How Insta-fandoms created the first superstar male models

Are teenage girls casting directors of the digital age?

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Lucky Blue Smith
Lucky Blue Smithvia @luckybsmith on Instagram

In the 1990s, supermodels reigned supreme. They were celebrities in their own right – people outside of the fashion industry knew them by name, could pick them out of a crowd, and wanted to take photos with them. Rather unsurprisingly, given the fact that the modelling industry is almost entirely dominated by famous female models, this group was largely limited to women: the Cindys, Naomis, Christys, and Lindas. There were some men, too, but the biggest male models have always been situated a solid few steps down from female catwalkers. 

Werner Schreyer, Tyson BeckfordMarcus Schenkenberg, Alex Lundqvist, and Mark Vanderloo are the names to come to mind as the equivalents of the 1990s female supermodels. These are the guys that landed major fragrance, eyewear and watch campaigns, which gave them some sort of worldwide notoriety. However, despite gracing billboards and finding themselves on Models.com’s “Supers,” “Industry Icons,” and “Money Guys” lists, these guys – the most famous of their breed, were always a bit of a far from being really famous. It’s always been the case with male models…until now.

A new breed of potential superstars is in the making – and they haven’t followed the traditional path to male-model ‘fame’. Instead of finding their feet by gracing the biggest international ad campaigns, some of the fashion industry’s most well-known faces at the moment have social media – and millions of teenage followers and fans – to thank for their success. It seems the title of ‘social-media-model’ is not just limited to the likes of Kendall Jenner and Gigi Hadid. Lucky Blue SmithJordan Barrett and Luka Sabbat, to name a few, have made a name for themselves by building significant social media presences, going on to make waves in the fashion industry as well. There’s Sabbat (more of a ‘personality’ than a straight up model, he boasts 150k Instagram followers), who, since appearing in Dazed’s Autumn 2014 issue, has hit the runway for Kanye’s Yeezy show and become the face of Calvin Klein’s new fragrance, and Barrett, the Australian who has walked for Versace and Balmain, starred in ads for Tom Ford and was even the subject of a Collier Schorr art book for MoMA.

But seventeen-year-old Lucky Blue Smith is by far the best example. At the age of ten, he was scouted by Next Models LA. At twelve, the Utah-born boy was shot by Hedi Slimane for Vogue Hommes Japan and not long later, his family relocated to LA, and shared a two bedroom apartment with four siblings in one room. Despite such a promising start to his career, Smith didn’t become a mega-star until he began to build up a mega-following on Instagram – when he was first profiled by The Business of Fashion in January last year, he had 285k followers. Twelve months later, and he currently boasts an audience of 1.8 million people.

To put that number in perspective, some of the male models that are currently “Trending” per Models.com have the Instagram stats as follows: Sven de Vries, who appears in Bottega Veneta’s SS16 campaign, has 7,679 followers. Alan Jouban, who fronts Ermanno Scervino’s most recent ad, has 13.4k followers. Arnis Cielava, who just landed the SS16 Gucci campaign, has 634 followers. Piero Mendez, a recent Prada exclusive and campaign star, has 13.7k followers. Lucky Blue clearly has more than all of them combined.

While Smith has walked many a major runway show, such as Versace, Fendi, and Tom Ford, so do the countless other 6’2” boys who are completely unidentifiable to the ordinary show-goer – let alone the average teenager. He also has ad campaigns of which to boast about, and scored Models.com’s Male Model of 2015 award, winning both the Industry’s Vote and Readers’ choice. Most recently, he landed Philipp Plein’s SS16 campaign. A Tom Ford ad preceded this, as did ones for Moncler, H&M and Tommy Hilfiger. Other models can say this, too. In fact, three or four campaigns in a season is not an all-time high. To Smith’s four AW15 campaigns, Clement Chabernaud, for instance, appeared in eight.

“A new breed of potential superstar models may be in the making – ones that have not followed the traditional path to male-model ‘fame’...they have millions of teenage followers and fans – to thank for their success”

So, what is so special about this budding young model, and his contemporaries like Sabbat and Barrett? Much like the praise that has surrounded the social media “It” girls like Kendall, Gigi, Cara, and co., Smith comes with a built-in fanbase, one that has somehow come to have a voice – albeit indirectly – in what models make it into ad campaigns or land the coveted opening or closing spots of runway shows. It’s not uncommon for designers to receive lists of models before casting a show with their social media stats included. Look at it this way, and it seems like teen Insta fans across the globe are somewhat significantly influencing practices of the fashion industry.

So, who are these 1.8 million people that follow Lucky Blue Smith’s every Instagram move and that are indirectly influencing what we see in fashion? Legions of young, female fans, mostly. These are the same girls that are eager to meet Smith when he stages “Insta-meets” – meet-ups that he announces via Instagram posts, of course. They are the ones that wait outside his catwalk shows to take selfies with him or that tuned in to watch him make an appearance on Ellen DeGeneres’s show. It is these girls that incessantly post praising comments on Barrett’s Instagram photos. And while Sabbat seems to draw more male followers hoping to pick up some style tips, it’s people power that has helped to catapult these boys to success.

As we learned from the power of the social girls that came before them, models with celebrity status confer significant benefits (think: traffic, sales, brand loyalty, etc.), especially given the current composition of the market. Millennials, the generation that will soon have the most significant spending power of all, connect with models like Lucky Blue, who documents his life, on and off the runway, on Instagram. The same can be said for Sabbat, Barrett, Jenner and Hadid, of course, who all arguably present a more aspirational yet attainable image than other models of recent years. They may be beautiful and wealthy, but Smith is less tan and perfectly sculpted than Alexandre Cunha, for instance. Gigi is less skinny than some of her runway counterparts. Cara Delevigne is less stoic. And it seems that teens respond to this, leaving brands little choice but to conform to such appeal – if they want to tap into this important group of consumers.

Not only are male models changing and becoming more visible and famous than ever before, but we also have a budding new group of unofficial fashion consultants at play: teen girls, who are serving as makeshift casting directors and cultural influencers. While there are some brands who will never allow a model’s followers to influence whether they’re cast, there are others who recognise the boost an Insta-famous ambassador can bring. For further proof, look to yesterday’s Calvin Klein show, which saw invited guest and Vine star Cameron Dallas draw crowds of hundreds, spark a Twitter trending topic and take his millions of Instagram and Snapchat followers on a social media whirlwind...with every post neatly hashtagged #MyCalvins, of course. That’s the kind of exposure that most fashion brands can only dream of.

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