What does it take to be an industry leader? To have your finger on the pulse and cultivate an intuitive understanding of what is ‘next’? In an industry that is changing as rapidly as fashion, this is no easy feat. Especially considering fashion is also an industry with so many nuanced complexities when it comes to standards of beauty and self-worth.
Amidst this fast-paced industry that is so ripe for meaningful change, a handful of individuals are leading the way, challenging the status quo, and nurturing the next generation of changemakers. Many of these individuals act as guardians of the fashion industry, in their role as agents to the bold faces and creatives of the future.
So What-Elseis delighted to introduce Part II of our Industry Leaders series – The Agents. Featuring Ben Hams, Director of M.A.P Australia, one of the leading global agencies representing the world's premier talent in photography, styling, illustration, and art. Claire Dickens, who oversees Scouting & Development at IMG Models, an international leader in talent discovery and model management. Valerie Norman, Director of Mens Image at Kult Models, a global group that was founded with a mission to cultivate some of the world’s top male talent. Doll Wright, Manager of Priscillas Model Management, an international agency with a boutique philosophy. And Juach Cyer, Founder of Rïn Models, an Australian modelling agency dedicated to representing dark-skinned models. These are the individuals pushing the boundaries and helping to shape the Australian fashion landscape and beyond by nurturing the next generation of talent.
With a finger firmly on the pulse and a keen eye to the future, this group of industry leaders is working hard to nurture authenticity, originality, and diversity in the fields of fashion, art, and culture. They are giving a platform to local voices on an international stage and helping to define a new approach. Here, they speak with What-Elseabout what the Australian fashion industry means to them, where it still needs to change, and what we can do to help drive that momentum.
Rosie Dalton: What does the Australian fashion industry mean to you?
Ben Hams: The Australian fashion industry has consistently produced some amazing local, and at times, international talent. It’s a tough, competitive industry, so to possess the determination and ability to thrive here is an accomplishment and an asset that can be applied anywhere in the world.
Claire Dickens: There’s a sense of emergence and reverence for what comes out of Australia. It feels like a frontier of sorts… having the privilege to create on such sacred land at the edge of the world. The energy here helps push the boundaries of what is beautiful, honest, and original. We still face our own unique challenges and have a lot of work to put in to continue improving our industry but moving back to Australia from London during the pandemic made me see how much the industry is evolving.
Valerie Norman: To me it should represent the future and our values. Meaning, we need to work collectively to build an industry that represents what’s relevant to us and what’s important at its core.
Doll Wright: The Australian Fashion industry is family. At 18-years-old I sat on the front desk in a modelling agency, so it’s watched me grow up as I’ve also watched the Australian fashion industry develop and evolve. I’m proud and feel privileged to be a part of the burgeoning hub that is [the] Australian fashion industry.
Juach Cyer: I have always been curious about fashion from afar, but I wasn’t a creative like my cousin RïŋDut, who was a designer. So I think I’m just grateful that I have had the opportunity to build a platform for myself to have a voice and to give [others] within the community that voice [too].
Rosie Dalton: As a leader in this space, what do you seek out from contributing to our fashion landscape?
Ben Hams: I just enjoy collaborating with artists … I don’t have the skills to express myself creatively, but I can be involved vicariously in the creative process by offering artists a separate set of management skills that can hopefully assist them in their endeavours.
Claire Dickens: I seek to find, listen to, and amplify the stories of others, particularly those that resonate with me and that I believe we can all learn from. As a scout, we have an ability to help shape the standards of beauty that are represented in [the] media. That is a responsibility I don’t take lightly. Weaving webs of connection between our talent at IMG Models and the creatives we collaborate with so they can create art together is meaningful and leaves us all with a continual source of inspiration.
Valerie Norman: Representation of diversity in all its forms: work that is creative, inspired, has purpose, and awareness around sustainability.
Doll Wright: To provide excellent talent consistently through a critical process of recognising the perfect balance of beauty, brains, and joie de vivre.
Juach Cyer: The talents that we’re developing are sometimes in the early stages of their life, so I think guidance is so important. To go into an industry that’s so fast-paced is a lot. I try to reassure them [and make sure] they’re aware of what’s to come, to understand that when they do experience rejection, it’s not a personal thing. Especially with social media nowadays, we are always comparing ourselves. Mental health is so important today and this can have such a big effect on how we perceive things. Each model is different, but I think it’s important to look after the models, to [have that sense of] care and build those relationships. I want to be the agency that can do more for my models, not just be an agent.
Rosie Dalton: What would you say is vital to keeping you engaged and inspired in your work?
Ben Hams: Change. You can learn from it, adapt to it, and move with it to help try [and] stay relevant.
Claire Dickens: Leaning into the deep responsibility I feel to care for and nurture the talent that are under my wing as an identifier of young people who are talented and can inspire positive change. What challenges me and keeps me motivated is making sure all versions of Australian and international beauty are represented and have opportunities to be discovered through our scouting initiatives. Going to them, learning who they are, where they are from, and listening to the stories of our models and their families is always so rewarding. Guiding someone’s career successfully, while also making sure their holistic development and evolution as a young person is on track is special – there is nothing better than seeing one of our models, creatives, or talents flourish.
Valerie Norman: The team I work with here at Kult and the people around me. Working on the growth of our model’s careers and seeing the industry push itself, through education, originality, and vision is really rewarding.
Juach Cyer: My cousin RïŋDut, who passed away in early 2015. The vision for RïŋModels originated with me working alongside him from a very young age. I wanted to honour him, so I named the business after him.
Doll Wright: To work with fabulous people. People who are open minded, straightforward, risk takers. People who trust the process. To work with people who aren’t scared to question and push me individually either. We all have a unique set of eyes – what I see, you may not. What you see, I may miss. Therefore, to work with people who respect varying points of view, regardless of our own individual vision, is something that keeps me totally engaged and inspired. For me it’s all about the people. Without the people, there is no magic.
Rosie Dalton: Is there anywhere that would you like to see change in this industry?
Claire Dickens: Celebrating all forms of identities, beauty, and bodies, particularly those that have been historically underrepresented requires understanding, taste, and responsibility. I’d like to see a more conscious culture across the industry that respects the portrayal of everyone [in] it. My hope is that inclusion becomes normalised within our industry and that brands really show up to support people and communities who may be vulnerable.
I’m also very passionate about sustainable practices in fashion and hope that more brands adopt radical transparency on all fronts, particularly regarding the ethical production, delivery, packaging, and marketing of their products. I am hopeful that more brands will continue to be mindful of their impact, find authentic ways to integrate talent and to take accountability for their actions.
Valerie Norman: I’d like to see more of the fresh perspectives our new generations of creatives and designers have to offer. I feel we need to champion our future talent and give them a platform.
I hope for an industry where there’s more awareness around sustainable practices. I am a big fan of
brands who produce quality clothes that actually last or create them from upcycled fabrics and yarns. I think before starting a label, people should ask themselves the purpose and why does it need to exist?
Achieving better diversity and inclusion in fashion shouldn’t just be given a token thought. Representing diverse bodies, race, gender, age, Indigenous [and] POC creatives, designers, models. Which means education is key. For example, understanding how to apply make-up to different skin tones, working with various hair types and photographing different skin tones is important. [As well as understanding] the correct use of language to communicate and address people respectfully.
Juach Cyer: I think we still have a long way to go in terms of diversity. There are certain conversations that I still have with people in the industry [who think it’s] cool to start a business representing people of colour. But it’s not a ‘cool’ thing, it is just like any other business. And that, in itself, says a lot about where we are still. There are people now that are wanting to see those changes, though, and it’s great to know that those people exist.
Doll Wright: Without change there is no evolution, so I’d like to see constant change across all scopes of the industry always, otherwise we’d stagnate and die. However, I think it’s critical to have a concise, excellent knowledge of the past if you want to consider yourself a serious player. It’s that knowledge which will allow for real and necessary change because your intent to change will be informed. Without true intention, it’s just noise.
Rosie Dalton: How can we work towards that change both collectively and as individuals?
Valerie Norman: Only through our daily conduct. We make decisions every day. Be mindful of making ones that you are proud of.
Doll Wright: Be educated across all pop culture past, present, and future. Don’t be lazy. Question everything. Don’t settle for good. Constantly strive for great. Know your intention.
Juach Cyer: Through more conversations like this with people within the industry, just talking about what’s happening and acknowledging those changes and adapting to things, then thinking about the next change – that’s how we’re going to move forward as creatives within the Australian industry, to make the change that we want to make. Because there are people that want to make those changes, so hopefully we can come together and make it happen.
Claire Dickens: We need to become better guardians of our environment and continue to champion under-represented communities to ensure they are not tokenised by brands or organisations purely for commercial gain.
Long term change comes from education and deep understanding as opposed to one-off initiatives. I’d love to see more support and initiatives that educate our industry about cross-culture with First Nations, LGBTQI+, people with disabilities, and environmental organisations. Paid opportunities for these communities to advise fashion brands often creates meaningful grassroots change and, in turn, creates long-standing relationships and authentic engagement with talent.
Rosie Dalton: What would be your advice to those starting out as the future of Australian fashion?
Ben Hams: Identify and stay true to your own unique creative vision. Compromise is an inevitable part of working commercially in fashion, regardless of where you are in the world, so it’s important to make sure you find a space to be able to consistently create your own work, uninhibited.
Juach Cyer: Ask yourself why you want to do what you’re seeking to do. I think it’s important for you to understand your reason. Because you’re going to have times when you doubt yourself and it’s only going to be you that can … get you through those times. Having a vision in terms of why you want to do [what you’re seeking to do] is important, but at the same time, it’s okay to not feel accepted [by everyone]. That’s what I had to learn – that there are people out there who will appreciate you for what you do. And that the industry is constantly changing, so a time will come when someone notices your talent. Patience is key [and] it’s okay for things to be slow.
Valerie Norman: Be prepared to work hard. This is not a 9 to 5 job. But if you are doing what you love, you will feel rewarded.
Doll Wright: Research the industry. Know your contemporaries. Don’t be afraid. Ask questions, listen to the answers. Push boundaries. Never think you know it all. The moment you think you do your creativity is dead. Believe in yourself, don’t rely on social media likes!
Claire Dickens: How crucial it is to find a deep appreciation and understanding of the many crossovers between fashion, film, art, music, design, architecture, history, spirituality, and more – to be able to use fashion as a medium for authentic expression. I’d love to see more creatives reclaiming the power in their output rather than doing what has already been done.