From repping next gen supermodels to founding the world’s first plus size men’s division, the fashion-forward agency IMG is redefining what it means to be a model
“I don’t see myself as ‘a risk,’ but I know that’s what I am in the context of the high fashion market. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been told that no one will want to work with me until someone big decides it’s okay to do so.” The words are those of Hari Nef, commenting in February 2015 on her status as a transgender model. Not even 18 months on, and the muse and actress has walked for Gucci, fronted a campaign for & Other Stories and is set to star in an upcoming season of Emmy award-winning sitcom Transparent. So who took the ‘risk’ that propelled Nef to red-carpet stardom?
Credit is certainly due to agency IMG Models, who began representing Nef in May last year – adding her to books that boast everyone from the legends (Kate Moss, Lauren Hutton) to the new supermodels (Gigi and Bella Hadid) and social media megastars (like Viner and Calvin Klein campaign boy Cameron Dallas). When it comes to those who exist outside of fashion’s model ‘norm’, Nef is just one of the agency’s success stories. They’ve championed fuller figured women like Ashley Graham and Candice Huffine, and tapped wheelchair user (and now Beyoncé campaign girl) Jillian Mercado. Then, in March, they made worldwide news with the announcement that they had signed Zach Miko as the face of their Brawn division – making him the world’s first male plus size model and expanding the conversations around body positivity in a progressive new direction.
Behind these decisions is Ivan Bart, the company’s president. Since accepting a job as creative director in 1994, Bart has helped grow IMG into a fashion industry behemoth, which today operates offices in five countries. Prioritising personality over measurements, his decade-spanning career – which began at a boutique agency in the 80s – has seen casting trends come and go, as well as the rise of some of modelling’s biggest stars. Here, he discusses founding Brawn, why today’s generation don’t want to see airbrushing and how pointing fingers will do nothing to solve fashion’s problems with diversity.
Why did you decide to start Brawn and represent plus size male models?
Ivan Bart: Well, we were having a tremendous amount of success with Curve models. We were able to promote them into the mainstream and they were all doing fantastically – you see what’s happened to Ashley Graham, she walked during Paris Fashion week. We saw how great the business was, and how much there was a need in the market. I went to London and met with somebody who specialised in Curve models as well, and we were talking and I just thought, ‘Why are we not having this conversation with men?’ It’s all part of diversity, it’s all about inclusion.
How did Zach get involved?
Ivan Bart: I had met Zach a while ago, so he was on my radar. I actually DM’d him on Instagram first, and then we had a conversation on the phone. When he came into the office and we had an official meeting, it was a really liberating moment for myself, in hearing a male viewpoint. On size, on his childhood, having challenges with as a kid...I realised this conversation is about bullying, and it's about fitting in. And that this is an important conversation to have, aside from just fashion.
My whole job is to promote and elevate other people. And this was the first moment that I realised I could talk about myself. I was an aerobic king in the 80s, I did rowing, I spin five days a week now, I ride my bike to work – still, I struggle with size, and I have trouble with going shopping, and what sizes are available to me. So I was sitting there listening to a man tell his story, and I realised I had a similarity to him. At that moment I thought, ‘Oh my goodness, we have to have him’ – because he can speak for every man. I think for men in general it’s not a traditional, ‘masculine’ trait to be vain, or to talk about fashion.
Or even your appearance?
Ivan Bart: Yeah, or to focus on that. So I think a lot of men have a hard time verbalising their frustration when they go shopping. I believe a lot of men will leave it to their wife, to their partner, to their friend, or they might just shop online and if it doesn't work out they'll return it...but I don’t see droves of men dying to go into stores and try on clothes. I will never know what it's like to walk into a store, try on a suit and go, ‘You know what, I have a dinner anyway, I might as well just wear it.’ I don't know that.
So Zach, to me, was the perfect person to start this conversation, because he represented the everyman. He's an attractive, handsome man that other men can relate to, and he can tell the story of being body positive, and he can tell the story about the struggles he’s had with size diversity, and we're going to be there and support him. he's one of the most articulate, smart, intelligent men, and he can express what’s going on. And as this happened, so many people wanted to tell the story, which blew our mind. It was in news outlets, on Nightline, and news around the world, international papers, it's on the Bill Maher show. It’s become a cultural conversation – it seemed to be a seismic shift, in that IMG models was focusing on a man.
Did you anticipate the scale of the reaction at all?
Ivan Bart: We're fortunate enough to be in a place right now that we've all worked very, very hard and have established IMG as a brand. And if we're going to get behind somebody, between our brand and their talent, magic could happen. I had a feeling that it would be of interest. I had no clue it would be of the interest it became. We were all taken a little by surprise about how much it generated as far as news. Now we live in the era of social media, I had friends from college and high school contacting me and saying ‘Bravo, I really like what you guys are doing, and that you're really opening this conversation up’. And so that surprised me, that so many people outside of the industry were excited that we now had somebody that represented men in the fashion space.
How far do you think that IMG has a responsibility to be at the vanguard of these seismic shifts in casting?
Ivan Bart: Well, we take it seriously. We see it as an opportunity to change the conversation on diversity, inclusion...and this goes beyond size. It’s about race, it’s about age, it’s about what we see the future as. Millennials have been living on a device since they were born, and one thing that’s very positive about this generation is that they don't want to be fooled. They don't want to be sold. They want to know it's real. They don’t buy into airbrushing, because they've been sending each other selfies since they were kids. And so they know what a picture really looks like, they know what their friends look like, so they don't want to look like this ultimate vision of perfection.
We want people to know that it’s not particularly unhealthy to be a larger size. If you have a personal relationship with your doctor, and your doctor has measured your heart rate, monitored your bloodwork, and has deemed you 100 per cent healthy...Like I said, I exercise at least five days a week, at least, and I maintain a larger size than most people would ever say is the norm.
“This generation don't want to be fooled. They don't want to be sold. They want to know it's real. They don’t buy into airbrushing” – Ivan Bart, IMG Models
How do you see Brawn growing over the next year, and how do you think that brands and the fashion industry more generally are going to respond to it?
Ivan Bart: Well, I would like to make it diverse to include race and size. And there are tonnes of aspirational men out of there, many of whom would be considered brawny, many of which would be athletes, most of whom are not a sample size. I'd like to look for a diverse group of men that represent what is to be Brawn, and we would like to ask the fashion industry, and the retailers, and the designers, to offer more size diversity. It really is their choice to do that or not do that, but it's not going to stop us from pointing it out as an option. It's something that we would love to happen, and we're already seeing the shifts. We're already seeing so many brands embracing size diversity. So many brands out there are offering more options, and we'll just keep focusing our attention on it. I think fashion is an aesthetic, and it’s everybody’s prerogative and choice to put out what they feel is their own voice. But we're asking them to offer other sizes as well.
On the site, you don’t categorise models beyond male and female. Why is this?
Ivan Bart: I just feel like, you know, we're IMG Models. If you have the ability to manage any model, you really should have the ability to manage any model whatever their size, race, age, gender... anything. So we like to break down the walls of that, by not particularly calling anything a division. I think the future of the industry, where models are concerned, is going to be what is considered fashionable. And those that exude fashionability and a sense of great style and personality, I think going forward are going to be models. Again, that would be a diverse, eclectic group of people.
Hari Nef is one of those people with real style and personality – how did you start working with her?
Ivan Bart: She came to us as a referral. Somebody in the industry said, ‘You should meet Hari Nef’. We met Hari Nef. And we were blown away by her intellect, by her articulation...When we met Hari, she was still in her last year of Columbia University studying acting, and I was impressed with the fact she was at Columbia. She was an interesting person, and also liberating. We were just very excited when we first met her. And then, you know, Jill Soloway is going to write an 8-episode arc for her in the new season of Transparent – that’s great news, but a lot of business goes around that. She had made a lot of connections on her own, so it's just how do you leverage that, and elevate it?
We knew she was an interesting client to have. Interesting from a theatrical point of view, from a fashion point of view, from a point of view of her own articulation of being transgender. Just listening to her speak about her journey and her path. And the great thing about her too is that I think everybody in life questions and wants to know ‘Who am I?’ And to be doing this publicly, physically...it's actually a very higher level of being self-actualised. I find her journey and everything so intriguing. That’s another thing again about this generation and this time is that people like the stories. Hari Nef is fashionable because she's got a great aesthetic, but it’s also who she is and who she represents that is intriguing to people.
What would you say your manifesto is when it comes to who you want on your books?
Ivan Bart: We’ll take a meeting with anybody. I’d always rather take the meeting because you'll never know. I just think it’s very short-sighted to look at a picture and then make a judgement. I do think that the personality wins for us. Just being compelling, to us that's everything. And whether the new generation of supermodel like a Karlie Kloss, or Gigi Hadid, or Bella, they have personality off the charts. Some of them are great originators like Carolyn Murphy and Stephanie Seymour, I mean amazing personalities. And even our older clients like Lauren Hutton and China Machado, and we just signed Maye Musk. What are we looking for? Excite us! Excite us to want to promote you and talk about you. That’s key.
“I don't think we should be in the blame game. I think we should all come together as a community, and realise that the fashion industry has a voice and a power” – Ivan Bart, IMG Models
How do you think that attitudes towards diversity have changed during your time in the business?
Ivan Bart: Since we’ve embraced all of this, this is the first season I’m getting lots of calls like, ‘We're looking for something interesting, we're looking for not the usual...’ it’s funny. People are requesting size diversity, and age, and race, and interesting stories. I really started seeing it a lot in the casting, there are at least five brands right now asking the same question over and over again about, you know, wanting a very eclectic, diverse group for their brand.
What do you think is the next big frontier in terms of modelling, or diversity... where is there still work to be done?
Ivan Bart: I think there are parts of the world that still need to be scouted. It’s also a cultural thing, as to whether the culture itself supports typical Western advertising. Right now Cuba’s opening up, it'll be interesting to see what kind of beautiful people are down in Cuba, finding parts in the Middle East...round the world, there’s beauty all around, so I think that as countries and politics change, it’ll be nice to find beauty in places that you couldn't before.
I think we’ve always been looking for diversity, but I think we have new ways now. With the We Love Your Genes social media campaign, we’re discovering models all around the world. I was very proud of the fact that the very first model we signed was from South Africa, a woman of colour. So I think it's our duty to scout beauty that's global, that's international. I don't ever want somebody coming to me and saying, ‘We were casting for this, and you had nobody’. I don't want that conversation. So I think it's important that we try to diversify and find all kinds of beauty out there, and be able to satisfy brands’ requests.
Designers seem to like blaming agencies for having non-diverse castings – where do you think the responsibility lies?
Ivan Bart: The thing I want to say is, I'm the kind of person who's like ‘Let's not point the finger at everybody’ because it becomes a blame game. And I don’t think we should be in the blame game. I think we should all come together as a community, and realise that the fashion industry has a voice and a power. You can always analyse your weaknesses, and you can always go, ‘Well, we can improve more on this, or that, or the other thing...’ so I think it’s our duty as the fashion industry to come together, and find solutions to what the consumer is asking for. Because that’s also the now, that’s also the future. If the consumer is driving what they want, the millennials are asking for what they want, we need to deliver that. And they want diversity. So I think it’s a waste of time to start saying it was your fault, or your fault, or the agency didn’t do it, or you didn’t do it... no. Let’s all come together and do it. Get on with it!
Lead image Bella Hadid, photography Collier Schorr, fashion Robbie Spencer