What makes a good fashion model? Is there a recipe for success, an indelible how-to guide? In an industry where the financial stakes have never been higher, it is (somewhat predictably) the hyper-real head designer and creative director of Fendi, Chanel and the eponymous label Karl Lagerfeld who said it best. “What one needs,” declared Lagerfeld, an instantly recognisable character who, perhaps more than anyone understands the importance of image (highly starched collars, commanding black shades and all), “is a face one can identify in a second. You have to be given what’s needed by nature, and what’s needed is to bring something new.”
It is midday and incredibly sunny. Limber, long-legged girls – about 25 in total, as well as a lone boy – are milling excitedly around Surry Hills Studio, some emanating energy, others a bundle of nerves. Almost all of them are teens, sporting braces and schoolgirl ponytails – the kind of kids deemed ‘new faces’ within the modelling industry. Those who are too young to book jobs are ‘in development’, while pre-teens are signed up early by bookers who predict big things.
Today’s workshop is one of three the agency plans to run each year: an amalgam of talks on professionalism and emotional preparedness, Q&A sessions and runway walking practice. Among the inviting hotchpotch of the studio (giant tripods, traffic light props, a sprawling zebra print couch and other miscellanea), between the industry guest speakers and quiet observers from models.com, these new faces embody one thing: possibility. The room is charged with quiet electricity. No one knows who will become the Next Big Thing, the delicate pin-up, a new Ruby-Jean Wilson. The softly spoken, doe-eyed Wilson is one of Priscillas biggest ‘exports’, a Scottish-born beauty raised in England, then Terrigal and a recent muse to Marc Jacobs. Having just worked with Steven Meisel for the Louis Vuitton SS13 campaign, Wilson sits on a couch before the cross-legged ‘new faces’, quietly explaining the importance of being perennially polite and open to new things. It’s a vibe echoed by a rep from Elle magazine as well as the agency’s founder, Priscilla Leighton Clark. If you aren’t respectful, nice and well presented on a job, you’ll simply stop getting booked.
Doll Wright is head of booking and scouting at Priscillas, with more than a decade of booking experience across Sydney and New York. “A model agency should become an extension of a model’s family,” she says. “We are involved in every aspect of our model’s life, professionally and emotionally. It is this support that helps make [our] models a success.” For Wright, nothing proves as fulfilling as being involved in this transformative process, where “the evolution of a shy, young girl into an empowered, independent woman” plays out. Ebonie Briskey – a women’s booker and self-confessed scouting obsessive – agrees that this is the best part of working with the forever young, as she watches “unsure teenagers blossom into amazing, strong, intelligent young adults”.
Only the assiduous and ever-motivated can stick out a modelling career, and for many the elusive ‘big break’ might never happen. Prospective models are scouted everywhere – via Facebook, on public transport or at large-scale music festivals. “Scouting happens when I’m just walking down the street doing something mundane,” says Briskey. “Normally I will just awkwardly approach them trying not to seem like a total weirdo and give them my card.” One of her recent finds was a bus boy, sitting in a Melbourne bar at 1am. “He was on a dinner break and I rudely interrupted. His name is Nic Smith; he recently shot Tommy Hilfiger and Topman.”
Perri, aged 16, is one of these chance finds. With a milky complexion and a blunt brown fringe, she stands at 5’7” and possesses a certain shrewdness. She’s been soaking up every anecdote offered by speakers today – from what’s appropriate to post on Instagram to the importance of experimenting with new shapes and bodily arcs. “I’m still in Year 11 so I don’t have a lot of time to get out there and go to castings,” she grins. “I think this is a good way to pave a path in the creative arts… I’ve heard it described as acting in stills.” After emailing Priscillas some images she shot with a photography student, Perri got a call-back and headed into their offices. She signed a contract immediately. “They’re very paternal, ethical and respectful… With Priscillas I feel really safe and really welcome.”
Florence is another recent board addition. At just 15 years old, she is amiable and earnest, speaking quickly and with unencumbered excitement. Discovered just over a month ago at a warehouse sale, this is one of her first formal interactions with the agency. “I’m trying to keep it on the down low because it’s so new,” says Florence. “I don’t really want to be talking [at school] about it and be like ‘Oh I’m a model’. My friends know because they saw a photo of me on Instagram.”
Is there a certain aesthetic that feels ‘right now’, a look that is very much of the moment? Briskey doesn’t believe in blanket rules, but admits “unique, wide-set, almond-shaped eyes are trending, if that’s even possible”, and references Californian-born Ondria Hardin. “I think there will always be trends. Tattoos and piercings come and go, there is not much longevity in [all of that]. I feel there is a resurgence of not only ‘naturally beautiful’, but strong, intelligent models with personalities.”
As we depart the afternoon session, runway practice is about to begin – something for a handful of older girls who may soon go overseas. We assume there is some secret to a great walk: an angle the chin must sit at, a clandestine trick for keeping the right pace. Wright responds adroitly. The only secret, she insists, is confidence.