For an up-and-coming model at New York Fashion Week, there is no higher honor than being asked to walk the Marc Jacobs runway. The final show of the week, it's earned a reputation for being a spectacle in the best sense of the word, a theatrical parade of supermodels in often highly unwearable fashions, orchestrated by some of the industry's greats.
It's by far the most interesting in terms of beauty, too, rife with controversial dreadlocks, nightmarish black eyes, and mullet armies. This is where I say that Fall 2018 didn't break the streak. Only this time, for some in the show, getting out of Marc's fantasy world won't be as simple as swiping a cotton pad across their face or unpinning a wig.
While the majority of models found themselves wearing wide-brimmed hats and scarves that completely covered their natural hair, nine were selected days before to get drastic cuts and dye jobs from Redken's Global Creative Director Guido Palau and Global Color Director Josh Wood. And by drastic, we're talking bowl cuts, mushroom tops, and retro rounded bobs, all black, save for wide swathes of lime green, fuchsia, teal, and more. They were, as Palau emphasized repeatedly, extreme — and not meant to feel remotely natural. "We're very lucky the girls agreed to it," he said backstage.
But what does agreeing actually look like in this competitive of an industry, when a two-minute walk on the right runway could make your career and a 'no' might shatter it? Backstage, I asked one of the models with a vivid bowl cut how long her hair had been before. She motioned to her waist. Why'd she get the cut? "It wasn't my choice," she told me.
But the job of a model is, at its most distilled, to wear the clothes and hair and makeup they're put in on any given day and do their best to sell the look, regardless of their feelings about it. The question then is how much, if any, autonomy do they deserve over their appearance? After the show, I reached out to the agents of all nine models to try to get an understanding of how these decisions are made and if there's any room for pushback.
"I would never pressure any of my models to undergo such a drastic change without them also being on board,” says Nora Vai’s agent, Eric Granwehr. “She’s the one that has to wake up every morning and see herself in the mirror, and I want to be the one to make sure she loves what she sees.” He says Marc Jacobs' casting director reached out to his agency asking for submissions of girls willing to undergo drastic hair changes — but gave no other details. He then had to select a small group of models to be considered, not knowing whether they'd have any hair at the end of it. He knew Nora, who already had a platinum bowl cut, would be game.
Conor Kennedy, the President of Muse Management, which represents three of the girls who got haircuts, also insisted the process was collaborative, with open communication between the casting director, agent, and model. "Models are free to say no to this kind of transformation, and they're also free to say no to working with a client," he says. "It's a decision we make together about the project and the possibilities."
However, when you're given the opportunity to work with the biggest names in fashion, he adds, it's generally expected that you "give yourself up to their creative process and trust in the quality of their work. That's part of why models come to New York and can't wait to do fashion week. They're very excited about this kind of transformation."
The general consensus among the agents I spoke to is that being asked to work with the dream team that is Marc and Guido is an enormous privilege, which is why models go along with whatever the direction may be, no questions asked. Marc Jacobs knows he can bring whatever wacky, weird vision he has to life, and so he does. Lesser designers know better than to even attempt.
But what happens when the lights come up, fashion month is over, and these models are expected to book other gigs with their new incredibly specific and unconventional hairstyle? "It really changes everything, to be blunt," says Granwehr. "Picture a model’s portfolio — years of work in markets all around the world, all showing off an already very specific haircut... all of those images and all that visual proof of long-term success kind of becomes null and void." When that happens, he says, it's his job to figure out how to take the girl in a different direction, with new clients and editorials. In other words, a total rebrand is required.
It's worth looking at the models who get asked to make drastic, semi-permanent changes in the first place versus the ones who don't. The Kendalls and Kaias and Gigis of the world have been exempt from these types of requests since the moment they entered the industry. I suspect if they said no to something that made them uncomfortable on set at any point, it wouldn't affect their livelihoods, either. I'm not so certain the same could be said for these nine.
Maybe these particular models all loved and wanted the cuts they were given for Marc Jacobs — a few of them insisted they did via their agents. It's just hard to know for sure, because the girl who told me she had no choice over the matter backstage later provided a statement through her agent that it was her choice. And like Granwehr and Kennedy, Kate Rushing of Silent Models NY said that the decision to undergo a transformation is ultimately the model's. But to the question of whether there is an option for someone who doesn't want to do it that still allows her to walk in the show? "Not really."
Marc Jacobs was unavailable for comment.