Model agencies are not sitting pretty. Coronavirus, lockdowns and travel bans have scythed income in an industry reliant on jet-setting and getting up close and personal. Many of their clients — mostly big shops and fashion brands — are holding back payments. Others, having gone bust, cannot make payments at all. 

Meantime, big luxury brands are learning to live without the beauties on agencies’ books. Burberry and Gucci have both launched collections modelled by their own staff, the latter helpfully including Post-it notes inscribed with their day jobs. Fashion shows — including much of London Fashion Week, which kicks off on Thursday — are moving online.

For all the bright lights and glamour, there is an almost Dickensian whiff to America’s $1.5bn industry itself. It is hugely fragmented: some 7,600 agencies with the top four commanding a market share of less than a fifth, according to IBISWorld. Models work freelance and, depending on terms, are responsible for much of their own costs, including visas, transport and upkeep. Some, especially those who forget to put aside a slice of their spoils for the IRS, quickly sink into debt. 

Chart showing model agencies margins in the US, percentage figures.

Now their pain is rippling through the sector. IBISWorld reckons agency revenues will fall 7.5 per cent this year. That may be conservative. Nasdaq-listed Wilhelmina International’s second-quarter revenues were a quarter of the year-ago figure, pushing it into the red. The agency, which was founded by Dutch supermodel Wilhelmina Cooper in the 1960s and now operates across the US and UK, flagged the possibility of future bad debts from clients unable to pay for work already undertaken.

Chart showing that US agency revenues are falling, bar chart showing percentage change compared to previous year and revenues $billion, from 2010 to 2020.

Still, a new business model is emerging. Hyphenate Management, which launched in July, operates remotely. Catering to the zeitgeist of putting lifestyle above glitz, models also work from home. In place of an army of make-up artists, hairstylists and lighting supremos are paint-by-numbers cosmetic kits and online directors. If the dog wanders in mid-shoot or the camera catches that pair of skis in the corner, so much the better. The line between influencers and models is blurring: viewers lap up the backstories. 

Of course, that also makes it easier for models to do away with agencies altogether. A large following on social media can open today’s doors just as easily as a top agency name. That is one trend the industry will not be rushing to promote.



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