“The Real Mother Agency” ~ Frankfurter Allgemeine Sonntagszeitung
by Jennifer Wiebking for Frankfurter Allgemeine Sonntagszeitung, translated from its original version in German into English
It was pure coincidence that Pia Priewe was sitting in the car next to her own mother when she was talking to Esther Kinnear-Derungs on the phone about the beautiful concept of what is called a “Mother-agency”. Pia Priewe is a model, Esther Kinnear-Derungs a booker, who at the time in 2016was about to launch her own agency together with a former colleague. An agency that would function exclusively as a mother-agency. The 19 year old Pia Priewe was already familiar with the term mother-agency. It is the agency, thatlooks after the models’ career and its progression, but also about placing models with agencies abroad to secure jobs worldwide rather than just within their own market. Priewewas signed to such a mother-agency herself, but in Cologne. However, she was closer already at that time with Esther Kinnear-Derungs, who had been working at a larger agency in London. Technically Priewe should only have been in touch with Kinnear-Derungs when working in London, but Kinnear-Derungs had explained the business to the young model like no-one else before. She had taken real care of her.
A mother-agency is an institution from which accountability would be expected, especially when under-aged or very young people are signed to it. It is an agency which acts solely in the interest of its models and makes responsible decisions for them. A lot of models consider the term “mother-agency” for this reason in particular, sheer irony. They lost money, were put under pressure and pushed into a dependency which makes these people who are supposed to be their teammates seem like the evil stepmother. When now, in light of the serious allegations against Patrick Demarchelier, Mario Testino, Bruce Weber and Karl Templer, who yesterday were celebrated as the worlds’ most genius fashion photographers, details are being revealed about what some models had to endure when working with them, then it is a prime example that even more people and institutions have in fact failed to perform. For example, the magazines who book these photographers or the stylists who often watch first hand on set what is happening, or the very model agents who put their protégés in these situation in the first place. Thanks to the #MeToo debate, these cases are now actually being recognised and models have a voice of their own on social media. This also has blown up the topic of model mistreatment.
Esther Kinnear-Derungs and Tara Le Roux, the two founders of London based agency Linden Staub, on the other handactually work differently. “I think that the protection of models is the sole responsibility of their agents”, says Kinnear-Derungs. “If a client mistreats a model, then I can’t do much about it at that very moment in time, but if I explain to young women from the get go what is to be accepted and what not, then situations like these are much less likely to escalate.” Kinnear-Derungs’ and Le Roux’s story is next to the ones about abuse of power and empty promises of a glamorous life, a rare positive one. Working as bookers themselves they witnessed on many occasions how change should look like. “It’s the same as in Hollywood” says Kinnear-Derungs. “Our industry urgently needs a rigorous overhaul.” Linden Staub takes on an unusual amount of responsibility. When Esther Kinnear-Derungs, who isoriginally form Switzerland and previously worked in finance, and British Tara Le Roux, previously a professional dancer, claim to be a mother-agency only, then that’s a fact. Maybe it is the only way to really prevent such abuse of power.
“The problem is”, says Kinnear-Derungs, “that the business is based on trading.” Effectively the business of modelling agencies works like this: “You are the mother-agency of only about 20% of your models.” Mother-agencies discover their models often at a very young age, on average at around 14, and stay in touch from then on as well as meet the parents. They facilitate the first jobs once the models are 16 anddepending on how radically the agency works even advise the models to prioritise modelling over school. Something that Kinnear-Derungs would not do. “Modelling is always a risk. It is much better to finish school and then give it a proper go before going to university. University is something that can be done at a later stage without any problems.” As explained, agencies mainly work this closely with only about 20% of their overall representation. The rest is trading. “Let’s say that we would work like that and we would represent a young woman called Anna”, says Kinnear-Derungs. “And you work for an agency in Paris and represent someone called Olivia. If I wanted to represent Olivia in London, I would have to give you a model to represent in Paris in exchange. So I give you Anna, even though I know that you are not the right agency for Anna. The modelling business from the agencies point of view is always about which model I can have in exchange for another one.” Esther Kinnear-Derungs and Tara Le Roux work differently, their company is solely a mother-agency andthey develop all their models themselves. “We do not trade models, we exclusively work with agencies abroad which we know are respectable and right for our models.”
Pia Priewe, the German model from Hagen, who technically only worked with Esther Kinnear-Derungs and Tara Le Roux as her London agents, changed to Linden Staub immediatelyonce launched. They had already met one year previously. Priewe was 18 when she first came to London for 4 weeks. “Pia was different to all the other young women I had worked with before”, says Kinnear-Derungs. “She arrived in London and said: Esther, I have listed all my expenses and I need ‘x’amount of jobs in the next 4 weeks just to break even.” It is the middle of London Fashion Week and Kinnear-Derungs and Priewe are laughing on the sofa at Linden Staub’s east London office whilst recalling the situation. At present Linden Staub employ 10 people.
“So German”, says Pia Priewe in regard to her affinity to concern herself with income and outgoings. “I’ve got that from my dad.” Many models suffer from the bad payment practise of this industry. “It often takes up to three to six months until they get the money for their jobs.” At least these days jobs are paid in actual money in London and New York. Hardly anyone can afford now to get negative press because of refusal to pay models in money rather than in goods such as a handbag for a couple of hours’ work. But at Linden Staub, models actually get paid straight away, which is a rarity. “I receive my transfer to Germany within 10 to 14 working days”, confirms Pia Priewe. “When I tell this to other modelsthey are so surprised that they usually want to switch agenciesimmediately.” Not every model understands as much about money as she does. “I do my own tax return and when I ask other models, for example, about their certificate of residence, some of them don’t even know what that is.”
When Pia Priewe started out at her previous agency she didn’t know that expenses for flights and accommodation, which at first will be added to her account as debt, wouldn’t have to be paid back if it didn’t work out with modelling in the end. “You don’t really earn anything at the beginning, instead you are just spending and I was extremely worried about that. Just the accommodation alone in Paris cost me 50 Euros per night and I stayed there for over a month.”
From a business point of view it is of course understandable that the agency wants to earn back the advanced money, which Esther Kinnear-Derungs confirms. “But you’ve got to explain all of this to the models, otherwise they walk for 10 shows and think that they will receive, let’s say EUR 1000 per show but then they don’t realise that they have debt worth EUR 5000, which will be paid back first.” Furthermore, the debt can easily be paid back with only a few hours work, but of course you don’t know this at first. If you ask Pia Priewewhy she is modelling, then she will tell you that the income is the main reason next to the unbelievable possibilities of travelling. “Modelling is of course also very hard work, but when I see how much my friends and my boyfriend work and how much I can earn in a much shorter time…. I am going to work for another year or two and then go to university.” But for now she is busy planning her move to New York.
For those who are lucky, they start their career with what is called an ‘exclusive’. Depending on the brand’s choice to book a model exclusively for one city only or the entire season, one can earn several thousand Euros in one go. “The lowest amount I am aware of for an exclusive was 2500 Euros”, says Kinnear-Derungs. “That was in Milan.” The biggest: “50’000 Euros in Paris. Well, if the model doesn’t get cancelled in the last moment. I have experienced situations where the model was ready to go backstage to walk exclusively as the launch of her career but then the designer decided against the look and stopped her from walking. This does not happen at small design houses but does at the big brands”, says the booker.
Pia Priewe also started at the very top. She walked exclusively for Prada during her first show season and then exclusively for Gucci in her second season. “I remember asking after walking my first Prada show if I can now sleep in a hotel.” This happened before she was signed to Linden Staub and when she had to rent a room from a host. Pia Priewe lived with a single man in Milan and he was “a rather strange character”. At the same time Pia also thinks that she should have spoken up about it herself when one night he took her out to dinner and all after a sudden tried to hold her hand. “But stuff like that happens easily when you are young and shy. And especially being the very polite German”, says Priewe.
It is no wonder that the hashtag #MeToo is applicable to many situations within the modelling industry, especially considering the relationships created by its total commitment to youthism. The relationships in question are between professionals with years of experience and models who have literally come straight off the playground. “The other day a girl said to me that all she wants is that her agency is proud of her”, recounts Pia Priewe.
Pia Priewe herself has just finished 3 weeks of shows. She was in New York, London and Milan and walked in the most beautiful gowns for designers such as the young Austrian Arthur Arbesser and had the most lavish makeup applied. But she also had to wait in the cold for castings and jobs with her fellow model colleagues, sometimes even right next to the bin.
“Most industries are regulated”, says Kinnear-Derungs. “But this one is not. Under the umbrella of creativity everything seems to be acceptable. But that’s not true.” When the ex-finance industry employee started out in the business she assumed that it might have to do with cultural differentiation. “Colleagues often arrived seemingly still drunk at work or at least very openly hungover. Behaviour, which in Switzerland would never have been accepted. I probably would have lost my job if I had done so or at least gotten an official warning.” But actually, “that’s just fashion”. Something that Esther Kinnear-Derungs understood fairly quickly after all. “And abuse of power seems to be part of it too.”
At least there is a flicker of hope since last years’ infamous Balenciaga casting debacle. Fellow casting director James Scully published the circumstances in which over 150 models had to wait for hours in a dark staircase to be considered to walk for Balenciaga. The hashtag #MyJobShouldNotIncludeAbuse made the rounds. In November a story broke about a model who was not allowed to eat for 24 hours before walking for Louis Vuitton in Tokyo. Another scandal, which made headlines.
The two biggest luxury agglomarates in the industry, LVMH and Kering, seem to take their initiatives about the better well-being of models seriously. The on-set food plans published a couple of weeks ago on their joint website, “We care for models”, couldn’t be more painstakingly correct. Carbohydrates aren’t banned and three meals a day are suggested. There have in fact been seasons with more ill-looking thin models on the catwalk compared to the most recent one. The same season where models had to get changed in front of everyone else whilst backstage.
However, that is something Pia Priewe has no problem with. “So many people see me naked, I don’t really care about it. But I can understand that maybe when you get older and your boobs are not as tight as they used to be, that it can be uncomfortable. And everybody is different anyways.” The same way as some people don’t mind putting on body-lotion completely naked in the changing room at the gym in front of a lot of people, but for others that would be unthinkable. Pia Priewe laughs; whilst in New York, a new model arrived for the first time when another girl at the model apartment opened the door being completely naked just getting changed. “She screamed: ‘Welcome to New York!’, rather an odd reception!” The newbie probably got a fright!
That’s another reason why the personal connection to your mother-agency is so important. The way Linden Staub is doing it. The name, by the way, holds an even more significant meaning to Esther Kinnear-Derungs and Tara Le Roux because it is actually about their own mothers. “We want to empower women and wondered who had empowered us the most. We were both raised by single mum’s”, says Esther Kinnear-Derungs. Linden is Tara’s mothers middle name and Staub Esther’s mother’s maiden name. “When your mother’s name is written across the front door, you are probably not going to mess it up.”