How A Model Goes From Baby Giraffe In Heels To Panther-On-The-Runway

Photographed by Landon Peoples.
If there's one misconception that deserves to be locked away for good, it's that models don't work. Simply put: Much like any other career, they do. And though the exposure they receive to every facet of the industry (designers, bookers, agents) is meant to prepare them for a successful career, even after multiple trainings and orientations, it's up to the models themselves to maintain relevance.

Recently, we took a trip to Wilhelmina Models to see just what it takes to become — and remain — the next big thing. Long gone is the era of being discovered at Primark trying on sunglasses, or being at the supermarket and simply "meeting the right person at the right time;" a lot has changed since then (including the industry). But with Fashion Month well underway (we're coming up on the curtails of Paris Fashion Week), we wanted to get the scoop on one of the most important parts of being a model (especially today): a signature walk. Marissa Surmenkow, one of three development board heads at the agency, gave us the behind-the-scenes look at what it takes to go from baby giraffe in heels to panther-on-the-runway status.

"I've been in the industry for over 10 years, always in scouting and development, so [teaching the girls to walk] was always part of the process," Surmenkow says. "I think for people looking to get into this, a lot of runway coaches we see are ex-models or just...performers. When you're on the runway, it's a performance. The designer is going to give you all sorts of cues of how to look, expression, energy, how quickly to walk, how slow to walk...And it might be a high-energy show or it might be something quite simple and clean, so you have to be able to adapt to each environment."
Photographed by Landon Peoples.
Inside one of Wilhelmina's runway sessions, new models watched videos of Naomi Campbell on the catwalk during the '90s and Raquel Zimmermann opening Versace spring 2016 for inspiration. For a fierce, horse-like trot, the models watched Alexander Wang. For a clean and simple, almost clothing-on-the-hanger-like walk, it was Calvin Klein.

"Runway coaching is kind of like teaching someone to dance," she continues. "There's a bit of musicality to it. Some girls are more natural and have confidence, while for other girls, it's like a baby bird leaving the nest. We get some girls who have never worn heels before. And sometimes, you're almost just thinking, 'Oh please, let her make it to the end of the runway!'" For models who aren't used to wearing heels, Surmenkow says it becomes a part of their daily practice, "from walking around at home to walking down Fifth Avenue."
After that, it was time for the models to actually do the damn thing. Like a ridiculously beautiful Army, they lined up around the corner of the office to walk down the agency's impromptu runway. (We kid you not when we tell you the office actually has speakers rigged in the ceilings to give the models the feeling of a real fashion show). They practiced their leisure walk first (after watching Tom Ford's fall 2015 show, this was to be practiced against Serge Gainsbourg's duet avec Brigitte Bardot, "Bonnie and Clyde"), followed by their "confident" walk (to Zebra Katz's "Ima Read"). As they marched on, their coaches shouted things like, "Slow, slow, slowww" and "Shoulders back!"

And as far as that ubiquitous grimace goes, the reasoning behind a model's frown is quite simple: They’re just concentrating. Every model has a thing, meaning a wrist that tends to stray upwards or a shoulder that starts to droop as they march down the catwalk, so controlling all of that in six-inch stilettos and working in a smile that doesn’t look the least bit nervous isn't exactly a walk in the park.

But like we said: When models get to work, it's serious business. And they know just how to werk it.

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