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.
Maja Chiesi, senior vice president and head of the women's board at powerhouse agency IMG, has been a part of the team that propelled the careers of supermodels like Karlie Kloss, Alek Wek, Gemma Ward, Miranda Kerr, Taylor Hill, Erin Wasson and Lara Stone — just to name a casual few. So, what first got Chiesi interested in the world of fashion?
"Nothing," she deadpans in a conference room nestled to the side of IMG's massive open office.
It's true: The woman who helped turn IMG into the juggernaut it is today never imagined herself working in fashion at all. She studied speech communications at Penn State, and had thought she might work in entertainment. It was a headhunter at a temp agency that steered her towards IMG, where she landed a job at reception. She never left.
Today, Chiesi's day-to-day includes everything from running the actual business of IMG to helping up-and-coming faces craft their #brand. And it turns out that, ultimately, she didn't stray too far from her original career goals. "We're not really in fashion," she says of the IMG-arm of Endeavor. "We like to say we're in talent management that happens to be in fashion, and the talent management part is really the stuff that I'm super interested in."
Luckily, Chiesi had time in her pre-fashion month schedule to chat with us about the benefits of sticking in one place for over 25 years, what she wishes she had studied in school and why personality is everything for models today.
What was it like starting out at IMG?
It was a fun environment. Chuck Bennett, who was president of models, or maybe SVP at the time — him and I got on like a house on fire. I was a good mind reader, anticipatory of what his needs would be; he was walking around with his tax envelope and I was like, "Do you need me to take those to the post office for you?" And he was like, "Oh my God, yes!", because his assistant was out. She quit, and he asked if I wanted to work for him, and I said yes immediately, because it paid, like, two thousand more dollars, but I didn't know how to do anything secretarial, so I had to fudge it. And I did! But I could read his handwriting, which was a very unique skill — nobody could read his handwriting. And I talked sports with him; he handled a lot of sports stars, and I have a very big affection for sports in general.
I was in on all these strategic moves, because we were super close. We were hiring Ivan Bart; we were opening our Paris office; we were revamping London. We had Niki Taylor, and I was just in awe of Niki Taylor. I thought she was so nice. Then Bridget Hall came; I remember all her iconic [Cosmopolitan] covers. It was just a different relationship with these gorgeous people, that I didn't see them like that. I was never in awe of the fashion model. And all of a sudden, you start to look at magazine covers and you're like, "Oh my God." You're just seeing things in a much different way than you ever did before.
Then I sort of zigzagged my way around. I had worked at reception, then I worked with Chuck Bennett and then I went to New Faces, and quickly learned that was not for me; I feel like I was better hands-on with talent than I was with hands-on with parents. [Laughs] There was an opening on the board, so I wedged myself in and sort of took over fashion week for us at the time, and found different ways to do different things. IMG was evolving from this super commercial agency into its first star. It was different because it was such a first for everything in here; we had just all these players, and you were learning so much about all these different figures within fashion, and how to navigate it.
In '97, I traveled to Milan for the first time. That was a whole eye-opening experience. I was like, "Wait a second: She styles Versace, but she's also at Harper's Bazaar, and she's also doing this." All these people whose names you read, they're in these scary positions, and then you meet them and you're all trying to make the best of everything. I think it's just a cool environment where, if you're a people person, it's a great industry.
How did you get to the position you're in today?
A lot of hard work, a lot of determination. A lot of throwing yourself into your job. Luckily, people noticed it. You take on more and more, and you just don't say no. I never said, "No, I won't do that." At the time it was Angela Lindvall and Tyra Banks; I've always had a very good cross section of talent and really great relationships with the people that I admired or wanted to be like. And so, I can't say it's one thing. I think a lot of it's luck. I think a lot of it is that you're in the right place at the right time. I think at the core of it is that I can remember in 25 years, besides both my children being born, maybe I was out of the office for two weeks? I eat, live and breathe this place. But I love it! And I love what I do, and I love the people we work with. At the core of who we are, there's a certain group of people that's like family. I mean, we spend 12 hours a day here.
What have been some of the advantages, or maybe disadvantages, of staying in one place for 25 years?
I don't have the personality to bounce around. I don't think I ever did. I was lucky enough to come into IMG in its infancy, so I didn't know any better; I didn't know that I was walking in and a month later they were going to disband Mannequins, which was their runway division. I was lucky enough so that everything we were doing at the time, we were moving in this trajectory that was so on the rise. I could have gone other places, but I never wanted to.
I think what's unique about IMG is, we're so diverse; we handle all these sports, athletes and endorsements. Who knew that we were going to be in the forefront of all of what's happening today? There's just never a boring day. Never a day you're like, "Ugh, I have nothing to do today."
Obviously, there is no typical day-to-day for you, but what does your role look like?
I manage a certain group of people myself; I oversee others. I manage the board here. It varies on a day-to-day basis, and I'm definitely in more meetings today than I was 10 years ago, but, generally, it's your email load, which is just a never-ending load. It's troubleshooting problems. Everything that happens, it's a human business, and so much can happen minute-to-minute. I'm just managing the room, and hoping for the best.
How have you seen the industry change since you started out?
Oh my God. You know, we used to wait for Vanity Fair to come out, because Vanity Fair had all the first ads in it in September. Now, you open your phone, and you're on Instagram. That's now how I get my news, how I get every piece of information. You can't deny what social media has done for our industry; now there's this unique way where models now have this voice that they never had before.
I think what's unique, or what's different about models is that they live and breathe fashion. You leave your house, you're making a statement; you're walking into the coffee shop, you're making a statement. Whatever you're doing, it's your style and what makes you different — your daily routine, and how you keep yourself in shape. I've always equated them to sports stars, because when the shows happen, it's like you're in pre-season training. You've got to be at your best. What are your benchmarks for yourself, and how do you get to the next place? And now you can see it all, now you could really see what happens. Not every day do people just wake up like, "Wow, I'm just gorgeous." It's work.
When I started representing Miranda Kerr in 2007, that was an eye-opening experience because that is a woman who knew how to take care of herself, knows her body, knows her routine and took it so seriously. There was a reason why that woman went on to be the biggest supermodel. It's all real. Everything that happens, she makes sure that she's going to turn up to work in the perfect condition.
That's what keeps it interesting, is that you keep representing people that teach you new things. You're like, "Oh, that's how you get that way. I'm going to tell that to other people." You get these lessons that then you can impart on younger models, or models on a comeback. It's all ideas that we're able to use from your experiences to make the next young star better.
How involved are you all at IMG in guiding that?
I think we're intimately involved, every step of the way — some more than others. This is the year where certain girls have different teams of people as they get bigger, and they cross over, and have Hollywood careers, or they have philanthropic activities, or they have different things. But yeah, we're in sync, in step, shaping everything that they're doing. It just depends on how much you get involved, but I think here at IMG, we tend to get very involved.
What traits and characteristics do you look for in your talent?
Personality. Because without personality — which, obviously, everyone has one. But what it takes in 2018 is going to be different than what it was 10 years ago, 15 years ago. You could be nondescript. You could be gorgeous. I don't think you could be just a static image, but it was easier to sort of hide and have more longevity. I think today, you need a voice. You need an opinion. You need to craft your message. I think that you can tell who's going to develop into that, who's going to have fun, who's going to make you laugh. I think having a sense of humor, being able to make fun of yourself. It can be fun; it can be serious; it can be a silly business; it can be all of that, but I think you have to be able to understand and be able to laugh about it a little bit.
What's your favorite part of your job?
When models get great jobs! When somebody gets confirmed in that room, and you've been waiting for it, and the room erupts into clapping. Everyone gets so psyched that they just got Calvin Klein, or, oh my God, they got this contract. It's the best. And that's since day one. I think that's what drives everybody out there. And it's the community of really feeling good about the talent you have, and moving that needle so that you know more things are going to come.
When we get the call of who's confirmed for [Victoria's Secret], I'm like, my heart — still! It's 25 years and I'm still [gasps]! Everybody's quiet. It's me and Mina White, we're on the phone with John Pfeiffer, he's giving confirmations, and we're frantically scribbling. And we're like [gasps]. It's really awesome.
What's something that you wish you had known before starting out?
I don't think I knew what to expect, coming into it. You can never be anticipatory enough. It's all humans, and something's always going to take a turn. It's keeping your empathy; it's keeping everything honed at such a high level and not losing your cool. I think that those are things that you just have to grow up, and you master it as you get older. I love that I started out super-young, so I didn't have that baggage of what I thought fashion would be. It was all new, and cool. And it still is!
Probably, if I knew that this would be the job that I would have had, or my career, I might have taken, like, a business major. [Laughs] I might have done something like that. It's a lot of learning on the job. I didn't know we'd be doing PnLs and all the financial reporting for all of our divisions. So, I might have taken some accounting courses. [Laughs] But, you know, it's all good. I think the care and love that you have for the industry you work in, or for the career you have, or for the people you're with, guides you through it all.
If you weren't interested in fashion when you started, what interests you about fashion now?
Design; I think that what the designers go through to get a collection ready is very interesting. When we took on Curve, and seeing that industry in itself, and straight-size come to grips together; looking at the inequalities that I think that Curve has in the fashion line for the straight-sizes. That's something that I find really interesting, and that we're trying to change. The last two years have been super-eye-opening for women — for everything that we're doing — and it makes me really proud to be part of a company that celebrates women as much as we do. For so long at IMG, it was a lot of men. When WME bought IMG, on our first retreat in Florida, I was like, "There are all these boss women here." That was awesome. I'm super-proud to be able to be a woman in this industry, and at IMG.
What advice would you give somebody looking to follow in your footsteps?
You're going to make mistakes. It's going to happen. Never get down on yourself. It's all about your attitude. It's hard work; it's coming in in a good mood every day. Three or four of my assistants within the year — two of which have left to go onto other careers, and four that are still here — and what I think they all have in common is that we'd look at each other and we can laugh about stuff. Like, "Oh my God, shit just hit the fan." And we're like, "Okay, we're good, we got this."
Things are going to go wrong. You're going to make mistakes, I'm going to make mistakes — I still make mistakes. But how do you handle them? It's really how you handle them and how you work in this group. Working in a group is hard. If you're going to win the game, you're going to have to work together. And someone is going to have to fall on the sword for something. I think the secret sauce here is that we do. We work really well together. If you can bring in a great attitude and laugh and have fun, and when it's all really going south, how are you going to make it go north?
What do you look for in people you're hiring?
David and I, David Cunningham, we do a lot of the interviewing for assistants, for reception, for everybody. We want to meet everybody that's going to be here. What is their attitude? That's a tough room, who have been together a long time. Are you going to fit in and make it better?
I'm so proud to work here. It's such a sense of pride for me, and I hope for everybody else. If you can't share it, then you shouldn't be here. And I always say, that's cool, because this isn't a job for everybody. You may get here and you're like, "You know what? I didn't want to work this long; I don't want to work this hard." And that's cool! Because there's a whole world out there for people. I'd rather know, sooner than later, before I get too invested in you. No harm, no foul.
What is your ultimate goal for yourself?
God, I thought in 1999 that would have been my high point. We had this wall, where we had every campaign — it was Angela Lindvall, and Guinevere Van Seenus, and Carolyn Murphy, and all these people who have all these massive campaigns. David and I looked at each other, with Ivan, and we're like, this is as good as it gets. And I've done that now every year. I don't know that I'll hit a place where it's like, this is when I'm going to retire. My focus is to be a great mom, to have as much dedication to my children as I do to here. And I try to do both, never feeling like I do enough.
It's just to take it as far as we can all take it, and be the best that we can be, and try to create new avenues and new opportunities for youth, for women, for gender diversity, for race diversity. There's enough space open for everybody. If that could be our legacy — and I say "our," because I really don't see it as mine. I think it's IMG Models' legacy. It's never going to be one person. It's about all of us, and a really strong, combined effort to push someone forward.
This interview has been edited and condensed.