Ever noticed the redhead model on Shopbop? The online retailers that help us all procrastinate away our horrible desk jobs use the same models over and over. Because retailers know we notice them. And because they sell.
Elena Greenwell, who's counted Shopbop as a client for six years, says she's actually been recognized in public. And I'd be lying if I said I've never clicked on an unpromising-looking Gilt sale because I caught a glimpse of that cool brunette on the promo page. (Or, occasionally, because I've recognized a friend.)
The companies that produce print catalogs have always attempted to track, in as much detail as possible, which models are most successful at generating sales. But the Internet makes that a lot easier. Hence why the same faces crop up again and again on many sites. Models like to get, and retain, catalog retailers as clients because they pay well (although a lot of web sites, including Gilt, have so far gotten by paying dramatically less than their paper counterparts) and there's always work. Shooting a catalog is repetitive work that sometimes requires generating hundreds of usable images a day. All that can be quite tedious if you happen to be stuck doing it with the wrong people, and downright maddening if anyone on set isn't working as efficiently as they could be. Brands want pleasant, reliable models who move units, and models want not-mean clients who pay on time. It's not rocket science.
Contrary to what the constraints of the trend piece format requires the Times to claim, modeling for web retailers is not some crazy, new thing — really it's nothing more than a natural outgrowth of modeling for the old, dead-tree catalog industry. "Online apparel retailers want women who look good in motion since 360-degree shots of merchandise (and often video) are de rigueur," writes reporter Catherine Saint Louis. And the catalog models of yore didn't have to look good from all angles? But what is new is that now that the act of acquiring a new scarf or bag is phenomenologically indistinct from clicking Send on an email or Like on Facebook, now that people can shop from home, from a phone, or from work, there lurks online vastly more money to be made for retailers, and thus, more work for models.
If there's one myth about catalog modeling I wish could be sent to the big J.C. Penney in the sky, however, it's this one:
The professional online model is skinny, sure — but size 4s, not zeros like many on the runway.
I don't know where this zest for compartmentalizing the modeling industry into a neat little commercial/editorial dichotomy, replete with distinct populations of practitioners, came from — Tyra? — but I do know that most catalog models are also runway models, and vice-versa. Runway girls do magazine editorials and they do "looks" (essentially fit modeling) with designers, sure, but they also do showroom modeling and shoot catalogs, both online and print. (How the hell else would they ever make any money?) And if a girl, after a few years in the industry, transitions into doing more catalog work, it's usually because she has a solid background of runway and editorial behind her. The modeling industry simply is not big enough, and there is not enough money in it, for "catalog models" (let alone "online catalog models") to have developed into some special breed apart. They are the same women, with the same bodies, as in any magazine editorial or ad or show — just wearing jeans and a sweater rather than in foot-high hair and sharpie eyeliner.