In our long-running series, "How I'm Making It," we talk to people making a living in the fashion industry about how they broke in and found success.
Even if you don't know Michele Ouellet by name, you almost certainly know her face. In the last few years, Ouellet has carved out a niche for herself in the wide and often tumultuous world of modeling as one of J.Crew and, more prominently, Madewell's go-to faces for catalog and e-commerce shoots. (In the first week of December, those visiting Madewell's site would find her dead center on the homepage, looking lightly amused at the three plaid scarves wrapped around her neck.) Beyond her commercial visibility, Ouellet also has the particular distinction of operating a wine brand specializing in rosé with her mother — a job that only helped with booking modeling gigs thanks to the press it attracted when the two released their first vintage. As Ouellet points out, journalists find the mother-daughter business to be a pretty cute story. I certainly did.
I caught up with Ouellet to walk through her career thus far, from booking her own shoots when she went agency-free for a time (she's now with Elite) to building steady relationships with big-name brands.
When and how did you get scouted? What sort of work were you doing in your first few years as a model?
I first got scouted when I was 15 and in high school. I went to Paris a few times, and I came to New York and L.A. on my breaks. My first big shoot was for Pop, and that was really a fun and wild experience for somebody new. I think I was probably 17 at that point, and they bleached my hair white-blonde and bleached my eyebrows. I ended up having to go back to school the next day with my hair like that.
What sort of considerations were in your mind when you wrapped high school and had to decide whether to go to college or pursue a modeling career?
I had made my mind up already. I didn’t feel really connected with the process of applying to colleges. I applied and got into schools — I played volleyball growing up and had scholarships for that — but it didn’t seem to resonate with me at the time. I was more excited about pursuing my career in fashion, so I went for it.
So what sort of jobs and runway work were you doing when you decided to go for it full-time?
When I started [the path] was very much: You’re 15 or 16, you do the runways and hopefully get an exclusive. When those opportunities came to me in high school I was more into going to my volleyball games. I did turn down some choice bookings, and looking back I’m like, 'Maybe I should have taken those.' [Laughing]
When I first moved to New York at 18, when I'd finished high school, things were going well. Then in 2008, it was kind of heavy recession time. There wasn’t all that much work going around in general, and I wanted to do something in addition to modeling. My parents also missed me a lot. So my mom had a genius idea that we start a wine brand, seeing as I’m from Napa Valley and my entire childhood was deeply immersed in food and wine. My family’s been in those businesses my entire life. So we came up with Lorenza, our [rosé] label. I came back to Napa and was still doing jobs here and there, going to Europe. When the wine came out we ended up getting a lot of press from it, seeing as I’m a model and I did it with my mom. It's a cute little piece.
I ended up getting contacted by different [fashion] companies. I didn’t even have an agency in New York at that point — I was booking myself. I’d worked with Free People previously and they wrote me on Facebook. So I started getting the ball rolling and it kept rolling and rolling over last few years. I moved back to New York in 2011.
What was that experience like, learning to negotiate your own pay and scheduling?
They offered a good price, and I didn’t have to pay agency commission so that was extra cool. But it’s another testament to how with being a model, you really are a business yourself. Also, you get the perspective of what your booker goes through beyond the madness that is scheduling, like understanding what the client is looking for and how they can fulfill the need. They might say, 'We need a blonde girl,' so you’re not going to work for that. But they need a girl with light brown hair and blue eyes? You got the job.
So you signed back on with a new agency in 2011, when you moved back to New York?
Yeah. Work started going really well at that point, so they were like you need, 'You need to move back to New York.'
You're probably best known for your work with brands like Madewell and J.Crew. How did you form those brand relationships, and how often do you wind up shooting for them?
I started out doing [Madewell's] e-comm shoots, and that just got me in the door I guess, and then I built up and up from there.
As far as how often I work for them... it goes up and down. It could be 10 days a month or two days a month. You never know. I’m just happy to be in the mix of the girls they work with.
I'd imagine that you could just roll onto set and be like, "Okay, guys, what do we want today?" That it would just be very fluid and easy at this point.
Totally. It’s nice that what they want is quite close — if not exactly — as I am.
Given that you do have another job, how much do you work on Lorenza, your wine label, at this point? Are there particular roles that you and your mom each fill?
My mom and I are partners in our brand, Lorenza, which is my middle name. We're very close, so we’re constantly on the phone. I take care of a lot of things in New York, like events. A lot of the times she'll fly out and we’ll be together for these — we'll do a dinner or a party at a store. A really fun thing about having a wine brand is that you can collaborate with different people all the time. You can support friends or artists or people that I don’t think I would have been able to connect with so closely if I didn’t have the wine business.
So I look after New York, and then also we do sales trips to our markets in the U.S. together. I go on sales calls here and visit retailers and restaurants.
Modeling is such an unpredictable job — some girls have quite short careers, and some go for decades and decades — but if you had to project out five or 10 years, what would you want to be doing, between the fashion and wine businesses?
I think that the business is much more open to girls of all ages now, so models start when they’re 30 and absolutely kill it. There's no method to this. I really enjoy my work as a model and especially working with the amazing people that I do. It’s a pleasure to go to work. So unless I stop feeling that way, I feel like I can go for a few more years at least.
And then with the wine business... I’m thinking world domination. [Laughs]
You mentioned that starting a wine label actually helped get you back on the map with modeling, since it got you a lot of good press. In what other ways have you seen the two jobs overlap?
I think that the modeling business now is really supportive of girls with a voice or an interest or a cause or a project, and I kind of fall into that category. It’s been nice to be able to get involved, like I said, on a deeper level than just working with a brand [as a model]. If they’re having an event, I can provide the wine and we can work together like that.
The industry definitely appreciates models with a personality right now, and having a social media presence is a huge part of that today. You've been working since before Instagram and Twitter got really big. What did that transition toward models having to create online voices for themselves look like?
It's really interesting because I started a blog in, I think, 2007, which was called Kissser, which is my [social media] handle. I started that as a kind of visual diary and life diary. I also wasn’t feeling that I was getting the kind of support and attention that I wanted from my agencies, so I thought, 'I can kind of do this myself.' It just puts you into a different category where the client or the magazine or whoever is a little bit more interested in you beyond your face.
I'm in the process of revamping it now, actually, and reviving that site...It’s nice to have a platform outside of Instagram.
Right, which everyone is on, so it's kind of a baseline thing. Although I have to say, as a reporter, I love it. It's so easy to learn about brands or people in the industry.
That’s such a positive view of it. [Laughs] It can also be intense, and it can breed jealousy and puts a focus on things that aren’t important — but it can be a great tool to bring attention to a great cause or promoting whatever product it is that a brand wants to promote. So I just like to make sure mine is very positive and always with the good vibes.