LONDON — The modeling industry has been under the microscope more than ever this past year as a result of the rise of the #MeToo movement, allegations against leading photographers about sexual harassment and this week’s Talent Protections Act being signed into law in California — according to which, talent agencies need to provide educational materials on sexual harassment prevention, retaliation, and reporting resources to their clients.
Aware of the pressing need for change in the industry, Tara Le Roux and Esther Kinnear-Derungs founded agency Linden Staub. They’ve been attempting to rewrite the rules of model management for three years, even before the #MeToo movement took hold.
They only represent models as the “mother agency,” which means they retain control over the strategy and big decisions around the models’ career trajectories. They have also implemented a next-day payment policy for the talent on their books, and attempt to educate them about the industry.
They’ve already helped create breakthrough personalities, including Maxim Magnus, the transgender model who has been a champion for LGBTQ rights and has been featured in an array of high-profile campaigns from Gucci to Stella McCartney and Tom Ford.
Finn Buchanan is their next rising star and made waves this past fashion season with appearances on the Coach, Marc Jacobs, Martin Margiela and Miu Miu catwalks during New York and Paris fashion weeks.
Here, Le Roux and Kinnear-Derungs talk to WWD about the rationale behind their left-field approach. They also point to the positive steps taken by the industry to improve models’ well-being, as well as the areas where there’s more room for change.
WWD: Why is it important for you to be the mother agency for all the models you manage?
Esther Kinnear-Derungs: One of the biggest problems for models is that they have no centralized point of management. As a model, you have a mother agent who scouted you and is responsible for all the big career decisions that determine who you work with the most collaboratively. When you are not a mother agent, you have to work in a network with other agencies that don’t all potentially have the model’s best interests at heart for that particular talent.
By being what we call a “mother agency only,” we basically eliminate 99.9 percent of the politics that inhibit young models’ careers. It also gives us more room to educate girls from Day One, as we are ultimately the ones who make the big career decisions and don’t have to work to anyone else’s agenda.
WWD: How do you approach educating young models?
Tara Le Roux: We teach them what is acceptable and what’s not. Just because it’s a creative industry, it doesn’t mean that anything goes. On a more practical level, we have what we call a portal, which is an online login system. It covers any subject from terminology in the industry to how to do a tax report. It includes the option to hand in anonymous feedback about our clients or even a booker in our team.
We feel like the main reason why there are so many mistreatments in the industry is that the models feel like they cannot speak up. If you were going into any other career field, you would have the appropriate education to support you to be able to make empowered decisions and have opinions. In modeling, because these girls are so young, they miss out on this integral part of education.
WWD: What happens when designers and brands mistreat the models?
T.L.R: On the client side, quite frankly, we try not to work with people who are known for habitual model mistreatment. However, it’s really difficult and there has to be a good line of compromise. If a client actually mistreated one of our models in a really sensational way, we would never work with them and we would go to the press about it to expose it.
Mistreatment isn’t always so sensational, as in “You’re fat, go sit in the hallway in the dark for five hours.” There are daily exploitations that are happening, like companies not paying fair fees or girls not feeling comfortable to say “no” to jobs. In that case, we are always pushing for the models’ rights, pushing for the girls to have better pay and better working conditions.
WWD: Where do you think change needs to come from?
T.L.R.: I think it needs to come from the big companies, the likes of Kering and LVMH Moët Hennessy Louis Vuitton, which run the money in our businesses.
A lot of big model agencies need to step up, too, because they have the leverage. If you have 20 supermodels, you can take much more drastic action. But a lot of established agencies are run so poorly, with this Eighties or Nineties kind of attitude where the agent is king and they treat the girls like absolute s–t, so undoubtedly they are not comfortable to speak up.
E.K-D: I don’t think that anyone has evil intentions. I think the big players in the industry have more of a corporate and finance-focused structure and in that kind of business model, it’s very easy to forget the commodity you are working with is an actual human being.
There have been a lot of recent developments that have been great, and agencies have slowly but surely taken on more responsibility, so the girls are now less afraid to speak up. There is still a long way to go, but you have to start somewhere. It can’t happen overnight. There has also been a massive increase in diversity and that’s coming from really good corporations like Inditex, which is representing different people in fashion.
WWD: What’s your view on working with models who are under 18?
E.K-D: Personally, we are of the opinion that London is such a development market. You have so much amazing up-and-coming talent, if you only allow young girls to start working at 18, it will completely destroy our side of the market from a business point of view.
I know a lot of agents push girls to start at 16, [forcing them to] potentially even drop out of school, which is where this whole concern comes from. We are against that. We think girls should finish school so they have a foundation of education and in the meantime start learning their craft outside school hours, on weekends and during holidays.
WWD: What are some other policies you’ve put in place to protect models’ well-being?
T.L.R.: At the moment, we use video content to educate our models. We offer advice on everything from how to become self-employed, advice on what to do if you suspect one of your friends has an eating disorder, and catwalk training. There’s also our next-day payment policy and our annual subscription to Equity, the U.K. trade union representing models, on behalf of all of our models.
When we were doing market research before we launched the agency, the main problem that models had in the industry was that they were never able to be financially independent because they never knew when they were going to get paid.
We decided we would pay the girls immediately after they do the job and we would wait for the money [from the client]. That’s completely and utterly unique in the industry, no other agency does that. You have to have quite a significant float, but we are fortunately in a position to be able to do that, and the feedback we have had is overwhelming. This enables models to have financial independence so that they can live life like normal young women, pay rent, go out, understand their finances and be able to plan ahead.
WWD: Can you talk about the agency’s fur-free policy, which means the models on your books have the option of saying “no” to wearing fur.
E.K-D: It was something that happened organically following a conversation in the office, and 99 percent of the girls were on board because they’ve never been able to say “no” to what they get to wear on a shoot or on a show. That made us realize that we really need to give them a voice.