How 2020 changed the modeling industry

Last February, Mary Clarke, co-founder of model management company Mother, ended New York Fashion Week by watching the Marc Jacobs show, feeling content knowing that more than 50 of her agency’s models had walked the runway that week. Her co-founder and husband Jeff was planning to head to London, and she would meet him the week after in Paris. Within two weeks, both had canceled the rest of their trip and returned to the U.S., and their 50 models were out of work.

The last year has been tough for models, especially high-fashion models who rely on runway gigs and campaign photoshoots in exotic locations for much of their income. Fashion events have been curtailed, plus brands have scaled back on their photoshoots. Some have experimented with replacing professional models with influencers and their own employees. Even with New York Fashion Week starting in a couple days, Mary Clarke said brands are still finalizing their plans and it’s unclear if her models will be able to walk in any shows. The landscape for models has changed significantly and, she said, newer models who are just starting their careers are the most heavily affected.

“We had models scheduled to travel for their first big shoots throughout April, [in preparation for] the summer, when a lot of our newer models who are still in school would have time off. And all of that had to be canceled,” Mary Clarke said. “The shift happened so quickly, and so much of a model’s career is momentum. We had some girls who had just done big shoots and had a lot of momentum, and it just ground to a halt.”

Abbey Ries, a model signed with Next Models who’s been in the industry for six years, said that she spent the first few months of the pandemic in Iowa, where she’s from, since there was no work at all between March and May. At the time, the financial outlook for models was rough. A survey of models from the nonprofit Model Alliance found that more than half were owed money from completed jobs that they had not yet received and two-thirds said they were worried they wouldn’t be able to pay for housing.

Since then, Ries has returned to New York and said the gigs have slowly been picking up. She’s been doing an average of one or two jobs per week since May, which is roughly what she was doing pre-pandemic. 

“It’s a little different for me since I’ve been doing this for a few years, and I had some more traction and had more clients to work with,,” she said. “But for the newer models without that traction, it’s been really tough.”

Notably, the vast majority of her jobs now take place in New York City. Pre-pandemic, she said she’d be traveling at least once a month to another U.S. city or out of the country for a shoot. Brands are now hiring locally rather than flying models in, which gives models based in hubs like New York a significant advantage. Ries said she’s had the offer to travel once or twice in the last six months, but the decision is a weighty one. Traveling for a gig means a two-week quarantine upon returning, essentially trading two weeks of no work for one job.

Sometimes, however, the tradeoff is worth it. Ries declined to offer specific figures for what the typical fashion shoot pays models, but she said she’s seen rates rising as brands want to compensate models for the extra work and necessary precautions. She said she’s seen rates increase as much as four times the usual amount, though that heavily depends on the brand. The shoots also tend to be far smaller affairs, with only a dozen people involved rather than the usual 40-100. The smaller scale of shoots means there’s a bit more in the budget to compensate models, she said.

As of 2018, the average model in New York City earned around $48,000 per year from regular work, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Some estimates have put a model’s pay for a single day of shooting at $500-$1,500, though that number can be much higher if the model is more in-demand. 

The last year has seen more brands using their own employees as models, sending products to their homes and asking them to take pictures themselves with virtual guidance from a creative director. Brands like Andie Swim and Fred Segal have both made use of this strategy, which cuts down on the expenses of photoshoots, which can shoot up past six figures in cost, according to Melanie Travis, CEO of Andie Swim.

“Everyone is changing their marketing strategies right now,” Travis said. “We’re all learning to be really efficient businesses. Maybe it doesn’t make sense to spend hundreds of thousands of dollars on photoshoots. With our employees, we basically just pay the cost of FedExing the clothes to them, and that’s it. It’s a lot cheaper and easier.”

But some brands that have experimented with using their own employees for shoots say it doesn’t replace the value they get from a more elaborate shoot with professional models.

“There’s definitely a magic in these unscripted and informal moments,” said Liz Wasserman, creative director at Fred Segal, speaking of using the company’s employees in a photoshoot for its sleepwear line which released last month. “But the creative director in me wanted to have a little more control. So we’re continuing to tell some of our team members’ stories on social media for Valentine’s Day, but we’re doing traditional shoots with models, too. That’s never going to go away for us.”

Mary Clarke said one of her models shot an entire Zara campaign over Zoom over the summer. Meanwhile, Ries said she’s recently done campaigns where the brands sent her product and let her conduct the shoot herself. She said it was a good way to expand her skill set to include hair, makeup, lighting and photography. But having to shoot things from home puts influencers directly in competition with influencers, who brands like Eloquii have also been turning to for photography and who have more experience directing their own shoots.

Having that more rounded skill set is valuable, Ries said, because a model’s personality and online presence are increasingly becoming keys to standing out. She said she’s booked shoots with brands like Urban Outfitters for its sustainable Urban Renewal program, based not just on her headshot, but also on her support for environmental justice, which she openly talks about on Instagram. That focus on values is one of the other shifts Ries has seen.

“Something I’ve been really happy about is the way the brands are focusing on diversity and inclusion in their shoots and their product,” she said. “It’s nothing to do with Covid, but it’s changing a lot and moving this industry in a positive direction.”

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