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For models, Fashion Week is one big tryout

Aspiring cover girls have a chance to shine as all eyes are on the runways
/ Source: The Associated Press

Who'll be the next Cindy, Naomi or Kate? Will there ever be another Cindy, Naomi or Kate — all supermodels simply known by their first names? (Crawford, Campbell and Moss, for those with short memories.)

Young catwalkers with dreams of being the next big thing begin an eight-day audition Friday at New York Fashion Week.

The industry is ripe for a sensation because it's been five years — a lifetime in the fashion world — since the last household name: Gisele (Bundchen).

But even if a model breaks away from the tall, leggy pack in New York, she still has to impress in Paris and Milan, Italy. Then she has to score some choice magazine spreads and ad campaigns — something that's become increasingly difficult to do as actresses such as Angelina Jolie, Catherine Zeta-Jones and Teri Hatcher consistently grace the covers of glossy magazines and hawk the fashion and beauty products that used to be models' bread and butter.

In September 2004, Vogue — the fashion industry's bible — put nine familiar-but-not-famous models on its cover and heralded the return of the fashion model.

Unfortunately, says Kate Armenta, the magazine's sittings editor, the theory didn't prove true.

"The tide is really toward the celebrity culture right now. Models have taken on a different role. ... Gisele is well known but she's known more for Victoria's Secret or dating Leonardo DiCaprio, not by what ad campaigns she's been in," she says.

Nian Fish, creative director and senior vice president at KCD, which produces shows for top fashion houses, says that's kept new talent from being developed into the next generation of fashion stars.

"It's like how reality television takes away from actors, celebrities take away from models," she says.

Runway regulars Caroline Trentini and Jessica Stam are pretty successful by industry standards but most average Joes would never recognize them on the street.

What it takes
Contrary to popular belief, not all models are carted around in limos while wearing chic dresses and high heels. Outside the Bryant Park tents where many of Fashion Week's runway shows are held, it's a common sight to see pretty young things smoking cigarettes in jeans and sneakers looking remarkably unremarkable as they try to hail a cab to beat the audience to the next show.

To achieve top-tier status — the ones who are chauffeured from show to show while carrying handbags that cost more than startup models' monthly rent — you need more than a pretty face.

Fish ticks off what matters more:

  • Bone structure.
  • Shape of head in proportion to body. (The classic fashion illustration of a small head and long body is indeed what the industry looks for.)
  • How she looks in clothes.
  • Her "hunger."

"There's definitely work to this," Fish says. "Maybe you're not building a log cabin, but there's a lot of psychological wear and tear. They'll hear, `You lost weight,' or `You gained weight.' And you can't read the stares (of) the casting directors. All that, coupled with the tremendously long hours, which can be 6 a.m. to 2 a.m. if she's one of the working girls of the season."

Some models develop the passion — and, maybe even more importantly, confidence — after a special moment on the runway or an ego boost from one top designer or photographer who lights the spark for "the wildfire effect," Fish says.

Before that, though, aspiring models have to find an agency willing to bring them to the attention of casting directors. They're the ones who can see up to 500 models during the weeding-out process, out of which a handful make it to a session with the designers and creative directors.

"A certain number of girls will start in New York City and get the good shows. The shows go immediately online. Then one or two models will start getting buzz, whether they do Marc (Jacobs), Calvin (Klein) or Karl (Lagerfeld), then they go on to a cool show in Milan and then THE show in Paris. ...Daria (Werbowy) was the most recent wildfire," Fish says.

Armenta from Vogue says Werbowy came at the right time. "I'd seen pictures and heard of her, but when (Steven) Meisel shot her for Prada, it blew her out of the water. She was unique. She had such presence. She's so gorgeous and unique but not in an off-putting way."

Occasionally, it's the shy girl who perseveres. Fish predicts Heather Bratton, who did the Chanel, Chloe and Burberry Prorsum shows last season and was then shot by Meisel for Italian Vogue, will have "an amazing season."

Meanwhile, Armenta has her eye on Snejana Onopka, who has been photographed for American Vogue a few times since her turn on the Louis Vuitton, Valentino and Chanel runways last fall.

The right fitThe models not only have to look good in clothes but also "fit" them, says Ivan Bart, senior vice president of IMG Models, which represents Werbowy, Bundchen, Moss and Jacquetta Wheeler.

Again using Werbowy, now the spokesmodel for Lancome, as the example, Bart notes that she had the hippie-chic look when everything coming down the runway had a bohemian style.

"The main thing is the designers are always looking for the woman who best suits the collection, but, that being said, they always want a sure thing," he says. "The bottom line through all of it is selling clothes."

It makes sense that designers first look at models with a paper trail of fashion advertisements because practice makes perfect, Bart says, just like with any craft.

And it pays to be nice and easygoing. It's hard for anyone — including designers, casting directors, photographers, the audience and consumers — not to like an approachable, friendly person, Bart says.

"Taking fashion shows out of the equation, when you're booked for a five-day trip on a remote location for a shoot, would a photographer, stylist, etc., want to be with you? You have to connect to people," he says. "You can't be too demanding or diva-ish anymore, not in 2006. ... If you're not in the best form and giving and excited to be here, there are a lot of other people who are happy to do your job."