She's 5'11", size two with thick eyebrows, long limbs and an angular profile. She doesn't smile or frown until she's given a direct command: she sits as a blank canvas in front of the designer. "Walk this way, turn this way, look this way," he directs, and so she does. The bright lights illuminate her skin and the fabrics come alive. On this specific body, a vision will manifest.
Historically, a model's sole purpose was to showcase a designer's work to potential customers (often friends of the designer or magazine editors). But over time, the role of the model migrated from being simply a body to being a soul and an identity. Harold Koda, curator of the The Costume Institute at The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City comments on the model's impact: "With a mere gesture, a truly stellar model can sum up the attitude of her time, becoming more than a muse to designers or photographers - she can become a muse to a generation."
Brazilian model Gisele Bündchen.
The role of the model has moved through several phases throughout history, yet its influence has remained essential in developing our cultural identity. These phases are well defined: the "Youthquake" sixties, the androgynous seventies and the glamorous eighties which led into the nineties era of the celebrity supermodel. Rani Sheen, an editor at FASHION Magazine, comments on the nineties supermodel phenomenon: "They brought star power to fashion and probably extended its audience, though it could be argued that they sometimes overshadowed the clothes they were wearing." The nineties gave models agency and autonomy; nineties culture was fixated on The Supermodel, leading them to monopolise the fashion industry, magazines, runways and advertisements. Supermodels were one-name wonders - everybody knew Cindy, Christy, Eva and Claudia.
But the playing field shifted with the coming of the millennium, watering down the model's celebrity in the process. As the millennium began, celebrities overtook models in filling magazine covers and advertisements, redefining - and challenging - the model's role. Unlike in the nineties, today "the models who get the big fashion and beauty campaigns - the ones that don't go to celebrities - tend not to be recognisable names outside of the fashion arena," Sheen continues. "I think it's rare for non-fashion-followers to know the current high-fashion star models such as Arizona Muse, Abbey Lee Kershaw or Sasha Pivovarova."
As the modern-day model competes with celebrities for high-profile fashion and beauty campaigns, a pretty face and long legs is no longer sufficient to stay in the game - a model needs to develop a public personality to attract multifaceted work, sustain her career and contribute to her growing empire. To regain their status and not fade into the celebrity frenzy, models have increasingly turned to "branding." Sheen points out that models are extending their brands, whether in their prime or when deemed "too old" for typical modelling work by TV hosting, acting, DJing or starting their own product lines in skincare, clothing, shoes, jewellery and furniture.
Multi-outlet branding is achieved through clear vision and strategy, and has become a popular sport in the modelling industry. So who's winning? In 2011, Forbes predicted Brazilian model Gisele Bündchen would be the world's first billionaire supermodel and Sheen thinks that Bündchen seems to "be a total powerhouse, without seeming to grasp onto any old promotional opportunity." Bündchen has her hand in several cookie-jars - skin care line Sejaa Pure Skincare, Ipanema flip flops and her own intimates line in partnership with underwear brand Hope - "Brazil's version of Victoria's Secret." Even her five-year old niece, Duda Bündchen, launched her own Brazilian kidswear brand, Brandili Mundi. Multi-outlet branding maximises the model's profits; and with profit comes power, and power is synonymous with influence and autonomy.
Self-extension through branding has also been made easily accessible to models through social media. Models are leveraging Twitter, Facebook and various blogging platforms to not only connect with "fans" and provide a sneak-peek into the exclusivity of their careers, but to announce their opinions and thoughts to a mass audience. Tyra Banks has over six million followers on Twitter, and has coined the hashtag and term "Flawsome," engaging followers about why their flaws are, well, awesome. Model Karlie Kloss started her own Tumblr just four months ago, revealing that it was inspired directly by Coco Rocha's blog. Both models use Tumblr to share photos from their personal and professional lives. Social media is allowing models to expand their brands and establish their voices. In web 2.0 culture, social media is acting as the great equalizer, leveling the playing field for all models to develop their brand as they see fit.
Adding together a successful modelling career, multi-outlet branding and mass audience self-expression equates to a powerhouse entity. Agents are aware that they are no longer signing just a pretty face - the model's brand and the fashion brand interchange powers in the playing field. Not-so-high-fashion-model Kate Upton, was signed by IMG Models solely based on her brand. Trey Laird, creative director of Laird & Partners (an advertising agency representing popular fashion brands) explained to the New York Times that, "It's not just enough to cast such-and-such a girl that opened Prada or Vuitton or whatever...it's a huge help if a girl already has a platform and followers..."
|Coco Rocha: "...every model has a right
to set rules for how she is portrayed..."
The evolving role of the model correlates to the evolving role of women in society - a slow, yet steady, progression in acquiring agency and autonomy. It is this empowerment that has given models the opportunity to stand up for themselves and the way the business treats them. Recently, Coca Rocha, a 23-year-old Canadian model, spoke out against ELLE Brazil's photoshop of its May 2012 cover in contravention of Rocha's no-nudity policy. Rocha states: "I strongly believe every model has a right to set rules for how she is portrayed and for me these rules were clearly circumvented." Her reaction parallels the modern woman's reclamation of her own body, demanding that set rules are respected. Bravo!
I agree with Harold Koda's perspective on models being able to sum up the attitude of our time and inspire a true generation, but I'd like to extend his argument, as it no longer applies to the modern model. To simply be a muse, a canvas for another's work, is no longer satisfactory. Multi-outlet branding allows professional models to leverage new entrepreneurship opportunities and, consequently, establish their own voices. The modern model encapsulates the capable, success-thriving, versatile and stylish modern woman. She can, in fact, have her cake and eat it too.
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