With London Fashion Week just days away, Tara Le Roux and Esther Kinnear-Derungs are in their sun-drenched offices in Shoreditch attempting to start a revolution. The founders of Linden Staub, a London-based modelling agency, have made a pledge to go entirely paper free this season, which is no small feat in the fashion industry. And with the recent backlash surrounding the industry's footprint — highlighting the wastefulness of Fashion Week in particular — it's never been more timely of an issue.
"During London Fashion Week, or any Fashion Week, modelling agencies send out what we call 'showpacks' to the brands," explained Kinnear-Derungs. Those packs include a card for each model an agency wants to showcase that season and can add up to 600 individual cards, most of which get thrown in the bin. "The cards get stuck on the wall for 10 minutes and then it's all over and they end up in a landfill because only two girls of the 300 cards in the pack get the show," said Le Roux. To add insult to injury, the models actually get charged for these cards. "We've heard of models being charged £1,500 to be one card in a showpack of 400 models," added Le Roux.
So for the Spring/Summer 2020 season, the Linden Staub founders decided enough is enough and are only sending out digital showpacks, providing the models with cards solely for their casting appointments (or if a model arrives late from another city). "However, in those cases we use sustainable paper sources and if we have to send anything by courier, we make sure they're a green company," said Le Roux.
One agency getting rid of showpacks may seem like a flash in the pan. But Le Roux and Kinnear-Derungs are keeping their fingers crossed that this could start a ripple effect. "We're a really small company and that's probably not going to have a huge effect on the industry as a whole. But if what our message does is make some other young person doing a showpack at a big agency where they send out 600 cards go, 'Actually guys, I saw Linden Staub did this. Maybe we should do digital too because this is 600 girls?'" said Le Roux.
And here's the thing, this isn't the first time the founders of Linden Staub have tried to rewrite the rules of modelling management. After a decade of working for big agencies, Le Roux and Kinnear-Derungs set out on their own to start an agency "for women, founded by women," that provided a protected, nurturing workplace environment for models who are possibly the most exploited occupation of the fashion industry. POPSUGAR sat down with the cofounders to talk about how they got their start — and how they continue to fight daily to make the fashion world a safer, more sustainable place.
POPSUGAR: What was the tipping point for you guys to break out on your own?
Tara Le Roux: Without trying to sound negative, Esther and I just felt a little disappointed with the way that models were treated. I'm not bashing anywhere that we previously worked, but industry wise, we became a little sad and disillusioned with the way that things worked. And we were also a little bit confused, because we were these two young women and everywhere we went we were told by people who were 20 to 30 years older that, "This is the way it's always been done." We would bring these ideas to the table and people would say, "No, no, no. You're really young. You don't understand. Also, you're young women. You'll get it." And we were like, "We don't really want to get it. Why should an industry remain the same just because that's the way it's always been?" You see all these young innovators disrupting traditional business models — like Uber and Airbnb — and I guess we just thought, "Screw it. Let's give it a go."
Esther Kinnear-Derungs: I also think that when you don't work for yourself, your hands are always tied. And when we worked at previous agencies, you're relying on other people scouting for you in foreign countries and so often girls would be sent to us from all over in the world and they couldn't speak English, they had never been taught how to walk [a runway], how to behave, none of this, and we did all the groundwork [for the models]. And every time a model would take off and do something really great, we wouldn't see her again. She would go somewhere else and our legwork would never be recognised. So that added to the disillusion and disappointment. It's like, we're doing a really good thing here. Why are we doing the legwork for somebody else if we could do it ourselves?
PS: I was going to ask you about some of the things that were frustrating to you about the industry and it sounds like it was that and . . .
EKD: Language. Girls would come from Russia or somewhere and couldn't even say yes or no. And that is ridiculous. You wouldn't send your 16-year-old child to New York City or to London on their own, not speaking a word of the language.
"You wouldn't send an intern at the bank, at 16 years old, into a board meeting and expect her to function on [a professional] level. But this is what is expected from models."
TLR: I think the exploitation [of models] is on so many different levels. You hear about the really terrible case studies in the press — the accusations against photographers, the eating disorders — but that thankfully is a relatively small portion of our business. But the expectation on the sliding scale is never ending. Like Esther said, being a 16-year-old and your care's been entrusted to adults who are claiming to be responsible for you and you get deposited in London and you can't read a tube map or a street sign. So how the hell are you going to make your way around a city and be expected to cover your own expenses, to win clients? Most of the time they're so young when they come into us. So it's really your responsibility to provide a level of education. I think that was what was missing.
EKD: Completely. And it still is in a lot of places. I think the easiest analogy is you wouldn't send an intern at the bank, at 16 years old, into a board meeting and expect her to function on [a professional] level. But this is what is expected from models. And because it's under the umbrella of creativity, it's just acceptable and it's just the "way things have always been." And that's why we started this.
TLR: And that's the main thing . . . [in the fashion industry] people feel they can do whatever they want because it's under the guise of creativity. You just would never let your dentist tell you, "I pulled your tooth out because I thought it looked good, and I'm sorry that I messed your mouth up for the rest of your life." But in fashion, because these people are creative and they're making art, it's fine to have a girl strip naked backstage, cancel her from the show two seconds before, tell her that she needs to lose two inches off her hips. This kind of stuff is acceptable in this business and it's crazy.
PS: So one of your main points of difference is that you have an education portion built into the business models?
EKD: Yes, and we've always operated like this, but with Linden Staub we took it to the next level. For example, we have the "Model Portal," which is an online portal that all of our models can log into. There are videos of all of us talking about different aspects of the industry. So there's a quick, five-minute video of our PR director talking about why social media is important. I talk about travelling as a model, Brogen — one of our employees who used to be a model — talks about how to walk, how to dress. There is also a written guide to all the different vocabulary in the modelling industry, so what an "option" means, what a "test shot" means. Then we also have some of our more experienced models put content on the site as well to help educate other girls on what she does well.
PS: I think that's a great idea because, while I've never been a model, it seems like such a competitive industry that it must be hard to find mentors.
TLR: It's a very solo business. You're never going through a job here with somebody else. It's just you. And I feel when Esther and I launched Linden Staub we really wanted to create — this sounds so cheesy — not just an agency but a community.
EKD: In terms of education, this Summer we also held a Model Foundation, which is basically like a boot camp for all of our models who just turned 18. They have classes on how to maintain a healthy lifestyle, they get a nutrition session — so how do you remain healthy whilst travelling all the time? They learn how to exercise specifically for their body type, not just to stay in shape, but also to stay strong and fit. We give them a free accounting session, teach them how to do their taxes, but then there's also styling sessions, a hair and makeup lesson, social media advice, and everything is tailored to each model and their specific interests and needs. And we involve the parents in everything and we explain everything which is very, very important.
PS: Those are all things that you can control. How are you trying to shift things that you can't? So the way a casting model treats somebody, the dressing areas, the photographers, for instance?
TLR: The main thing, externally, we're trying to help with is financial independence. This business is unregulated, so people pay the models whenever they feel like. Most models are looking at a minimum of three months before they receive money from a job and that disables them from having any kind of financial independence. So we have a unique policy here — we pay the models the day after they do a job.
EKD: And one of the reasons we believe in education so much is that there are certain things that are beyond our control. So if a model is at a shoot and somebody tries to do something inappropriate or acts rudely, there's nothing you can do about it. But we make sure to hammer this in from day one: if somebody is inappropriate, rude, or whatever, you can say no.
"We have a fur-free policy. Our models don't want to wear real fur. They want to align with where the industry's moving in that regard so if you book a Linden Staub model, she's not going to wear the fur."
TLR: We try to give the models confidence and empower them to know their worth. And in terms of working with clients who are notoriously bad, there are certain clients that we won't work with. But then again, in order to make a difference, you have to exist, right? We can't refuse to work with every single client who ever had a complaint against them — although, serious complaints are a no go for us. The thing is, the majority of people that we speak to on a day-to-day basis are young women like us working in fashion, who love it, and they want to do the right thing.
But we also help protect our models with our terms and conditions, where it says that the girls have to have private changing areas. We also have a fur-free policy. Our models don't want to wear real fur. They want to align with where the industry's moving in that regard so if you book a Linden Staub model, she's not going to wear the fur. We still have girls who walk in the Fendi show, they just wear fur-free looks. So stuff like that, little steps that we can take to make small changes in the industry. And most importantly, championing and working with clients that are sustainable and are environmentally friendly.
PS: What would you say your biggest challenges are?
EKD: We're very established in London now, but since we're a smaller company, it took a long time for a lot of our bigger counterparts to take us seriously.
TLR: Especially as two young women. If I had a pound for every time someone said to me "Oh my God, when you guys have done this for 20 years . . ." I'd be a millionaire. Well, for one, we've been doing this for a decade, and two, just because we're a lot younger than you, does that not mean that our take on the industry is relevant?
EKD: Then again in the same breath, I have to say there are a lot of people who really embraced us, and also people who were much older than us who were really supportive. Funny enough, it was predominantly women and that's been really amazing.
PS: So what's next for you?
TLR: It's small but we're really trying to make our office more sustainable. We're trying to be more conscious of our supply chains in everything — down to where we get our paper that we print stuff on. We try to be a majority paper-free office, we try to avoid using plastic water bottles. It's impossible to live your life completely squeaky clean, but we're doing our best with small steps.
PS: What are you most excited about for London Fashion Week and fashion month in general?
EKD: New faces. Always. But that's also the hardest part because it's so exciting when you have so many amazing new faces, but then we do all this hard work and sometimes it happens and sometimes it doesn't and there's not much you can do about it. And I'd love to say it gets easier but it doesn't because you build up a relationship with these girls and the parents and everything.
TLR: I don't work so much on the new faces, that's Brogen and Esther, but seeing all their hard work from over the past years and months pay off and seeing these little girls, who were little girls, come in, and they're young women now and they're confident and are going to castings and seeing a return, and they're earning their first paycheck and that's really rewarding.