Debts, £300 salaries and career instability: the reality of modelling today
The catwalk used to be the stage on which models won a ‘super’ prefix and earned a fortune in the process. Now it’s an expensive, exhausting trial, says Ellie Pithers. Has modelling moved on? Or have we?
You probably won’t have heard of Binx Walton, a nineteen-year-old model and the only person nicknamed after a Star Wars character to star in a Chanel campaign. A lithe, lean Tennessee native with a soupy drawl to match, Walton began her career on the catwalk for Marc Jacobs in 2013, and was soon booked for campaigns at Céline, Balmain and Coach. During fashion month last autumn, she walked down the catwalks for Bottega Veneta, Roberto Cavalli, Versace, Loewe, Céline, Stella McCartney, Chanel, Valentino and Miu Miu.
Binx, in other words, is at the top of her game. But it’s lonely up there. “Recently, designers have been hiring a lot of newer girls, so it’s not as fun because I’m not with as many of my friends,” she says when we catch up in Milan. “New girls — I feel sorry for them. My first and second seasons were my worst. It’s like being in a new school. There are cliques and I didn’t have many people I could trust.”
“My first and second seasons were my worst. It’s like being in a new school. There are cliques and I didn’t have many people I could trust”
Three years and six seasons in, Binx considers herself a veteran. “These new girls — they’re sixteen, they’ve just quit high school and they’re only going to be around for two seasons,” she says, animatedly. “A lot of them stop growing up. They get to twenty, twenty-four, and they’re still the same. They’re stunted.”
The same can’t be said for Binx, currently quietly growing her profile via careful collaborations, the latest of which is a capsule range of sneakers for the Italian brand Superga. “The logo is on the sole because I wanted to stay away from putting my name everywhere,” she says, chucking me a style to peruse. “Even though I’m doing well, I’m not huge. People aren’t gonna buy a shoe just because it says Binx on it. So I wanted to make some cool shoes and focus on the little details — 3D mesh on the inside because in this industry you get a lot of blisters and mesh is more comfortable than canvas, little metal lace hoops that feel quite urban…”
As we continue to chat, Binx exudes the trademark keeping-it-real ethos that has led to her success, talking of her family — “my most expensive purchase? I bought my mom a car” — and her friends — “I live with a model, Lexi, in New York, in an apartment with a snake tank and a huge brown couch and that’s it. You don’t wanna live too fancy. It just makes your ego bigger”.
She plays down her good fortune, but Binx is one in a million. Few girls make it big these days, and fewer still have the backing to convert a smash debut into longevity. For while the Kate Mosses and Gisele Bündchens amass millions, and command thousands for a catwalk appearance, most models work long hours with scant job security and earn very little.
Part of that is due to the fact that the catwalk, once a breeding ground for supermodels, is no longer the springboard to a long and illustrious modelling career. Neither is it financially rewarding for the models themselves, many of whom actually find themselves in debt at the end of the season. Where twenty years ago Linda Evangelista and Christy Turlington could command £30,000 for a show, nowadays models can earn as little as £300 — or just get paid in clothes.
Where twenty years ago Linda Evangelista could command £30,000 for a show, nowadays models can earn as little as £300
According to Ashley Mears, a professor of sociology at Boston University, and a former model, between 2000 and 2010, 47% of models appearing on catwalks at one of the four major fashion weeks around the world appeared only once. She writes on the Boston University website: “At the agencies I studied, the median earnings were estimated by agents to be under $60,000 a year, but that’s a very uncertain sum which fluctuates over short periods of time, and agents expect models’ high-fashion careers to last less than five years. A sizeable share — 20% of the models at one agency I studied — were actually in debt to their agency for the costs of starting their career, such as pictures for their portfolios or even a place ticket to New York.”
Now, more than ever, designers and casting directors are interested in new faces on the catwalk. Amanda Bretherton, the president of Next Models London, attributes that to the following: “Firstly, designers have decided to use their finances more wisely and not spend huge amounts on one-off fees for supermodels. Secondly, I think there is a true desire not to have the models detract from the actual collection by being too well-known and in turn stealing the show. If they can choose girls who look very similar, they create an image of uniformity which then means the clothes stand out within the show.” Karlie Kloss, one of the industry’s top models, confirmed the latter in an interview with Vanity Fair, claiming that designers have told her she’s “too famous” to walk in their shows and that her appearance on their catwalk would mean “no one will pay attention to the clothes”.
That those models who do manage to forge a career are required to have “additional talents” is an added irony in an industry predicated on selling luxury while paying those whose images they are utilising very little. As Bretherton points out, today’s models “must dominate not only the runway but social media, campaigns and editorials. Whether they act, or design, or have a strong social media presence, they need to be more desirable for casting directors.” To that end Kloss, 23, who can only be booked for a catwalk show via “special arrangement”, has a line of gluten-free cookies, Karlie’s Kookies’, the proceeds of which go to the charity FEED, and promotes technology via her scholarship at the Flatiron School in New York, Kode with Karlie, which sponsors 20 girls between the ages of 13 and 18 to attend coding classes. In July she launched her own Youtube channel, Klossy, which documents her daily life, showing her backstage on a Glamour cover shoot or making “apple krisp”.
Is the age of the supermodel over? Carole White, the CEO and founder of Premier model agency, which has looked after the careers of Naomi Campbell, Linda Evangelista and Christy Turlington, thinks so: “I don’t think there will ever be new supermodels like there were in the Nineties. There are girls who have a “name” in fashion whilst they are hot; but supermodels were names the man in the street knew.”
Back in Milan, Binx weighs in with a characteristically pragmatic view. “New girls, new girls, every season — you have to accept that,” she says. “You don’t believe in this industry? Well, then you’re not going to be in it. You’ll get thrown away like a toothpick. It’s that simple.” She sighs. “You don’t have to believe in everything, but fighting it? You have to remember: fashion is always bigger than you.”