About three weeks before fashion week starts, the offices of casting directors, stylists and designers are flooded with show packages containing cards of models that agencies want to promote for the bi-annual runway shows. Model cards are meant to provide basic stats on available models for hire: A typical card features photos of a model, his or her measurements and contact information.
In the last few years, the show package has evolved from a simple informational tool to an industry art form. Competition for fashion week bookings has ratcheted up such that the packages, which were once no different from the basic set of cards mailed throughout the year by agencies, have become elaborate, twice-yearly productions, that can cost modeling agencies thousands of dollars. Subtle details such as custom fonts, hand-stamped wax seals and bespoke boxes are crafted into meticulous displays of aesthetic.
For September's show season, Elite Models spent $40,000 on 1,000 21-card packages, which were inspired by a vintage 1970s surf poster. Ford Models's package features a stack of floral-collaged cards with custom-made ribbon font, sitting atop dehydrated moss. Only 250 copies will be printed; each will be hand-addressed and hand-delivered. (Ford declined to reveal its show-package budget.) Women Models invested around $80,000 for 500 silk-covered binders with fold-out cards. By contrast, Elite estimated that ten years ago, it spent $500 for its show packages.
"If you don't make that really strong impression, you really could be setting the girl up to have a bad season," says graphic designer and former modeling agent Mac Folkes, who designed Elite's packages last year.
Show packages can take between two to six months to complete. Yet their lifespan lasts only a few weeks; after the fashion weeks in New York and Europe are over, they are often thrown away. "In many ways, we are crafting the careers of talent in the same way that designers are crafting their looks," Ford CEO John Caplan says.
Before the era of 1990s supermodels such as Naomi Campbell, Cindy Crawford and Linda Evangelista, models primarily did either runway work or editorial work. But starting around 2000, models began to be marketed aggressively for both venues. This push propelled agencies to start getting creative to grab the attention of casting directors.
The show package "promotes the image of the agency as a whole," says Neil Hamil, director of Elite North America. "We're really marketing for the shows: something new and different each time. It's always about who's new, who's fresh. This is another reason why this becomes necessary."
Last year, Mr. Hamil hired Mr. Folkes to create Elite's Spring 2008 package. The theme, A Gathering of Swans, was based on a phrase by Truman Capote. Elite commissioned the creation of short poems for each its 24 models to be displayed on their cards. "Double-barreled and // in full bloom, she // lashes out against a // nasty and somewhat demeaning // minimalism enforced over the // past decade," read the ode to model Coco Rocha.
Paul Rowland, president of Supreme Models, has sought to turn his productions into collectibles. Recognizing that the majority of show packages are thrown out as soon as runway shows are over, Mr. Rowland published a bound coffee table book as his show package this season. The book intersperses drawings and images from young artists with pictures of Supreme models shot in nature. (A loose set of model cards is also included so casting agents don't have to rip the book apart.) "Honestly, this is more of a promotion to give image to my agency," Mr. Rowland says.
Supreme's show package budget this year was $50,000. "For me, it's worth it," Mr. Rowland says. "In fashion, image is everything." In addition to the 400 books and model cards that he will send out, Mr. Rowland published an extra 100 copies, which he's hoping to sell to consumers.
Rocket Garage, which represents models and musicians, has taken it a step further this season and has produced a short film as its show package. Shot over three days on the streets of New York, the video aims to provide a glimpse of personality that the cards can't provide. It was uploaded to Rocket Garage's Web site the week before fashion week kicked off. "Fashion is no longer about just the printed page," says managing partner Lance LaBreche. "It's becoming more than that." (See the Rocket Garage movie.)
But some packages are so creative that they lose their functionality. Agencies have been criticized for sending out cards with models' backs to the camera or that have their hair obscuring their faces. Casting directors also often complain of cards being unwieldy or unreadable. Agencies "forget the purpose of the show package, which is for casting directors to see what these girls look like," says casting director Jennifer Starr. "It frustrates me that this is how they use this."