How "It" Girls Became the Fashion Industry's Biggest Moneymakers

Whether or not you know what they "do," it doesn't matter. They still sell clothes.
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Alyssa Vingan Klein
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Whether or not you know what they "do," it doesn't matter. They still sell clothes.

Seeing a girl on a magazine cover, fronting an ad campaign or sitting in the front row at Fashion Week and thinking to yourself, “Who is that?” has become a frequent occurrence in the fashion industry. The phenomenon, which can arguably be traced back to pioneers Alexa Chung and Alice Dellal, has helped a new crop of personalities rise to immense levels of popularity for no discernible reason at all, aside from their standout personal style. “It” girls with careers in creative fields — DJs, artists, musicians, TV presenters — have started to replace models and celebrities as the most desirable faces for brands to attach themselves to, despite the fact that most mainstream consumers don’t know them by name. Or what they do, for that matter.

That je ne sais quoi, or that “X Factor” as it’s called in the business, is increasingly what clients are looking for when choosing women (or men) to work with on campaigns or collaborations for one very simple reason: People want to dress like them, and therefore, they have a proven track record when it comes to selling products. Modeling agencies have become well aware of this fact, and have started special talent divisions for musicians, bloggers and influencers as a way to help manage their careers in the fashion and beauty space, as well as to align them with brands that share their interests and aesthetic.

Next Models was one of the first agencies to get on board with the changing tide, and its special bookings board reads like a who’s who of the industry’s buzziest names. Along with Chung and Dellal, Suki Waterhouse, Atlanta de Cadenet Taylor, Harley Viera-Newton and Julia Restoin Roitfeld are all signed with Next. What all of these women have in common is that they are more than just pretty faces: They have multi-faced interests, an innate “cool factor” and undeniable charisma. They all have more going on than just what meets the eye. Something different.

“It’s so blindingly obvious to us when someone has 'It,'” says Katy Moseley, the director of public relations at Next. “As soon as we meet them — they’re talented, so chic, so beautiful. They’re super cool. It’s a no-brainer. Clients love them when we present them.” Much of the appeal comes from charisma and wit, which is something that Chung, Dellal and their counterparts have in spades. In addition, they have an eye for cool looks and products before most consumers catch on.

Suki Waterhouse for Superga.

Suki Waterhouse for Superga.

At first, people didn’t necessarily “get” it — for example, when Chung was given a Madewell collaboration or when Dellal, with her shaved head and tattoos, became the face of Chanel — but in the digital age, the nature of fashion marketing changed and these influencers’ careers began to grow. “There was still that old-school thinking — pre-Internet thinking,” says Sarah Leon, the creative director of talent at Next. “It was hard for people to understand [Chung]. She wasn’t an actress or a model, but she is really beautiful, has incredible style, writes for Vogue and is super creative. Why does she have to fit a particular pigeonhole or role? What she has is not a tangible thing.”

Faith Kates, the founder of Next Models, calls Chung the "Christy Turlington" of this generation of "It" girls, meaning that no one else quite has her unique appeal. "To me, Alexa Chung is the girl everyone wants to be. She looks like girl next door, she has a personality unlike anything you’ve ever seen before. The aura of her is that she’s so smart, she’s way ahead of the curve."

These “It” girls are scouted in a similar way to how models are: Next’s agents know who is creating buzz in each of their territories — from New York to Los Angeles to London and Paris — and are often tipped off by artists’ managers, live agents, word of mouth and, perhaps most importantly, social media. Many influential personalities today are discovered via Facebook and Instagram. They are the ones are singlehandedly starting trends, and they attract attention for simply being themselves. Brands are searching for authentic voices to partner with — ones with fans who trust them and the products they endorse — and each contract or collaboration is tailored to each girl’s particular interests and talents.

More frequently, companies are employing a mixture of both "It" girls and models, building out budgets for both in marketing, and the activities the brands are doing are changing every day. If a girl is creative in one way, brands and agents help her find ways to apply it in different mediums, which is something that is now celebrated. This is how Langley Fox Hemingway, a talented artist who moonlights as a model, scored Everlane's first-ever collaboration, and how Suki Waterhouse ended up designing shoes for Superga. These women were not hired only for their pretty faces. There is something else going on that drew the brands in — they have personality and creative value.

Musicians replacing models and actors in ad campaigns is becoming more frequent as well, and Next also has an extensive musical roster that includes the likes of Lana del Rey, Rita Ora (whom the agency has worked with since she was 15), twin DJ/producers NERVO and Say Lou Lou. In certain cases, a girl can become "fashion famous" before she has reached any major career milestones: Before Del Rey had a number one album, she had a lucrative modeling contract with H&M and was in talks with Emma Hill at Mulberry to design a handbag. 

Something that’s important to note is that not everyone has fashion currency, and while many rising stars in the worlds of music, fashion and art are equally beautiful and talented, that doesn’t mean that they have inspiring style that will want emulate. “Now, it’s not just about celebrity, its about a person’s ability to sell clothes,” Leon explains. “The Average Joe on the street might not know them, but whether or not you want to dress like them is a completely different measure … a totally different thing than who we want to listen to or watch on TV. Style influence quotient is the most important factor.” In addition, models are getting in on the action, with both big-name girls — Karlie Kloss and Cara Delevingne — as well as more niche models like Ali Michael and Hanne Gaby Odiele, building up their social media presence and getting noticed off the runways for their street style.

Alice Dellal for Chanel.

Alice Dellal for Chanel.

But is it a risk for a big-name brand to sign a relatively unknown girl who most shoppers wouldn’t recognize? "It’s a much bigger risk to sign someone super famous with no style," Leon says. In addition, brands enjoy thinking that they've discovered something or someone new, and signing a contract or releasing a collaboration with an influencer helps them show her off to everyone. “It keeps brands cool and fresh, and it makes sense for them to sign these girls to help them seem young and stay current,” Moseley adds. “It’s not a risk, it’s a well thought-out strategic plan.”

Next started its board of influencers a few years ago without knowing whether or not they would end up having a platform, but it's proven to be one of its most popular divisions. By developing individuals as more than just a face — as someone who brings something more to the table, and who is not shy about being herself — has helped to shift the paradigm in the world of fashion marketing. Sure, you might not be able to succinctly define what it is that they "do" in terms of a job, or they might have famous parents, but they have proven to move the needle when it comes to sales and influence over consumers. What they "do" can just be a bonus.

Top photo: Longchamp