“Lara is an overnight success who has been around for ten years. There’s no overnight success; it just appears that way”

He is the manager, counsellor, career builder and CEO to some of the most beautiful faces on the planet; widely credited, together with Chuck Bennett, for having built IMG Models into the powerhouse it is today. From his view at the summit of the world of modelling, Ivan Bart reflects on what it takes to be both a supermodel and a super agent — good looks are only party of the story.

Written by Jens Grede

Portrait by Todd Cole

Can you tell me about how you started?

I studied psychology in upstate New York, at a state university, not a big-name college, and I was planning to go to grad school because I genuinely thought I was going to pursue a career in psychology. Of course, I can’t say I’m an expert, but I think studying psychology has really helped in this business as you always have to analyse people, their motivations and desires, which is especially significant when you’re dealing with young and developing women. I was into fashion but it was my own kind of fashion; I wasn’t following trends or anything. When I had more hair, I played around with it. I had it shaved, spiky, white blonde, and I even had it down to my waist — it was very long and I was proud of it. Once I finished university, I decided to go to Europe. I grew up in a modest working-class home in Brooklyn, so a childhood vacation to Europe hadn’t been feasible. I lived in Europe for almost a year, travelling between countries and loving the lifestyle. I was deciding what I should do next, dreading returning home. I would have done anything, I’d have picked grapes in Greece, to stay. Eventually, I came back to New York and started working part-time as a PR for a successful analyst. At the same time, I was applying for graduate programmes. I was recommended to a PR in an advertising firm and I needed a full-time job, so I thought I’d do that for a while and then go to grad school.

Did you have any idea at the time what you were getting yourself into?

No, it just sounded fun and I saw it as a job, not a career. It was 1986 and there was this thriftshop in New York, which had been running the same dated commercial since 1968. I’ve always been fearless, so I just picked up the phone, called the company and said, ‘Your advertising is just terrible.’ And, the guy on the other end was like, ‘Who are you? Why are you calling me?’ I was the kind of person that, well, I really wanted the account, I wanted to transform it. I was working at this very small advertising PR firm — it wasn’t exactly Madison Avenue, and when I brought in the account they were blown away. There was a little modelling agency attached to the company which seemed more interesting — all the pretty people and everything going on — and without knowing what I was getting myself into, I said: ‘I want to work in there.’

Did your social circle involve fashion?

I didn’t have a circle of fashion friends, my friends weren’t the editors of this or that; we were just New Yorkers and I was a New York kid. If you talk to anyone in the business that grew up here, like Marc Jacobs, we just all ended up finding our way into this inner circle. We were just a group of young people, everyone had different careers, different friends. We were on the fringes, we were in the clubs, we were everywhere. I don’t think the business was defined in the way it is today, either; it’s much, much smaller now.

Do you remember your first day in the agency? Were you like, ‘What the hell do I do?’

Well, I watched and learned from the people with experience, and I began to understand how a modelling agency worked, who the important photographers were — even though we didn’t quite have the talent to sell them. It was a wonderful opportunity but I realised that I wasn’t going to grow at this little place, so I ended up going to another firm. If you’re going to ask me how I ended up at Ford, it wasn’t an overnight success story, because I popped around almost annually from one agency to another.

So Ford was just an opportunity that came about?

I’ve been at a total of seven modelling agencies including Ford. Ford was pivotal but actually I learnt the most and really established my career at a company called ICE, which was this cool, hipster, anti-fashion modelling agency. This was right before the supermodels hit, Stephanie Seymour was coming up and Kim Alexis was one of the girls of the moment. All our models had hooked noses and interesting features. One of our biggest clients was Anna Duong, who is an artist now, and Dovanna — she sells real estate. Jeni Rose was my mentor; she taught me about what kinds of models are out there, what to look for and what’s interesting. There was a watershed moment, when she sold the company and things were changing: I could either go to work at Women or Ford. Somebody smart outside of the industry told me, ‘you can either continue with the hipsters at a boutique agency or seize the opportunity to go work for a powerhouse and really start to understand the business.’ It was probably the best advice I’ve ever been given, because the experience of working for a legend like Eileen Ford and the chance to really understand the history of modelling was invaluable. At the time, their biggest clients were Christie Brinkley, Jerry Hall
and Lauren Hutton. I was part of a new generation at Ford. The business was changing — it was a youthful movement and I felt privileged to be a part of those developments. Looking after those up-and-coming models like Bridget Hall and Shalom Harlow helped me to run IMG Models now, to realise that this business is always about the next generation.

Model agents today are so keen on finding new models and the scouting network has become so sophisticated with technology and travel. Do you think that could ever become detrimental to the careers of models?

It is our responsibility as managers to understand who has the biggest potential. There’s a lot of beautiful women out there and it’s up to us to help the customer say, ‘This is the one.’ It comes down to personality, and something I always look for is the X factor — that buzz word which sets a girl apart from others.

But do you think the competition between agents to discover the next big thing and to have the hottest girl of the season is destructive? Is the turnover happening too quickly?

I don’t know what my competitors are selling but you need to guide people to the right model, and maybe the competition isn’t guiding the right models to the right customers. There’s a lot of turnover and everyone’s asking: ‘Where are all of the supermodels?’ I’ll tell you, the new generation of supermodels are always the models with personality, always the models you want to work with again.

In every industry, you always have this group of people who came up together within that industry, people who facilitated each other’s careers. Do you have any people like that, people you are still in contact with today?

I have a lot of long-term clients that I still handle personally and many I still keep in touch with. At Ford, I saw the importance of bringing a new generation into the establishment, but I also understood the relationship between models and managers. I managed my clients properly and I gave them the best advice possible so that they could become stars. I realised that I was in a mentoring position; to be a true manager is to be there for your clients, because a lot of the time they’re so young. There are a lot of women I’m still in contact with — they might still not be in the business but we’re friendly, they still call me and they still ask me for advice. Then, I have clients like Carolyn Murphy, who’s been at IMG for almost as long as I have; she came shortly after I joined. Carolyn had seen how I managed my girls, backstage with a clipboard strategising in the midst of all the chaos, caught up in the hoo-ha of it all. At IMG, it was actually very important for me to build a team of people that would be backstage at the shows to help the girls through the chaos of fashion week, so they didn’t feel lost. So, Carolyn was attracted to the way I worked and has been a long-standing client. I’ve been through so much with her, as a young woman and now as a mother; it’s a different time in her career — an exciting time.

Let’s talk about IMG. When you arrived, was the modelling division considered a small enterprise, a minor player? At that point, what was your role?

It was a big company and they had the model division. Chuck Bennett had become vice president; he came from the sports side. He has been a great mentor because he never was caught up in the fashion drama. He’s a business guy, straight business, and that was very refreshing when you’re in an industry that is so emotional, with so many ups and downs. So, Chuck was this even-keel guy with a real vision about what we should be doing. He also had an appreciation of my vision, which was high fashion. I had already worked for nearly a decade to be close to high fashion, to work with the professionals. Chuck wanted to grow a business, so he was looking at models I might not have originally been interested in precisely because I was focused on high fashion. He had already signed two game-changing models for IMG: Niki Taylor and Tyra Banks. IMG had been a really commercial agency — I think it’s fair to say that we’re commercial now — but up until that point there had been a lot of women doing catalogue work as opposed to high fashion. Once he signed Niki and Tyra, things changed. I credit Chuck for the foundation of IMG Models and for giving me the freedom to be me and to allow me to use my expertise — to sit back and let me do what I needed to do. The first thing I did was scour every book, to go through them all. I was thinking, ‘There’s got to be someone here.’ We found this little English girl, Jodie Kidd, and got behind her. Jodie was important for IMG because at the time people accused of us of signing models like Niki and Tyra, but not developing any. So I thought it was really important that we developed Jodie. And, the next model that our Paris office — oh, back up… I said to Chuck, ‘We have to open an office in Paris — we can’t run a high-fashion modelling agency if we don’t have an office in Paris.’ I made him open one straight away. Guinevere came out of the Paris office: she’s still here and still relevant.

In terms of attracting talent, IMG is obviously a number-one brand. How has that reputation helped you? IMG Models has a certain clean-cut, blue-chip reputation. It has really helped clean up the industry and set a benchmark.

I don’t think it helped at first, but that’s what attracted me to IMG. If I’d been at any other competitor and we’d suddenly signed Tyra Banks, knowing Tyra’s drive and ambition, I don’t know that we’d have been able to service all of that with just a book. That’s the reason I came to IMG, because they had this infrastructure. I could do my job and reach a certain level with my models, but then together with the infrastructure at IMG we just have all of these resources that other agencies don’t have; and when you have big models, there’s a lot of paperwork and you need lawyers. So we were able to create bigger models and manage them correctly. And that’s all we did. A lot of our competitors were huffing and puffing to keep up, but we were doing it all within this fantastic infrastructure, working within the company.

A lot of other agencies have founders but IMG Models didn’t, so I suppose you came more from a company approach as well as being management orientated…

I understood how to find a model, to find her style and promote her to the right people, but I wanted to learn more about the next step —what could we do next? It’s funny working at a company like IMG: just like how if you play tennis against a stronger opponent you improve, I got to play with a better group of people and it allowed for my growth.

Given the current obsession with celebrity, does IMG’s long-standing expertise with stars from other fields benefit how it deals with models? Is model management becoming more like those other fields?

Absolutely. It’s interesting, because when we scouted young women before they just couldn’t wait to do a Vogue shoot, but now they want to do a lingerie campaign, they want to write a book and have a TV show. Now you’re looking at someone like Miranda Kerr, she’s the modern model — she already has a successful skincare line in Australia. So today, they also have to have their own vision. Everybody wants to do something, but it takes a lot of commitment and drive. Heidi Klum works very, very hard. I don’t even know how she does it. We do the best we can within our own company to maximise all of these potentials, to connect the dots, and I think we have those capabilities.

Are you not scared that you build talent up, get them to a certain point and then lose them to Hollywood?

It’s inevitable with any talent that becomes more successful. United Talent and William Morris Endeavor have to worry about the same thing when they build a star, because then they become so appealing to everyone else. I think I can really see a young woman and where she could be. Miranda’s story is great because she walked into our office about four years ago and I just couldn’t understand why the industry wasn’t embracing her; I thought she had the most interesting personality.

She didn’t have the high-fashion credentials at that point.

Yes, and you couldn’t get that easily. She’s had a fascinating career. Someone like Gisele Bündchen, who has worked extremely hard in fashion and ended up at a mass-market brand like Victoria Secret, has been able to walk a tightrope between mass-market and luxury fashion. Until Miranda, I had never really seen it the other way: where somebody was a star in a mass-market brand and as a result was embraced by fashion. But again, that’s not without work, strategy and planning.

A lot of the barriers in fashion don’t exist any more — we accept people performing on various levels.

Yes, but not everybody can pull it off. And I’ll tell you why: because they have to have real talent. The Olsen twins are obviously very talented but if they made terrible clothes, they wouldn’t be celebrated. I do these motivational speeches for the models, because of course when you’re rejected a lot, how do you keep yourself going? I tell them to be true to themselves because true talent will rise above all of this. But, anyway, going back to Miranda Kerr, it really came about through the strategy and planning of both her and her manager at IMG. It’s a ‘we’, it’s not me at all and that’s success. Just like how Chuck Bennett sat back and allowed me to do my thing, I let other people do their thing. It’s my role to let them, to help and to nurture them.

How much day-to-day contact do you have? Do you still have to keep that direct contact with the talent?

I’m everywhere. I want to know every girl that walks through the door, every new 16 year old coming in. For Fashion Week, we do a health symposium, help the girls find their way around, to loosen up and not be scared. I sit in and meet all of them, try to get to know them and familiarise myself. I’m with all of the managers every day, going through any pitfalls that may occur. Before I got here, I called one of the designers and asked: ‘What’s your vibe this season? What’s the vision and how can we help you? I can guide you to the right people.’ So I’m at every level and it’s amazing. That’s the exciting thing about my job right now, because I can be sitting in a corporate meeting with all these executives, strategising about the overall growth of the company and then I can return to my world in fashion; so I could be at a Chanel dinner, or on Wall Street. I also still sign  and manage quite a few models.

Due to the internet and paparazzi, it’s become increasingly hard to protect privacy, and because of fashion blogs and the wider media interest in fashion, models are now being treated like celebrities. Does that pose a new challenge, protecting the privacy of clients with regards to the press, or do you think it’s always been that way? Is media management becoming part of what you do?

It’s a difficult world to navigate, how to really reach the public and consumers the right way. You’re talking about the relationship between the media and the model and how that’s changed?

Yeah, supermodels were built into household names, but today you have to seek fame to accelerate someone’s career and also manage it.

Certain models do actually have their own publicists, which is something we endorse once you reach  a certain point in your career. There are many other channels outside fashion, and though we do a lot of events, red-carpet premieres and press, some of our talent will seek out their publicist to help navigate what’s going on outside of fashion. So they’re not going to every red carpet event.

Alexa Chung and Daisy Lowe, for example, are different kinds of models. To a certain extent, their fame, press personalities, style and the parties they go to have created their modelling careers, not the other way round.

I see what you’re saying, creating a model from a media persona. We’ve had a lot of people like that; media celebrities seek us out to manage their fame, but I don’t think that it’s ever been our business to create them ourselves. Our core business is models, really, and I don’t want us to lose sight of that. I’m not sure where we’re headed with actually creating media sensations versus a model who is going to walk down a runway, build a strong career and then from there maybe go on to other opportunities.

The latter creates more longevity, right?

It’s hard to sustain a lot of careers built on overnight success. Just on a side note, I’ve been intrigued by Lancôme’s decision to sign a make-up artist they discovered on YouTube. In the US, there’s a reality show called The Real Housewives of New Jersey. There was this girl in it, a daughter, who I just felt was really beautiful. After I watched the second episode, I still felt the same way, so I called the network, we brought her in and signed her. Now everyone in America is obsessed with that show, but it made sense for our business because if I had seen that girl walking down the street, I would have said: ‘You’re a model, would you like to model? Here’s my card.’ I mean, she was really a beautiful girl and I’ve learned a lot from working with her about the difficulty of really sticking to the core when you have media surrounding you. She’s still developing, and I want to experiment and see if we can really make this happen under a media spotlight. It’s not easy because the consumer just wants to eat up these people, spit them out and move on to something else.

About five years ago, there seemed to be a trend for fairly anonymous models, which then gave way to models with more personality, and now we have celebrities or model celebrities who are recognisable to those with no interest in fashion. Do you think that this is a permanent shift in the status of models or do you see the pendulum moving back to anonymous models in years to come?

I always believe in personality. Lara Stone is an overnight success who has been around for 10 years. And so is Miranda Kerr. There’s no overnight success; it just appears that way. Carolyn Murphy went to Paris and to school three times before it happened for her. After the supermodel, there was a hunger and desire for designers to just design clothes and let them speak for themselves, so they were looking for new faces. These girls weren’t developed yet, they were sent down the runway literally just after getting off a plane from Eastern Europe. I’m in the business of management and development. I know that it takes several years to understand the business and to know yourself and what you want. Those girls weren’t being considered and designers didn’t want to do personality. I feel like what was going on was that the girls were just so young, when in fact the trend in the industry is experience. The reason why there are
models with personality now is that the industry realised they needed experience, the experience of Miranda Kerr and Lara Stone — who really understand how to wear clothes, how to sell clothes, how to make you feel good when they walk into a room. So you say, ‘Uh, I would like to work with her again.’

During your time in the industry, the longevity of models appears to have increased. As you said, at the beginning of your career you managed people who are still around today. In the wake of supermodels making a comeback, has fashion become less ageist? Or, has the retoucher played an important part in extending a model’s currency?

As a society, we are actually healthier now: we have more information and a better understanding of health and exercise. So, all of us are ageing better. There are 50-year-olds who look 35. I’m not sure about retouching, but a lot of women take very good care of themselves, exercise and really understand what they’re doing to their bodies — they’re not out dancing on tables until all hours of the night. So there are opportunities for women out there who are much older. I ran into a model last night who I hadn’t seen for ages and she looked breathtaking. Go to the Boom Boom Room and you’ll see there’s a lot of 35-year-old models out there who are painfully beautiful. I think the industry wants to support older women, and the consumer doesn’t just want to see a 16 year old advertising various products. Let’s not forget Lauren Hutton, who just keeps rocking. I mean, did you see her Love cover? She has a thing about no retouching. She thinks it’s important that women see lines on her face, and she actually gets very upset if anybody even tries to retouch her because she feels like it’s not real. She says women want to see age, that they expect it; they know how old she is and she’s not hiding from it.

Do you find there is a growing media interest in you as a personality? Is it difficult to keep out of the spotlight?

I should stay out of the spotlight, and I say that seriously because my role is really to manage people. I’m not sure I would want to be managed by someone who was a bigger star than me. We get a lot of phone calls and we’re very selective about anything we do in the media, but I am proud of the people that work at IMG models — there’s a lot of stars, they’re great people. If there’s an opportunity here and there for sound bites that’s fine, but we’re not seeking out the camera all of the time.

Does that go with the ethos of IMG being a serious company?

I prefer a professional team of people and working that way. Our heart and soul is to manage talent and focus on that. When the chapter is closed and all is said and done, I’d like to be able to say what we were able to do was help people.