Contact Models wants to disrupt the industry as we know it
By taking the casting process digitally and cutting out the middleman the young London-based platform want to empower their models.
Sarah Haley and Henry Garnett by Mia Clark
It was some time in the autumn of 2009 that I found myself on the outskirts of London -- it must have been at least zone 5 -- feverishly trying to find the entrance to a casting venue located on some sinister industrial terrain. I was 18, modelling in London, had no smartphone and only a paperback A-Z to get around, and was so lost that I had to hold myself back from calling up my mum in floods of tears. “This is absurd,” I thought to myself, “Why on earth would you summon young girls to these deserted places, just to flick through their books for 30 seconds and send them back into town again?” The casting system is a fraud, is what I concluded.
A decade later and the fashion industry is looking very different. Not only have those analogue portfolios been more or less replaced by Instagram -- the platform itself has forced the industry to become way more democratic. It spotlights people who would otherwise be ignored by mainstream media, especially those from minority backgrounds or those who don’t fit the industry-standard mould. The industry has become ostensibly open to anyone, and Instagram is clients’ hunting ground of choice.
While this may sound ideal, one downside is that these new 'streetcast' kids don't have access to proper guidance and people who can put them in touch with legitimate clients. While it's certainly an improvement that castings can now happen within virtual environments -- something that the global lockdown has confirmed all too well -- that doesn't mean that it should be free of regulation. That’s where Contact Models comes in, a new London-based platform committed to taking the casting process digital, while bringing transparency to the industry, offering guidance to its models, and empowering its models along the way.
Founder Reuben Selby knows the ropes of the business all too well -- he himself used to be a model but switched to photography and tech later on in his career. While he was shooting new faces from agencies, certain frustrations kept cropping up -- from late payments to being sent to pointless castings. He quickly realised that, with his background in start-up apps, he could create a platform that would remove the agent-middleman but still act as an agency. In practice, this means that he and his team connect clients to their models directly, who then are in full control of the jobs they want to do a casting for, for a fee that is transparent from the get-go. Clients are charged a 20% service fee on top of the model fee (similar to how AirBnB operates) which goes to Contact, and the model gets the full advertised fee. To put that in perspective: certain agencies in Paris take up to 75% of the model’s rate as an agent fee, while in London the deduction is usually around 30%.
"Initially, the way I was running Contact was more traditional," Reuben explains. "Clients would option 15 models, then I personally would reach out to each and every one of them, figure out their availability, then get back to the client, and get back to the optioned model again -- a very inefficient process." He quickly figured: why not provide models with the tools to handle this process themselves but provide the necessary oversight so a smooth and safe process could be guaranteed.
Reuben and Julia Howe, the scout at Contact, are quick to point out that while it might sound contradictory, they don't want to be perceived as a regular agency -- one that is involved in all facets of a model's career -- but rather as a creative space that educates its models and let them forge their own careers as much as possible. The thought behind it is that while models are joining the gig economy and become responsible for themselves, they need to be made aware of the practical stuff first: how finance and accounting works, and how to best manage one's time. To the outsider, this might sound obvious but a lack of transparency, unclear contracts and non-payment of invoices are still widespread in the modelling business, and are features that, unfortunately, are hardly spoken of.
Along with from educating models, vetting clients and setting benchmark fees also form part of Contact's duties. Reuben: "It's important to us that our models are not getting undercut but at the same time we know that there are a lot of young designers that wish to work with models, don't have the enormous budgets that traditional agents broker, but have a fee that a new face would happily work for." This type of 'match' rarely happens in the industry but has huge potential. "For us, a model doesn't have to make 50k a year in order for them to be worth our while," he adds.
It's one the reasons that Contact is different from two superficially similar London-based platforms that have emerged over the last couple of years: UBooker and Finda. Both seek to take out the middleman as well and want their models to be in full control of the booking and casting process. The clients they target, however, are more likely to be in the e-commerce and commercial sphere, rather than the King Kong magazine, Charles Jeffrey, Art School and Marques’Almeida type of clients that Contact caters to. What all three platforms have in common, however, is that they try to tackle the struggles models are facing, and while doing so reimagine the long-outdated booking process.
There are no formal requirements to become a model at Contact when it comes to measurements -- models under 6ft and without the traditional, super-slender model frame are very welcome. "Our platform has over 200 models now, who have interesting looks and interesting stories, but never had a place to go to before," Reuben says. Additionally, you can browse their board using male, female and non-binary filters, the last one added for those models that prefer a genderneutral pronoun. "As a photographer and scout it's been really shocking to see how slowly that has been catching on in London," Julia says. "In New York you already had agencies like New Pandemics, or agencies in Berlin and Amsterdam, who were paving the way for queer models but not here yet. It is important for an agency to be a safe space for these models, and for them not to feel boxed in."
The result of this approach is a colourful and diverse board with models that are known for their voices and outspokenness as much as for their beauty. Of course, the question remains as to how fast the industry will be to catch on to this digitised version of casting but there seem to be enough reasons to be optimistic -- among the latest clients to join Contact's platform is industry powerhouse Burberry. Sceptics might say that it's hard to truly 'disrupt' the industry via an app, but empowering models -- in whatever way -- seems to be something long overdue.