In 2017, you don’t need to be signed to an agency to be a model - all you need is an Instagram account. Over the last couple of years, the term ‘Instagram Model’ has gone from a lucky few getting discovered on the platform and being signed to a genuine independent career, to a real method used by many models getting booked by major brands and publications off their own back, instead of through agencies. This rise in independent working and successful self-made models begs us to ask: do modelling agencies matter anymore?
Modelling is a core aspect of the fashion industry and to many, it’s a very real career aspiration. However, it’s no secret that it can also be a pretty brutal lifestyle; all it takes is a quick Google search and you can read countless stories about models’ struggles with casting directors and agents. Last year, for example, model Charli Howard burst onto the scene when she revealed how she was dropped from her agency for being ‘too fat,’ a fact that shocked all those who listened because Howard was still a mere size 2. Not only did this highlight the fact that agencies often still approach size from a discriminatory, even dangerous point of view, but it also raised Charli Howard's social media profile and got her signed to a new agency, where she is quickly becoming an in demand face (and voice too, no doubt).
Even so, some fashion brands and publications themselves have started to bypass agencies and cast campaigns and editorials directly on social media instead. Marc Jacobs causes a frenzy each year with #castmemarc, LOVE magazine recently hosted the #LOVEME17 competition (giving us mere mortals the chance to feature on the cover of the magazine), and Adidas Originals and Calvin Klein have both sourced models off of social media with their "We The Future" and #mycalvins campaigns respectively. As far as names go, these are all brands with a lot of clout, who have now extended their credibility to models outside the traditional confines of the industry. Social media - in particular, Instagram - is fast becoming a fierce competitor; speaking to Vice, “self-proclaimed Instagram model” Emma Breschi says that the app is a tool to advance her career with, an outlet for creative expression, and a means to make money. If Instagram can provide an up and coming model with all of that, the relevance of modelling agencies really must be brought into question.
Cutting out modelling agencies and going solo could prove very beneficial to the fashion industry and be a significant catalyst for change. Social media models democratizes modelling because oftentimes models are picked up by brands as a result of their following, not after the fact, meaning that you don’t need to already be a Victoria's Secret Angel in order to gain a significant profile. In fact, unique and original individuals often harbour the greatest, most engaged fan base; rather than being cast on just appearance, a model's style, personality, and overall image is taken into account.
This democratization also opens the door to diversity. The modelling and fashion industries continue to have a very real problem with a lack of racial and body diversity. Independent models often pride themselves on not fitting into the strict beauty standards of the industry. Emma Breschi also spoke to Vice about the fact she doesn’t represent the norms of an agency model, but she still gets a lot of work through Instagram; in other words, while an agency might not have signed her due to their strict body expectations, it doesn’t matter because she is still wildly successful. Models who work for themselves get another shot to prove that even if they aren't 'agency acceptable,' they deserve the same opportunities to work with major clients. They may also have more creative control and say over what happens to them; with no agency breathing down your neck, you can set your own boundaries. Long term, a rise in this form of modelling could encourage health, diversity, and inclusion in exciting new ways.
However, independent careers do have their challenges. Without an agency, models could be at a greater risk of being exploited by clients, whether it's in the form of pay, hours, or boundaries, because while they may be able to set boundaries, clients can still attempt to take advantage of them. One of the most common problems with working freelance or for yourself is pay, or rather, the lack thereof. Often clients pay late, or simply don’t pay at all and (conveniently) stop answering emails. Agencies do provide a level of protection against exploitative clients, and they keep track of their models, because they are held to stricter labour laws and some public accountability.
The modelling landscape is very much shifting and evolving; the public may feel that this is for the better, while agencies may feel that it’s for the worse. Modelling in fashion is no longer this farfetched, unattainable dream because social media has opened the gates to anybody photogenic and savvy enough to make it happen for themselves. Taking polaroids in your underwear against a blank wall or showing off your walk to get signed or cast is no longer necessary, with personality and profile beginning to take precedence. Our generation is all about change and finding new, better ways to do things, and so if we can create a better modelling industry by evading agencies, we will. Until agencies make any real positive progress, models may continue to feel better off without them.
Main Image c/o Adidas Originals