LOS ANGELES — When Lisa Byrnes queued up with more than 20 other women to audition as a fit model for Adriano Goldschmied’s new denim company here on a sunny day in October 2004, she had no clue what was expected of her.
Goldschmied, a native of Asolo, Italy, who boasts more than 30 years of experience in the premium denim business, knew exactly what he needed in a fit model for his latest venture, GoldSign, which was preparing to launch the following fall.
“She has to be right in terms of specifications,” Goldschmied said. “The most important thing is she understands what your design direction is. A fit model can be a kind of muse in some ways. Basically, she has to represent your ideal woman.”
Byrnes, a professional dancer who had moved to Los Angeles from Scottsdale, Ariz., six years earlier, resembles the love child of model Peggy Moffitt and rocker Pat Benatar with her dark, shaggy hair and lean frame. The minute the 5-foot, 10-inch Byrnes walked up to Goldschmied in his company’s loft studio outside of downtown Los Angeles, he knew she was going to meet his specifications.
“Can you start tomorrow?” Goldschmied asked, adding that he needed her to work exclusively for him. Byrnes accepted. “It was all new to me,” she recalled.
Since then, Goldschmied has used Byrnes both as a physical template and a sounding board for styles ranging from skinny jeans in stretch leather and jodhpur-style shorts to nylon vests lined with microfibers and denim trousers inspired by screen siren Marlene Dietrich. These looks will help GoldSign reach $17 million in first-year wholesale sales through 500 retail doors, including those operated by Barneys New York, Jeffrey’s, Louis Boston, Neiman-Marcus and American Rag in the U.S., Japan, Italy, Russia, Hong Kong, the Middle East and other countries.
Byrnes, who is used to a dancer’s $675 weekly salary as set by a professional union, with supplementary earnings coming from commercials and print modeling gigs, welcomed this new source of income. She clocks in 10 to 20 hours a week on average, earning $75 an hour as GoldSign’s fit model. She made enough money to upgrade her wheels to a 2006 Acura TSX from a 2001 Dodge Neon. Now saving to buy a house, she withstands ribbing from Goldschmied about how GoldSign is helping her become a homeowner.
Though she hasn’t signed a contract to stay exclusive to GoldSign, Byrnes turned down offers from two premium denim companies and a contemporary label that wanted her to be their fit model.
“I don’t want to do anything to hurt Adriano or affect his company, because I believe in it very much,” Byrnes said.
She has more than 30 pairs of her own GoldSign pants from which to choose when heading out to celebrity parties in Hollywood. Because GoldSign is her priority, she’s had to drop out of dance auditions to make a fitting, and she can’t easily leave town for vacation, especially during October and January, when the company is readying designs for a new season. Once, a GoldSign employee drove her to the airport right after a fitting so that she could make a flight to Portugal for a hair-modeling job.
Happy working with Byrnes, Goldschmied said, “It’s so hard to find a good fit model.”
The search is particularly acute in the competitive premium denim market, where the perfect fit can make the difference between success and failure. What’s more, each label tries to offer a unique aesthetic, and each designer has in mind a particular image of a target customer.
“Somebody who will look right for me will not look right for somebody else,” said Frank Mechaly, the designer and founder of 575 Denim in Los Angeles, who auditioned 50 models over a period of weeks before finding the right one. “Everybody has his own touch.”
Ya-el Torbati, designer and founder of Deener, goes so far as to call her fit model “a secret weapon,” and she won’t reveal the woman’s identity.
“I want to call her Jane Doe. I don’t want to share,” Torbati said. “Fit models are so central. You’re altering a pattern to fit her body.”
Because a fit model meets the specific needs for a particular company, there is no perfect size, said Natasha Duswalt, owner of Peak Models & Talent in Valencia, Calif., who casts fit models for 10 to 15 denim companies in Southern California.
“There are no magic numbers,” she said. “There’s a magic number for that company.”
Duswalt said hourly rates run from $100 to $150 in Los Angeles and from $250 to $350 in New York, with an additional 20 percent fee for the agency on top.
Sometimes, fit models do work for more than one brand. In those cases, they must be discreet.
“Your integrity is on the line,” Duswalt said. “If you’re a guest and you tell somebody else the secret of [another company’s] design, you will lose your reputation and will not work.”
Paige Adams-Geller is one fit model who was able to parlay her experience learning from the best denim designers into starting her own jeans brand. Having modeled for Goldschmied at A Gold E and Mechaly at 575, among others, Adams-Geller is the designer and fit model for Paige Premium Denim, which is expected to generate $6 million in sales in its second year.
“When I was working for male designers, I thought it was fabulous,” Adams-Geller said. “I learned a lot.”
Yet there were limitations. “I think they were interested in the cool of the jean and not the functionality,” Adams-Geller said. “I wanted to speak up and say, ‘Yeah, yeah, yeah. That looks hot, but I don’t want to wear that. I don’t feel comfortable.'”
Fitting a size 28, Adams-Geller designs the jeans off her own body and cross-fits them with other body types. Her jeans range in size from 24 to 34.
“What has happened is the real woman across America says, ‘You know what, I’m not buying into that [obsession with being skinny]. I have curves, and I can’t wear those clothes. I want jeans that fit me and not starve myself to fit into those standards,'” Adams-Geller said. “Across the board, people are understanding that more and more. Not many companies are hiring a size 2 or size 4 anymore. They understand what Americans need and who we are.”
Julie Oborne Pruger, a size-6 fit model and friend of Adams-Geller’s in New York, said models who wear a size 8 are hired more often than those who wear a size 6 because they are, in her words, “dressing most of America.” Though her clients have included Gwen Stefani’s L.A.M.B., Armani Exchange, DKNY and Calvin Klein, her current sole denim client is Wrangler.
“Most of the denim, in my opinion, is out of L.A.,” Oborne said. “That’s the market where the denim explosion is.”
The denim boom has helped Moniqua Plante, who currently works with Adams-Geller at Paige and has also been the fit model for Lucky Brand Jeans, Blue Cult, True Religion and Levi’s.
“There’s a lot more accounts. There’s a lot more work to be had,” Plante said, adding that hourly rates for fit models working through an agency have increased as much as 17 percent.
Another plus is that she doesn’t need to forfeit a slice of cake if she craves one. “I don’t have to be super skinny,” Plante said. “The key to being a good fit model is that your weight doesn’t fluctuate.”
One fit model is often not enough. Mechaly, of 575 Denim, hires five different models who fit sizes 25 through 29 to try on a new style before starting a production run, even though he has approved the fit on his primary fit model, who wears a size 28. In doing so, Mechaly said that 70 percent of the time he ends up making another adjustment to perfect the fit based on the five models.
“It’s costing me a fortune,” Mechaly said.
Robin Chretien, the designer of Robin’s Jean in Los Angeles, said that since he sells his line to stores all over the world, he has to find what he calls “a good average for everywhere.” That average is based on an American standard with a 27-inch fit. Chretien continues his search for the perfect fit model when he’s at the supermarket, on the beach and out with his family.
“Even with my wife, she tells me she finds these girls with the perfect body,” Chretien said.
Goldschmied said the concept of a fit model is strange.
“You cannot consider [her body] as normal,” he said. “Of course, the average of the public is different. Through the years, you need to work with a person who represents your ideal body.”
Goldschmied’s approach is based on the philosophy that a designer brand is choosing its customer. “It’s not my target to fit everybody,” Goldschmied said.
At the age of 26, Byrnes represents Goldschmied’s ideal customer. For competitive reasons, GoldSign forbade her from revealing her measurements, allowing only that she wears a 27-inch inseam pair of pants.
Towering in high heels above the 62-year-old redheaded designer, Byrnes said Goldschmied doesn’t like it when she doesn’t offer her opinion on a new style or fit. Byrnes recalled flipping through a book about Marlene Dietrich that Goldschmied had acquired for research on a Forties-style trouser.
“He asked if I loved it. I said, ‘Oh, it’s amazing.’ That gave him some confidence to move forward on a pant,” Byrnes remembered. “If someone doesn’t like it, he will change it even if he likes it.”
Last Thursday, Goldschmied nipped and tucked a sample of the Dietrich pants on Byrnes with gold safety pins. “This is a new fit. It’s important for us. It’s totally different from the skinny,” Goldschmied said, as his hands quickly streamlined the wide leg.
“It actually feels pretty low,” Byrnes said, motioning to the crotch length that was a little too long.
“To make a new fit can take even 10 to 15 fittings,” Goldschmied said, adding that each fitting lasts an hour. “That’s why she’s buying new cars.”
“Oh, yeah,” Byrnes quipped. “I’ve been marked on. I’ve been poked. I haven’t been scissor-cut, yet.”
One of the most interesting tools Goldschmied uses in his fittings is masking tape.
“This is my real muse,” Goldschmied said.
“Loves his tape,” Byrnes said, after Goldschmied tore off a long strand and laid it on pair of jodhpur-style shorts to show where he wanted the pockets to go.
“I design more on the body than sketching,” Goldschmied said. “I design in the fitting.”