“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.