Modeling remodeled As department stores close, the local talent finds bookings farther afield, and in commercials and other acting gigs. Models

Posted: June 18, 2006

It was morning, and already many eyes and hands were on Michelle Holloway.

The 24-year-old model stood in silver heels ever so high, wearing black lingerie that revealed much of her flawless, caramel skin. Her hair tumbled to her shoulders in a swarm of tight curls.

Holloway remained calm, smiling at times, as student designer Aisha Richardson and two faculty members at Moore College of Art and Design pulled, tucked and twisted clothing around her 5-foot-10 frame. She was booked to wear six outfits - including a paisley print cocktail dress and a stunning white, bejeweled swimsuit - in the school's annual fashion show.

As soon as the fitting ended, Holloway rushed to her next gig, the Daisy Day fashion show in a hotel a few blocks away. In less than an hour, she sauntered down the runway, glamorously made up and dressed in Bill Blass.

It's a busy day in a competitive industry that, like many others, has been forced to adjust to market perceptions and national consolidations.

"I can say I have some type of job at least once a week," said Holloway, a model since age 13. But, "back in the day there seemed to be more work available."

Though local agencies stay upbeat, Philadelphia area models work now in a market nearly devoid of the big department stores that traditionally provided the bulk of fashion bookings that pay a minimum of about $125 an hour per model.

Last month, the once-mighty Strawbridge's, as well as the Lord & Taylor in Center City, shut their doors. In its heyday, models clamored to work for Stawbridge's, and the store booked many of them.

Other factors make it more difficult for aspiring Philadelphia models to claim their place on the runway. For one, there are more models overall now, a result of years of industry growth fueled by highly publicized supermodels and endless cable TV shows devoted to fashion and style.

Specialty agencies have also cropped up nationally, making it easy for businesses to hire models from other markets.

Philadelphia Style magazine, for example, books its models solely from New York. And at the Daisy Day fashion show last year, only four local girls got to strut their stuff in Ralph Lauren; most, about 16, were bused in from New York at the request from the Lauren folks, according to Amy Schaeffer, the fashion and special events director for Saks Fifth Avenue's Bala Cynwyd store.

Still, "there are some excellent models here," Schaeffer said. She easily rattled off the names - Stacy Dickerson, Kate Coll, Emily Owen and Chantal Mamula - of the women who she says are among the best runway models in the region.

Those four - and about 400 other "active" models - are represented by Philadelphia-based Reinhard Model & Talent, which has been around since 1977.

Virginia Doyle, owner and president of Reinhard, says that even with the closing of some of the area's large department stores, she hasn't seen a "great erosion" in fashion work because of the growth of smaller boutiques and mall stores such as those in King of Prussia.

"We keep hearing there is going to be less and less work, but we really haven't seen that yet," Doyle said. "What we have seen is additional work for models in the commercial area. It may not be related to fashion catalogs and such, but things like annual reports and copy machines. We have models who work every day."

Finding good local models has not been a problem for Nicole Cashman, the public relations and special events maven who runs her own firm and has clients ranging from local stores to California film companies.

"There's definitely high quality here," said Cashman.

A former fashion and special events director at Strawbridge's, Cashman said what she particularly likes about the Philadelphia market is that she can find enough models here who have a good grasp of product marketing and can, for an evening, become "an extension of the brand," a skill handy for events such as a recent perfume promotion at the Marlton Hugo Boss store.

Said Cashman: "Things are very different now from 10 years ago when they were just seen as walking clothes hangers."

But to some industry veterans, those were the good old days, a time when work was plentiful and cliques of models rushed from booking to booking by day, and livened up the social scene by night.

Back then, Strawbridge's was king in the city and suburbs, Clover was still around, and John Wanamaker still had a dominant presence in Center City. Fashion shows were big, splashy and frequent. And high-paying print work for newspaper advertising and catalogs was plentiful.

"There were so many shows and so much print work that many of the models used to make a near full-time living," said Dennise Askins, a 24-year veteran of the industry whose agency, Askins Models, once had a lock on some of the biggest fashion shows and print campaigns in town.

Askins stayed afloat as big department stores suffered their gradual downturn. Then in 1996, Strawbridge's was bought by the May Co. and took its advertising and catalog business to Washington.

"That was really the last blow," said Askins. She closed her doors four years ago and is now special events director for the Foundation for Breast and Prostate Health.

But while the fashion sector isn't what it used to be, other parts of the modeling industry are taking off.

That's because the big three agencies - Expressions, Reinhard, and Models on the Move (MMA) in Cherry Hill - have adapted to the changing industry, says Pamela Lankford, president of Expressions.

"It's the fashion division that has changed more than anything else," said Lankford, whose agency celebrated its 20th anniversary in February. "On the other hand, Philadelphia is still a great commercial market."

So while runway shows, magazine covers, and even catalog work are scarce, models can find work smiling and posing on QVC, in industrial videos for various companies, and in corporate and entertainment advertising.

Lankford herself was the first model on-screen on QVC in 1987, a time she refers to as "the baby days of QVC when we had to change in the bathroom." Her daughter, Staci Ann, the channel's first child model, is now one of the house models.

Today, the West Chester-based home shopping network is one of Expressions' biggest clients. The company makes about 24,000 bookings a year, mostly from Philadelphia-area agencies, said Monica Justice, QVC's vice president of studio operations.

Other local agencies have adapted by boosting their commercial and acting divisions and getting bookings from casting agents for TV pilots, films and music videos.

When Angelina Jolie won the best supporting actress Golden Globe in 2000, among the people she thanked was Drucie McDaniel, the Expressions actress who had a part in the film.

"The way we see the business, when one door closes, another opens," said Lisa Askins, Dennise's daughter, who is now an associate director at Expressions.

Agencies say they frequently field calls for screen talent. Just last month, MMA models were booked for parts in Law and Order and a Faith Hill music video.

"We have excellent talent here," said Lucy King who opened MMA in the late 1970s. "What we're trying to do is make it a bigger and better industry for the region. Why not go after some of the work that New York and California get?"

And if the work won't come here, the models can always go there; increasingly, local agencies are pushing their top talent to work in New York and Los Angeles. Those traditional fashion models who have acting talent are being steered toward film.

Holloway, for example, was recently picked up by a second agency, Flaunt in New York, and is hoping to spend more time in that city in pursuit of her ultimate goal - acting. Last year she had a role in Secrets, an independent film scheduled to be shown at an urban film festival this summer.

Appearing on QVC, she says, has helped her get comfortable in front of the camera.

"I'm hoping one thing will lead to another," said Holloway, who has a dance degree from the University of the Arts and works part-time as a waitress.

Don Hood, 21, is another Expressions model trying to make it in Philadelphia's market - and beyond. His 6-foot frame, dark blond hair, hazel eyes, and ability to change his look easily has landed him jobs with Boscov's, Forman Mills and QVC.

But Expressions also encouraged Hood to branch out and seek New York representation, while keeping the Philadelphia company as his home agency.

The Big Apple has also been good for the career Hood interrupted college to pursue. Since signing on with Ford, then jumping to Bella, he's appeared in several Cosmopolitan magazine editorial layouts (mostly as the boyfriend).

Now the Allentown native is up for big jobs with both Abercrombie & Fitch and J.C. Penney. He recently shot a print ad, with Carrie Underwood, for Skechers shoes.

"There are definitely things happening in Philadelphia, but it's still good to be in other markets," Hood said.

Contact staff writer Dwayne Campbell at 215-854-5315 or dcampbell@phillynews.com.

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