Saturday, May 14, 2011

Model citizens

julia nobis backstage at yeojin bae SS1112 in sydney

Although some sniffed that that there weren't enough big name international models, the swag of top local girls walking the runways of Rosemount Australian Fashion Week 2011 did the industry proud in frockwriter's opinion. They included those just returned from carving up the northern hemisphere runway circuit - Julia Nobis (above, backstage at Yeojin Bae), Lauren Brown, Myf Shepherd, Rose Smith, Alice Burdeu, Amanda Ware and Melissa 'MJ' Johannsen - and brand new faces such as Krystal Glynn and Hannah McDougall, who may well soon be heading that way. No, it's not your imagination that more Australian models than ever before are kicking it OS. Various international players have also clocked this antipodian runway trend. The Australian's Wish magazine recently commissioned a feature from me on the subject. It appears in the current May edition. Here's the story:

Portuguese, Dutch, Russian, English, South African, Latvian, Mandarin, Bellarusian, Korean…. so many different languages can be overheard backstage on the international runway circuit, you could be forgiven for thinking you had stumbled into a travelling United Nations fashion summit.

Once barely audible in this model polyglot, a specific English accent with an abrasive nasal twang is starting to reach critical mass.

It’s coming from the Australians, nearly 30 of whom walked in the Fall 2011 show season in New York, London, Milan and Paris in February and March. More often than not, they walked in the same shows with at least one or two other compatriots. Karl Lagerfeld cast five at Chanel in Paris. Giles Deacon cast eight at his show in London.

Australian models suddenly find themselves very much in demand.

Abbey Lee Kershaw and Miranda Kerr are currently ranked the world numbers five and six by New York-based website, the unofficial industry authority. As distinct from Forbes’ annual Top Earning Models list - which placed Kerr as the world’s ninth highest-paid clotheshorse last year, earning US$4million - calibrates its Top 50 Women rankings via covers, editorial visibility, campaigns and show bookings. Catherine McNeil is ranked #24 and Sudanese-born Ajak Deng just debuted at #39.

And hot on their heels, season after season, is a cadre of newcomers with the “It” factor.

According to co-founder and editorial director Wayne Sterling, so many top models are emerging from Australia and now also New Zealand – with 17 year-old Kiwi Emily Baker widely viewed as Fall 2011’s top newcomer, grabbing 60 of its biggest shows - that Australasia has emerged as a top three scouting market alongside Russia and Holland.

“It's been building for two years now, somewhere around the emergence of Catherine McNeil and Abbey Lee, but I think this Fall Winter 2011 season is where it became a trend with major traction” says Sterling.

What is so appealing about the antipodians? Being low maintenance apparently tops the list of their positive attributes.

“Everybody wants beautiful girls who are slim but healthy, outgoing and easy to work with” notes Sterling.

“Australian girls are not bitches” says Stephen Lee, an Australian agent who works at Next Model Management in New York. “It’s [this attitude] ‘I’m not going to kill anyone’. There’s not this sense of desperation that was almost so formidable with the eastern Europeans”.

“The girls have a very natural beauty and ease about them, along with an incredible sense of confidence and wry humour. They are always a joy to be around and very professional" echoes Francisco Costa, Women's Creative Director of Calvin Klein Collection, who has cast Kershaw, Gemma Ward, Julia Nobis, Codie Young, Baker and fellow Kiwi Jessica Clarke. Kershaw also appears with Deng and Bambi Northwood-Blyth in the new ck One campaign and Jack Vanderhart was booked as an exclusive for Calvin Klein’s recent men’s show in New York.

“Australia is becoming a big player - there’s going to be a lot more than just the flavour of the next year or two” says New York casting director James Scully, whose clients include Oscar de la Renta, Stella McCartney, Lanvin and Tom Ford.

Adds Scully, “For a while we had Brazil, then Russia, then eastern Europe. It seems to be that a lot of the newer girls are coming from Australia and to be quite honest, I’m happier with these girls, because they’re older and they’re healthier than, or they appear to be healthier than, the girls who were coming from eastern Europe.

“A lot of girls from other countries don’t speak English. A lot of them start too young, whereas I feel like when you get girls from Australia, they’re a lot more finished. There is a different attitude. Every country has their kind of plusses and I find that Australian girls do definitely have a relaxed manner which makes them easier to work with”.

From blue-eyed blondes à la Kershaw to Sudanese gazelles like Deng and multi-ethnic bombshells in the form of Kerr, Megan Gale, Jessica Gomes and the incredibly unique Andrej Pejic – the Bosnian-born sensation who has proven himself equally adept at modelling menswear and womenswear – another factor by which Australians distinguish themselves is that apparently, unlike some other model nationalities, you can actually tell them apart.

“After doing this for a million years, I can tell the minute a girl walks through the door where she’s from” says Scully. “A lot of the times the Australian girls pretty much throw me off. If they don’t open their mouths I don’t necessarily know where they come from”.

Australian models are no strangers to the international stage.

In the 1960s, Maggi Eckhardt worked with Royal dressmaker Norman Hartnell in London and appeared on the covers of British and French Vogue. Lynn Sutherland made the cover of US Vogue in the 1970s.

Elle Macpherson became one of the most high profile models of the 1980s, appearing on, amongst a score of other magazine covers, three consecutive covers of Sports Illustrated’s annual Swimsuit issue.

A handful of new faces headed offshore in the 1990s. After moving to London, Adelaide-born Emma Balfour subsequently joined Kate Moss as one of the pivotal models of that decade, dubbed ‘the face of grunge’ by the British style press. Others were springboarded by a spate of new modelling competitions. Annaliese Seubert won Ford’s Supermodel of the World in 1990. Alyssa Sutherland won Australia’s Girlfriend Model Search in 1997 and Nicole Trunfio, the local Search For A Supermodel in 2002, before being crowned runnerup of Ford’s Supermodel of the World in the same year.

"When I started you could count the number of girls who were doing well on one hand, now there’s so many buzz girls around" says agent Joseph Tenni, who joined Sydney’s Chadwick Models in 1999, the year after he began writing the still-running Model Mania new faces column on New York-based fashion site Hintmag.

Over the past decade, faster air travel and the internet have brought Australia much closer to the rest of the world says Tenni.

“I remember [in the 1990s] if a foreign model was proposed, we’d get a phone call or a fax, then they’d send a bunch of pictures, a week-10 days later, we would go through those pictures and maybe if the girl’s not right, send them back again” he says. “These days, you stay on the phone together, click click click, ‘Um, yes, no’. The reaction is immediate. You can look at digitals and see exactly how a girl photographs, you can have walking videos”.

But key to the recent “Australian invasion”, says Wayne Sterling, are two factors: the infiltration of the New York fashion business by Australian agents Lee and Doll Wright and a “breakthrough girl” who emerged from the world's most isolated city in 2003.

“Gemma Ward is the founding goddess of the current fascination with Australian/New Zealand models. She changed the game." says Sterling, of the doe-eyed 15 year-old Perth native who was first scouted in late 2002 in her home town by Chris Fox at the Vivien's agency. Swiftly snapped up by IMG in New York and then Prada's casting director Russell Marsh, in September 2003 Ward was booked as a Spring 2004 season exclusive for both the Prada and Miu Miu shows. The following season, she was on every major runway.

Three years, a string of advertising contracts, over 30 Vogue covers and several runway clones later, Ward was earning US$3million a year according to Forbes’ 2007 Top Earning Models list. The same year, crowned her its world number one.

The race was then on to find “the next Gemma”.

February 2005 saw the first large influx of Australian models at New York Fashion Week, including Miranda Kerr. Her big break would come the following year, when she was cast in the Victoria’s Secret runway show, leading to a lucrative contract with the US lingerie giant.

Tallulah Morton emerged at Australian Fashion Week in May 2005 at just 13, landing at New York Fashion Week one year later – a little too early according to some.

Catherine McNeil and Abbey Lee Kershaw, on the other hand, both spent three years finishing school and working at home after winning the Girlfriend Model Search in 2003 and 2004 at 14 and 16 respectively - the new faces competition operated in partnership with Sydney agency Chic Management, whose New York affiliate is Next Model Management.

Then in late 2006, McNeil signed a six-month exclusive contract with leading photographer Mario Testino, who shot her for the covers of V Magazine and Vogue Paris. One year later, Testino shot Kershaw for the Spring 2008 D&G campaign. At the times of their meetings with Testino, neither model had set foot on an international runway. They would subsequently emerge as the hot new girls of the Fall 2007 and 2008 seasons. The New York Times dubbed McNeil “fashion’s latest crush”. Kershaw booked 44 shows in her first season, including a Milan exclusive with Gucci, which would lead to six advertising campaigns with the company.

In late 2008, brand new Chic Management face Myf Shepherd emerged as one of the top new girls of the Spring 2009 season, booking 51 shows, from Prada to Balenciaga, Christian Dior and Gucci.

“For me it’s been 10 years in the making” says Lee, of the success of Australian models.

Does he think an Australian did a better job selling Australians to the world?

“Yes I do” says Lee, a former Chic Management booker who arrived in New York a decade ago. “Just like a Brazilian would understand the lifestyle of a Brazilian or a Russian would understand the lifestyle of a Russian girl”.

In 2008, a second Sydney agency, Priscillas Model Management, embedded its own former staffer at its New York affiliate Elite - Wright. [As this story was going to press, Wright had just resigned from Elite and was rumoured to be heading to Ford, with some of her Australian charges in tow].  

After some initial success with Alice Burdeu, the 2007 winner of Australia’s Next Top Model, in February 2010 Julia Nobis was launched via an exclusive New York Fashion Week booking for Calvin Klein. In her wake has come a string of other top Priscillas’ girls, including Northwood-Blyth, Lauren Brown, Ruby Jean Wilson and Dempsey Stewart.

“If suddenly you have someone that you know so well that’s sitting in an agency who’s coming [to Australia] all the time and saying , ‘Please get this girl on the plane, get this girl on the plane!’… suddenly the girl is on the plane and you can see what happens” says Wright. “The minute I saw Julia Nobis on their website, I knew that this girl was going to be a star. And I waited for a year, she was still in school. She obviously wasn’t ready…. You find these hidden gems and then all of a sudden, you pull them out of the bag”.

But it’s not only at the agencies where Australians have established a beachhead in New York.’s own New Faces Editor, Rosie Daley, is an Australian. Another Sydney expat, Kannon Rajah, has spent five years working in international fashion show production and casting and now has his own consultancy. In the past three seasons he has cast Australians at the shows of Versace, Yves Saint Laurent, Gareth Pugh, Joseph Altuzarra and Fendi.

“It’s like the Australian mafia” says Wright, “Someone actually said to me in Paris recently - it really made me laugh – ‘I don’t know, do you think we should keep focussing on Australia? Maybe you need to diversify a bit. What about Ethiopia?”

Among those scanning this week’s runways at Rosemount Australian Fashion Week has been a contingent of international scouts, hopeful of sniffing out more hidden gems to pull out of the bag.

On their watchlist will no doubt be The Agency’s Krystal Glynn – a 16 year-old from Penrith, who booked six editorials and was signed to New York agency DNA within days of being scouted whilst sunbaking on Bondi Beach in late March.

Already sucked into fashion’s hype vortex, should Glynn find herself spat out at the other end – if she’s lucky, with a million dollars banked by the age of 20 – at least she has the luxury of going back to where she started.

“This is a business that throws them against the wall” says Lee, of an intensely competitive industry that has witnessed at least a dozen model deaths since 2007, from eating disorders, drug overdoses and suicide. “So to understand that these girls, no matter how successful they are, could just give it all up and just go back and live on the beach in Australia…

“Half of my battle is keeping them in New York” he laughs. “Even myself. You wake up on a day like today and it’s snowing outside and you say, “Why the hell am I here?”


Blog Archive