Friday, June 20, 2008

Interview with modeling agent Ben Barry

I met Ben while doing a story on him for Metro newspaper about his book Fashioning Reality. I thought it would be timely to post this since fashion is getting extra attention these days with critics bemoaning the lack of diversity. Ben owns a modeling agency that hires women of all different ages, sizes and races. And he actually gets them jobs. You remember the Dove Campaign for Real Beauty? Those are his models. He was very optimistic about the fashion industry listening to what his message is- that real women can model too, and he hoped to see more full-figured girls inside mainstream magazines. While we haven't seen that yet in the year that has passed since I talked to him (Vogue's Shape Issue does not count), I do hope that his goal will come true. Fashion is slow to change and does not really reflect the modern-day woman (in terms of her race, weight, etc.) And although campaigns such as the Dove one are a step forward, I am afraid that it could just be a marketing gimmick to draw attention to the company. You don't see any other beauty campaigns featuring "real" women even though Dove has stuck with this for a couple years now. But who knows, maybe one day plus-sized models or black models won't be used solely for "Special" issues of magazines or gimmicky beauty campaigns.

Agent breaks the mold

Agent Ben Barry wants to convince the fashion world that not every woman has to be 5’11 and 115 pounds to be a model.

Remember that larger-than-life poster on the Gardiner which asked whether the model was fat or fit? The numbers on that Dove advertisement showed people were split 50-50 on whether the model was heavy or healthy.
Her agent, Ben Barry, is trying to convince society that women do not have to be 5’11 and 115 pounds to be models.
“Within the fashion industry, there is one idea of beauty and people are really scared of changing that,” says Barry, who is currently promoting his new book Fashioning Reality.
Barry’s goal is to get his models on the runways of haute couture fashion shows and on magazine covers.
His roster of models come in a variety of shapes, sizes, ages, ethnicities and abilities (one model, Joey, is a paraplegic.)
When he was 14-years-old, Barry started his modelling agency, Ben Barry Agency Inc., out of his mother’s basement in Ottawa after he saw the devastating effects fashion magazines had on his best friend, who developed anorexia.
“I was in school and seeing the impact of these images on my friends. They weren’t inspired, they were damaged. My best friend got hurt because she was looking at these images every day,” says Barry.
However, when he offered his services to fashion companies, they refused.
“The initial responses I got were ‘Well, we’re sorry this is happening but we’re not interested.’ And I said, ‘These women are your consumers and they’re getting negative feelings about your brand.’ ”
Now, Barry, 24, has a bachelor of arts degree from the University of Toronto, and has models who have appeared in ads for Nike, Dove, Macy’s and L’Oréal.
After that Dove ad on the Gardiner, sales went up 700 per cent in the first month.
However, it took him time to gain credibility as a modelling agent who was trying to get jobs for people who did not fit into the model mold.
“I convinced a lot of clients to use diversity by showing it made business sense to use models who looked like their consumer. I’m not saying get rid of your models, but try one or two of mine.”
Not only is he running a business, he is also a graduate student at Cambridge University.
“People may read this and think ‘Oh man, this kid is crazy,’ but anyone could do this,” he says, suggesting young entrepreneurs get friends to help, develop business mentors, be creative with capital and tap into ideas from everyday life.
“I’m influenced by my friends who I see every day in school, who are loving the fashion industry and hating it. This fuels me to keep going.”

(Copyright Chloe Tejada 2007-2008)

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