Think of male models and you could be forgiven for imagining the vacuous Victor Ward of Bret Easton Ellis’s novel Glamorama, or Ben Stiller’s square-jawed, block-headed Derek Zoolander. But with menswear soaring in status – London Collections: Men coaxing Burberry back to the capital is only the latest example in a product category now matching its feminine counterpart in international sales – the stereotypical cardboard cutout himbo is being challenged. The new breed of male model – brawny, bearded and more often than not branded with tattoos – is as eye-catching and one-of-a-kind as the clothing on their backs. That uniqueness is their selling-point, in the same way you could never confuse the posters of Kate, Linda or Naomi on your bedroom walls. Which raises a tantalising question: are we entering the age of the male supermodel?
According to Gary Kingsnorth, editor in chief of online men’s title The Style King: “Traditionally, male models are not superstars. With the odd exception, someone such as Tyson Beckford [best known for Ralph Lauren campaigns], there’s no one who you could say is the male Kate Moss – they just don’t compare. People in the fashion industry might know certain male models by name, but the more famous ones are usually famous for being someone’s boyfriend or being in Heat magazine or on TV – rather than for their fashion work.”
Although Kingsnorth concedes “With the recent increase in interest in men’s fashion, it’s clear that focus may well be shifting to see more male models get more famous in their own right and even become household names.” This sentiment is echoed by Sherrill Smith, head of men’s division at agency FMmodels, who says: “There’s a real buzz, especially with this upcoming season with iconic British brands such as Burberry Prorsum coming home to show in London. In my opinion the UK has the best calibre of home-grown models in the world.”
One brand benefiting from the buzz around London menswear is Sibling, comprised of designers Sid Bryan, Joe Bates and Cozette McCreery. They have a strong vision when they cast their catwalk shows. “We have often cast dancers, boxers and guys in their late 20s or early 30s. We steer clear of skinny, boy-like male models. We want the sweaters to look masculine, and a mannish model can carry off a flamboyant design in a way that would get lost on someone more feminine or androgynous.” McCreery also admits that casting models is far from the worst part of her job.
Although the chiselled beefcake is still much in demand with certain clients, other more quirky and non-conventional mannequins are making names for themselves. Smith says the most common misconception people hold about her industry is: “That’s it’s all about classic good looks. [But actually those with] charm and personality make the best models. Male models can come from all walks of life: I’ve looked after law graduates, Cambridge students, musicians, builders and actors.”
Chaps with plenty of visible tattoos, for example, have formed a popular market niche. Rebecca Palmer, head of the men’s division at agency Nevs explains: “Five years ago when I starting booking, tattoos were a problem for models. It’s been very interesting to see the turnaround in attitude, and it’s now so popular that some high-street clients are specifically looking for male models with tattoos. At Nevs, we always discuss with the boys their plans for tattoos, and advise them on the potential positive and negative long-term impact. As with every trend, it will change and people will soon be looking for something different.”
Menswear design duo Agi & Sam favour an eclectic cast of models. “Last season was all about the eccentricities of Britain, we didn’t feel we needed to just do a load of posh white people or typical young model boys,” they say. “That is the beauty of this country, there is so much cultural diversity that you could quite easily find a young black boy wearing a tuxedo on Sloane Street and it wouldn’t turn heads.”
To put together their autumn/winter 2013 show, the designers used: “A few of our friends, including fellow designers William Richard Green and Patrick Grant, combined with others from acting agencies including the old boy at the end. Finally we then cast models to sit between them; there needs to be a balance.”
The accusation frequently levelled at the female side of the business is that girls are exploited and vulnerable to developing eating disorders in order to stay thin. Despite one recent Saint Laurent men’s show being criticised for using extremely gaunt models, this doesn’t seem to be a widespread issue. However, choosing modelling as a career is not without its pitfalls for either sex.
The star of Levi’s and Topman campaigns, Josh Beech, says the biggest myth about the business “is that models are really rich and famous. That 98 per cent of the time is not the case at all. A lot of models actually struggle financially”.
A menswear casting director of many years experience, who preferred not to be named, went further, saying: “People don’t talk about the money because its the proverbial donkey’s carrot. There are some guys – a small percentage – who earn huge salaries (nothing like the best female models) but most male models are like jobbing actors waiting for their big break. They earn money but not as much as their friends and families think they make... There’s a huge amount of work that is done for free.” He went on: “The pay scale varies dramatically, I’ve known of models appearing in the same ad campaign and one getting paid £60,000 and the other £600 on the same page.”
The last words on the subject go to Agi & Sam, who painted a picture of the lighter, behind-the-scenes moments. “The biggest character we have ever worked with was in our spring/summer 2013 show. That whole show was based on Miami Vice and Magnum PI, so we wanted to find some real Tom Selleck silver foxes. Then in walked Nigel, an American actor who’d actually featured in Miami Vice in the 1980s. Besides his personality, which we can only describe as a living crooner, his walk was amazing – a real arm-swinging Sunset Boulevard swagger. He then also threw in a few cuff adjustments at the end.”
The duo recalled another memorable encounter in January. “ The ‘Lord Bath’ guy was supposed to wear a beret. I went to put it on him and he just said ‘I’m not wearing that, lad’. I felt compelled to agree with him, so had to just leave him hatless.”