Why One Model Makes It Big When Others Don't

What makes a successful model? By what process is it decided that Coco Rocha will walk in 55 shows and grace the cover of Vogue Italia, while so many peers languish in models' apartments arguing about who used whose shampoo?

The industry makes this question more confusing by defining "models" as an almost totally homogenous group. They are alike size-wise: fashion models should all be 5'8"-5'11", and measure no more than 34"-24"-34". They are alike race-wise, too: the majority of successful ones are white. And they are alike age-wise: most begin their careers in their mid-teens and work through their mid-twenties. Among this group of tall, thin, teenagers, how is it that the industry determines to anoint one to the level of a supermodel, and not another?

It's a question I often pondered when I was modeling. I suppose I realized logically my career would never amount to anything the day Steven Meisel's assistant looked me up and down, pursed her lips, and said, "You don't have the best book, do you?" But the industry occasionally rewards unreasonably high expectations. There are women like Lara Stone, who worked underwhelmingly in what fashion regards as second-tier markets like Sydney for more than five years before a change of representation pushed her in front of the right casting directors. Then Riccardo Tisci picked her to open the Givenchy haute couture show, and the rest is pretty much history.

Stone's is not a common career trajectory, but it's also not uncommon. I remember working a job during one of my Sydney tours of duty that involved being painted head-to-toe to resemble a skeleton in order to take a picture that would be used for an in-store display. At the job, I remember talking to a girl named Anastasia Kuznetsova; she was about my age and from St. Petersburg. We commiserated about our unstable housing situations and played model geography. She was leaving the next day for Paris, and I haven't seen her in person since.

Where I have seen her is on Rodarte's catwalk, in the Victoria's Secret show, walking for Chanel haute couture, in campaigns for BCBG and Topshop campaign, and in V magazine (repeatedly!). About a year after we did that very odd job, she crossed over and became the kind of model no client would ever book to cover in body paint. I have to admit, I got a vicarious kind of thrill from watching the process unfold for her.

Of course, there are also girls who go the other way. The industry is full of models who started off strong but whose careers somehow stalled: the spring/summer two-thousand-whatever Prada exclusive who decided to finish high school and years later ended up working New Zealand Fashion Week with the likes of me; the onetime Lagerfeld favorite lining up for commercial castings in L.A. There are plenty of models who, no matter how many great gigs they book, never seem to be let into the winners' circle. I have another friend who's walked for designers including Marc Jacobs, Vivienne Westwood, and Armani. She's been in campaigns for major brands. She even walked in Karl Lagerfeld's Fendi show on the Great Wall of China, and she's been on the covers of the magazines I couldn't even book editorials in when I was working. But she is probably never going to be counted among the ranks of models who walk in those kinds of shows and book those kinds of campaigns every season; she's still considered, by those who do the considering, in some way peripheral. This is why, even though our careers could not have been more different in caliber, she and I have both experienced the unique disappointment of being told by an agency that we are surplus to requirements. It could drive one mad, to think about it, but is there any reason why one girl works and another girl doesn't? Is there, at least, some kind of observable methodology at play?

Sociologist Ashley Mears, a professor at Boston University and a onetime model, looks at the problem from the standpoint of economics. Taking as an example Coco Rocha — the Canadian model who, incidentally, worked in a few secondary markets in the two years before her career switched over into hyperdrive — Mears writes, "The secrets to Coco's success, and the dozens of girls that have come before and will surely come after her, have much less to do with Coco the person (or the body) than with the social context of an unstable market." You see, it's partly because fashion models are so objectively interchangeable in size, age, and height that their value in the fashion marketplace becomes subjective.

Russell Marsh is perhaps fashion's most influential casting director; he casts shows like Prada, Miu Miu, Dries Van Noten, Max Azria, Hervé Leger, among others. (My friend who was in the Great Wall show once explained her position in the industry as, "You know, Russell Marsh knows who I am, but it's not like he's going to cast me unless something really strange happens.") Mears interviewed him:

When I put the question to him — why this model as opposed to that one? — he threw his hands up in the air, and excitedly pointed around his studio, "Why did I decide to buy this chair and sofa? You know, for me, it ticks the box. You know, it's an internal thing!"

Like dozes of fashion producers I spoke with, Russell doesn't really know what it is about a kid like Coco Rocha that excites him. He "just knows" if a model is right for him, and further, he "knows it when he sees it." This instantaneous knowledge is what sociologist Patrik Aspers calls "contextual knowledge" that creative producers tap into as they broker otherwise "fuzzy" values like beauty and edginess. It's also what sociologist Michel Abolafia has called "gut feeling" in his study of Wall Street traders — on the trading floor, brokers have a kind of 6th sense for what's hot and cold.

In an unstable marketplace where the relative value of a cultural product is, by definition, subjective, people tend to cluster around the positions of established market leaders. (Like Steven Meisel. Or Russell Marsh.) And they behave as they think others will behave — just as, Mears writes, investors react to each other as well as to what they perceive to be likely movements in the market. In doing so, "they exacerbate systemic risk. Essentially, valuing financial goods is a matter of trying to be in fashion, which is a gamble."

So that's one reason fashion's so dysfunctional. Perhaps we should go ahead and blame this one on capitalism? Awesome.

How Supermodels Are Like Toxic Assets [3 Quarks Daily]