“There’s a need for more risk-taking,” says the modelling industry powerhouse
Words Aisha Nozari
Reportage photography Gerda Carina
Model agents have a fearsome reputation in the fashion industry, they’re the driving force making and breaking the careers of the girls and guys you see in glossy magazines and on campaign billboards. So it was with some trepidation that we lined up to meet Chrissie Castagnetti, the founder of legendary British model agency Select. After 40 years in a business famed for its huge egos, tiny dress sizes and even tinier ethics, surely this woman would have turned into a fashion caricature?
Surprisingly, no. Instead we discover instead a committed businesswoman with an enduring passion for the industry, for whom the welfare of her models is paramount. Castagnetti’s relationships in the industry are rock solid and her vision for an innovative, multi-disciplinary agency is still going strong. Select continues to bag high-profile casting gigs left right and centre, and PHOENIX cover girls Anne-Marie and Tigerlily Taylor sit alongside talents such as Paloma Faith, Devon Aoiki, Fei Fei Sun, Agyness Deyn, Pixie Geldof and Eliza Cummings on their books.
That isn’t to say that the journey has been easy, or that the industry lacks any number of challenges new and old. So how has Castagnetti managed to hold onto her authenticity four decades in? Just how bleak is the future of modelling agencies in an Insta-world? And what has Brexit finally done for all those Eastern European teenagers? The distinctly non-bitchy Chrissie Castagnetti tells all.
Tell me about launching Select…
It was a fun, organic experience between three good friends back in 1977. It was myself, my sister Clare and our friend Tandy. At the time we were working together at a model agency when we were offered the opportunity to start our own agency. We loved the job so it was a no-brainer. We worked hard. We partied hard, we knew what we wanted to do within the industry and we did it. Our very first place was set up in the ballroom of a large town house on Connaught Place. It overlooked the park and we only had one phone!
What are you most proud of achieving over the last 40 years?
Surviving! Passion and energy has been key. We have so much passion for our agency and all the clients we work with. I’d also say it’s thanks to our strong sense of intuition, which comes from growing in this business. But it’s also all about staying relevant in a young industry – being open to flexibility and moving with the speed of today. Obviously, we’ve learnt from our mistakes and that in turn becomes invaluable guidance that we can pass down to our younger bookers. It’s been a long process. It’s about taking the best of our the last 40 years and leaving behind the worst.
What’s been the biggest change in the industry over the past four decades?
The Internet. The introduction of social media and celebrity has had a seismic effect.
We scouted her there and then. She was a dental nurse and ended up taking the Calvin Klein contract off Kate Moss that year. Her name was Lisa Ratcliffe.
What’s your most memorable scouting experience over the years?
There’s one that sticks with me that I now use as motivation. It was the first day at a scouting event that used to be held at the NEC. The place was half empty. It was mid-afternoon and the staff were uninspired, flagging, and wondering what the hell they were doing there. Furiously I said, ‘liven up! You never know when the next Vogue girl could appear!’ Then, in the distance, a tall, willowy figure appeared. I said to the staff ‘take her for instance’. Everyone followed my pointed finger across the room. As she got closer we saw the girl was incredible – so we scouted her there and then. She was a dental nurse and ended up taking the Calvin Klein contract off Kate Moss that year. Her name was Lisa Ratcliffe. Everyone at Select thought I had the magic touch after that.
How has scouting models changed?
As far as street scouting goes, we were pioneers. I love street scouting. But social media platforms like Instagram are also great for scouting.
What impact do you think Brexit will have on the modelling industry?
It will have a huge impact on the visas of the models that come in from overseas – and for our own models going abroad. Hopefully it will mean that British brands make more use of the models and talent that we have in the UK.
How do you feel about casting at the moment? What changes would you like to see?
It feels as if there is a lack of inspiration. I think there’s a need for more risk taking. Remember, I started out in the industry during the 70s and 80s and creativity and fearlessness were rife in the UK back then. But this isn’t just from the perspective of someone older – my younger staff feel the same way.
Models have more power to build their own fan bases thanks to social media. Is this a good or a bad thing?
For brands it’s very beneficial. Social media also raises talent’s profile making them more lucrative. The downside is that privacy is curtailed.
What one piece of advice would you give an aspiring model today?
Research agencies before you contact them. You can always check with the AMA for reputable agencies. Be prepared to work hard and make sure you’re doing this for the right reasons, not just because you think it’s ‘cool’ to be a model. It’s important to have flexibility – you may have to travel at short notice if an amazing job comes in that’s overseas. Look after your body and your skin. Always be respectful and remember that there are lots of people working tirelessly to make this happen for you.
Do you follow any social media accounts yourself?
I follow Select. My team are great at keeping our social media presence up to date.
Who are your favourite designers to work with?
How long is a piece of string? We’ve been blessed to work with some great designers. I have different favourites for different reasons.
What’s the most frustrating this about what you do?
You can’t please everyone all the time.
What one preconception would you love to correct about model scouts?
We aren’t out to take advantage of you! Modelling offers people the chance to have a job that’s interesting and the opportunity to see the world – plus make money for it! Not everyone gets the chance to do that.
Thinking back to how it was when you started the agency, there were no computers or mobile phones. What was it like?
It was normal because we didn’t know any different. It was definitely stricter – models had to check in three times a day without fail. Nowadays models tend to be lazier about keeping in touch because they know they can be reached so easily.
Do you think it was a better or worse way of working?
While technology makes things a lot easier, I am wary of it. For example: emails. With emails you have to read between the lines. It takes intuition. On the phone you can hear in someone’s voice when something isn’t right. So it works both ways.
Have you ever felt personally jaded by the fashion industry. If so, why?
From time-to-time. But that’s to be expected – it’s a job that’s stressful and demanding. When you spend your working days taking care of others, it’s important that you know how to take care of yourself.
What advice would you give to someone today that wanted to start their own model agency?
Make sure you enjoy looking after people. While you’ll be guiding the careers of others, you also want to have fun on the job. It’s important to really know yourself – that and humour will always see you through the harder times. Work hard and get a strong team behind you.
What advice would you give to an aspiring model? Or a model newly signed to Select?
Stay grounded by listening to us. We want the very best for you, so listen to what we say. Enjoy it and don’t be afraid to express any doubts. Remember that rejection is part of the job. Don’t take it personally and don’t over analyse it. Be proud of yourself and look after your health.
In your opinion do you think the best models you’ve represented in the last 40 years other than being beautiful, what do they all have in common?
Enthusiasm. A sense of adventure and an appreciation of the opportunity they’ve been offered.
MORE FROM PHOENIX
From bloggers to Editors-in-Chief, we round up the best of the street style contingent
The eco-friendly brand presented a painterly, nature-inspired collection for their second catwalk appearance