For every model stomping the runway at New York Fashion Week, there's a team of agents managing her schedule, advocating for her during castings and deciding whether she should continue on to the subsequent shows in Europe. For modeling agents, fashion month involves a lot of legwork, all in the hope of creating a breakout star.
To find out exactly what work looks like for agents during fashion month, I sat down for a chat with Marissa Surmenkow, the head of scouting and development at Wilhelmina Models, and Jose Covarrubias, Wilhelmina's senior model manager, the day after New York Fashion Week wrapped up — and shortly before they headed off to London and Paris Fashion Week, respectively.
Let's talk about what you guys get up to before fashion month has even started.
JC: We start prepping about a month beforehand. We do imaging for the show package, which is the promo that goes out to all the casting directors, editors, photographers, Models.com, that kind of thing. But the real work is with the new faces.
MS: Our scouting is nonstop. We're constantly looking for new faces. I'm in the field looking for the girls as well as in the office onboarding models when they first come to New York. We're constantly evaluating who we feel is ready to launch, and then we're bringing those girls in to New York two weeks before the shows start to get them all fashion week ready.
So they're not already living in New York?
MS: Some of them are, but the majority of our girls are from all over the world. American girls from the middle of Iowa to girls from Russia. It's not only onboarding them and getting them ready for fashion week but also getting acclimated to New York. For anyone, that's a whole other undertaking — being able to live here and get around, and for some, in a country they've never been in.
JC: Or for the first time on their own. So we provide housing and just chaperone them through their day. Marissa did the first annual new face development fashion week hell week. [Laughs]
MS: We just launched our first annual "XO Wilhelmina Development Week." We had a total of 18 of our up-and-coming new faces in New York for a five-day intensive. We ran them through everything they would experience, living and working in NYC as a model — from health and wellness, beauty days and a style-out day so they know how to dress for castings, to a photo movement and runway movement day, teaching them to walk, teaching them how to move in front of the camera. We evaluated who we felt from that group was ready to move on and stay with us for shows.
What proportion went on to do castings?
MS: I would say from that group, about half of the girls stayed on. This development week ran the first week of August. It gave us enough time, because show castings start as early as, this season, the 25th of August.
For the girls who didn't make it to the runways, what happens to them?
MS: We pride ourselves on being one of the agencies that spends a lot of time and resources on development, because it really is the lifeline of the agency. You have to always have an influx of new faces, and the more time you spend on development and building that foundation — all the skill sets it takes to become a successful model — then we see girls who have longevity. We've started girls at 13, and they're still working with us into their early to mid-20s and have well-established careers. We don't always launch girls for fashion week. We look at other ways to develop them: traveling overseas, working in other markets, building their book up with more testing and editorial.
Walk me through the flow of a girl getting cast for a show.
JC: She might have a callback to meet with the designer and try on some clothes and see how it looks. Then you go for a fitting. They'll try the look on you and see if you match the rest of the models, if you match the aesthetic and the concept. Then the confirmation comes in, hopefully the day before, if not the day of, and then we just organize her day around the shows. Shows are going on, and girls are still going to other castings, other fittings, so it's nonstop. It's like playing Tetris with the girls' schedule.
How many castings are viable to do in a single day?
MS: If the model is very efficient with her time and navigating New York, she can do 10 castings in a day, mixed in with some fittings and callbacks.
JC: There's been times where we've had to have cars for the girls, waiting with drivers that take them from casting to fitting to show. A few seasons ago, we had some girls who were just crazy with their schedules, so we got motorbikes like they do in Europe to get them from show to show. That's a little scary, I think. [Laughs]
MS: Especially for the new faces. But once they've done the full circuit and experienced Europe, then they're seasoned pros and come back to New York like, "Great, motorbike? I'm on it." We try to support the girls, too, so if their chart is really full, we will advise them [on their schedules]. Especially for the new faces, because we don't want them to feel overwhelmed. For show castings and fashion month, they have to treat it like a sport and have the mind of an athlete: be very precise and be able to ask for help where they need it. That's why we're very blessed that we have such a healthy team of 10, plus three or four assistants, that are able to fully support the girls.
And how many shows can a model realistically do in a single day?
JC: I want to say five? Five or six?
How do you advise them on managing their personal and mental health throughout the month?
MS: It's hard. It takes a toll mentally, emotionally, on your physical well-being. You're dealing with the elements — at February shows they're running around in the blizzard. And then in summer, it's 95 degrees plus. We try to really manage their expectations and give them the reality of what this looks like, but until they are immersed in it and out there on castings and running around day-to-day, it's really hard to translate what we can verbally tell them. But that's why for us, we like to be really dialed-in to the models we represent. We know if they need a little more TLC, or if they're really super-efficient.
JC: I think also we don't put the emphasis on the shows as the end-all-be-all. When they come here, I always say, "If it happens it happens, great, but if not, there are other avenues that we can try." The shows are always hit or miss, and if it happens, great.
MS: We kind of look at it like final exams in school. You could be a straight-A student and not test well. But that's not going to determine how successful you're going to be in whatever career you're going into. It's the same thing with fashion week. And a lot of times girls will have to go through multiple show seasons to get traction. They learn how to walk better, they learn how to present themselves better.
JC: And get some extra momentum. We have a girl named Veronika Vilim, and she's been doing this since she was 15. She's been putting in the work, she has been working and traveling and testing and going all over the world, and this last season in Paris she walked as a Saint Laurent exclusive and then here she did a semi-exclusive for Alexander Wang — she did that and Marc Jacobs. And now she's going to London. So it felt really good that, finally, she got her moment. It tastes better for her, because she really deserves it.
I was going to ask you what it means to have a successful show season, but it seems like there's no such thing.
JC: There's no such thing. It all depends on how you measure success. Is it coming to New York and seeing Joan Smalls across the way and then you're starstruck? Is it walking in Marc Jacobs or Alexander Wang or any other top show?
MS: It depends on the direction of the girl's career and what we feel like will help move her forward in one direction. Maybe it's working with a stylist or a particular casting director. We all hope they leave feeling some sense of accomplishment, because just showing up and being part of the casting process is hard enough. Even if they walk 25 shows in New York or they didn't get anything this season, we want them to leave New York feeling that.
JC: So they can come back outside of the shows. [Fashion week] is like a bubble. Throughout the year there are other things to do — you can come in and do editorials, get some catalog money. There's a lot more [than fashion week].
With the girls who are more established, what are your goals for a given show season?
JC: If the girl is a name, we're looking for a certain level [of shows], because she doesn't need to be walking all the shows. It's definitely quality over quantity, for sure. They've put in the work, so they're like, "I don't need to be going to 20 castings a day." I think that they've earned their right to be able to pull back. Some girls can dip out for a couple seasons and then dip right back in.
What are your conversations with models about their social media presences like?
MS: It was part of our "XO, Wilhelmina" training. We have a whole marketing team that was able to assist us with providing the girls information about the dos and don'ts of social media. There are different courtesies and things that they need to be aware of. [Like] confidentiality when they find out they're confirming the show — they can't post anything about it until it actually happens. How to reach a certain audience, when to post, what type of things to post, and how to express themselves creatively and show their personalities.
What are your main pieces of advice for the newer girls?
MS: I think, especially for a new face, the idea of gratitude is really important. Because this is a really unique opportunity, and it takes a village to make this happen. You have to have a level of gratitude, because that assistant that's pinning your clothes could be the client one day. And not using social media to project negativity or frustration.
JC: As a model, you're under a microscope. It's late and you want to complain about the casting director, or designer or clothes. Sometimes I'll see [tweets like] that and be like, "Wow, she's really putting it out there."
Have you ever had to text a model and say, hey can you remove that?
JC: I've never had to do it, thank god. The most I've had to do is say, "Hey, you should maybe think about not putting that out there." Or they get excited and they're backstage and posting things — like, no! You can't post that yet! Because it's not real until the girl walks the runway. Anything could happen. They could slash five looks while you're in lineup and there goes your moment.
Does that ever happen?
JC: All the time. I've seen it happen. I've been backstage at Prada where the girls are in the lineup and they say, "You, you, you, thank you!" and they go home.
Do the same models who walked New York go to London, Milan and Paris?
MS: Not always. Depending on what shows were confirmed and how they did here in New York, that could determine if they go on to do London.
JC: Or just Milan or Paris. And it also depends on their agencies worldwide. We work as a team with other agencies. So we always discuss, "Should we have her come in? How are they going to respond? How's she feeling?" We all decide as a team, and hopefully push her forward.
MS: Models can have one agency per market, per city, so we work as a team. We have conversations and decide based on each agent's expertise in their own market how we feel they should move. And then part of our team travels with the girls to Europe to give them support and take meetings with our partners globally.
I want to ask you about haircuts around fashion week, because sometimes you'll see a girl come back to the shows with a great new look, or get one from a stylist in the middle of shows.
JC: There are certain times where the designer wants a certain look and is inspired by a certain haircut or a certain era and then inspired by the girl. If it's a top stylist like Guido [Palau], who is a god in hair, he can do amazing things with hair and change a career. Or sometimes we think a girl has had a little moment already and we want [a cut] to be fresh, you know?
Do you do typically do haircuts before fashion week?
JC: We don't do haircuts just to do haircuts. There has to be a catalyst or a reason for it. A lot of times girls come in and they have really long hair, and we're like, "Have you thought of layers?" So you teach them about the size of their face and the shape of their face and what would really bring out their eyes and stuff like that. A lot of times, it's not a drastic thing. It could just be layers or bangs or a gloss or a couple highlights.
In what situations would you say no when a girl calls you and says she wants to cut her hair?
JC: If she already has, say, different clients that use her for a certain look or a hair campaign that she's contracted under. There are many variables.
MS: She's also invested in building her portfolio book and perhaps doing editorial and testing with a certain look, so if we're going to make a drastic change, that has to support it.
I mostly do backstage reporting during fashion week, and I always find myself struck by the girls with really definitive haircuts.
JC: But you've also seen the girls where they've given them a haircut, and the hair kind of wears them. It's like, "Oh, she's just playing dress-up." But then there are girls where you're like, "Who cuts your hair?" "Me. With a butter knife." Then you're like, okay, you're frickin' cool. Like Veronika Vilim called me, and she was like, "I cut bangs!" And I was like, "You want to cut bangs?" "No, I did it." It worked for her. I freaked out a little bit, but she just cut herself baby bangs. She can pull it off, because she's a Manhattan girl. She grew up in New York, and she's totally cool, and she rocks it. I was like, "Don't make it habit." [Laughs]