there are 13 out of 24 pictures that are good, you have a winner. I remember seeing pictures of Christy Turlington when she first started, and I swear she didn’t have a bad angle.”
Ford says a model’s success today has a lot to do with personality. Case in point: Karen Elson.”Within her first few weeks, everyone would call and say they felt they had this great relationship with her — editors, photographers, clients,” Ford said. “They felt they really bonded with her. Three months later she was in every magazine.”
Once a top model has established herself and decides to switch gears, Ford seems comfortable with accommodating her. Elaine Irwin Mellencamp signed with Ford in 1991, right before her marriage to rocker John Mellencamp.
“They understood when they took me on that I had different priorities,” said Mellencamp. While she regularly appears in Ralph Lauren ads and does the occasional runway show, the agency tries to fit assignments into her family schedule. Her two contracts — with Pantene and Giorgio’s Ocean Dream fragrance — don’t keep her away from her two young sons for more than a couple of days at a time, while Mirabella found a great location at her Indiana farm for a recent editorial spread. Her sons were included in a story J. Crew also shot on location in Indiana.
Family values also prevail in the Ford townhouse, a vestige of the Eileen era. Although it is no longer uptown with Eileen and Jerry, a handful of girls, age 14 to 16, live downtown in SoHo, just one floor up from the Ford Models headquarters, with Katie Ford and her husband, hotelier Andre Balazs, and their two daughters. Ford tries to act more like a friend and adviser and less like a mother.
While Ford is getting her portrait taken, she talks with model/ boarder Shelley Garwood about her previous day’s assignment. As the teenager makes herself a peanut butter and jelly sandwich, Ford asks about the clothes, the location, the photographer and the other models on the shoot. But when Ford asks when the pictures will appear in print, Garwood just shrugs.
“That’s kind of important to know,” Ford laughs. “Next time, ask.”