'Fit models' make the mold for your clothes
KAREN Lee has had a mark on her stomach slight-below her belly button since birth. It's not unseemly, but it's the kind of thing many women would cover up.
Not Lee. The mark has become a professional asset--apparel designers use it to show where pants should settle on a woman's hips.
"I was born to be a fit model," said Lee, joking about the mark while wearing a pair of Hudson Clothing Inc.'s $200 jeans during one of her many daily fittings at local apparel companies.
Fit models are like live mannequins who try on clothes so manufacturers can shape them to the human frame. And with the growth of premium jeans, which can retail for several hundred dollars and are often designed in Los Angeles, the importance of fit has been a boon to these specialists.
One day last week, Peter Lee, Hudson's creative director, had decided that the jeans' waistband didn't exactly match up with Karen's stomach mark. He wrote on the denim with orange chalk, indicating that the pants have to be lowered three-eighths of an inch.
"Not only does she have the body to fit the clothes, but she has the experience and knowledge to give feedback," said Lee, who is unrelated to the model.
Lana Cretz, Hudson's designer, who with pattern maker Soon Kojima, was also examining how the jeans cradle Lee's thighs, hips and behind. "The fit is very popular," she said. "I think it has to do with her body type."
Such is the day in the life of a fit model.
Although still a sliver of the modeling industry with probably less than 40 who do it full-time in the area, fit modeling can be a lucrative career for those select few whose body effectively mimics an apparel company's target customers.
Fit models typically get jobs through agencies acting as the conduit between manufacturers and models. Only a handful of local shops, including Calabasas-based Rage Models, Marina Del Rey-based Models! Models! Talent Agency and Valencia-based Peak Models & Talent, specialize in representing fit models.
"There is an onslaught of new premium denim brands hitting the market every day, but it all ultimately boils down to who has the best fit," said Tim Kaeding, creative director of Vernon-based denim company Seven for All Mankind LLC.
Unlike runway models, whose rail-thin physiques have long been prized, a female fit model should be 5 feet 8 inches tall and have a 28-inch waist. For men, a 32-inch waist is preferred. There are plus-size fit models with larger proportions.
Finding people with just the right size isn't easy. Gerard Moreno, an agent at Models! Models!, said that out of 40 or 50 models who show up for an open call, only about three measure up.
The proportions have to be spot on because attention to fit is what separates high-fashion clothes from mass-merchandise items. That attention spells money for premium denim makers like Seven and Hudson, whose jeans sell for $200 at boutiques and high-end department stores.
The onslaught of new denim has sent the crowded field of companies competing for the same fit models.
Paige Adams-Geller, who recently started her own jean brand called Paige Premium Denim, was for several years the top choice of premium denim companies, including Seven, Vernon-based Lucky Brand Jeans, Commerce-based Joe's Jeans Inc. and Los Angeles-based True Religion Apparel Inc. When Adams-Geller stopped fit modeling to start her own denim company last year, Lee took over many of her modeling duties.
"My career has kind of paralleled the jeans boom," said Lee, who started her fit modeling with mostly dresses and tops. "As premium denim became such a hot commodity, more denim accounts came up."
On any given day, Lee can have eight fittings at different designers. She fits daily for some brands--Citizens of humanity is one--while visiting other clients two or three times a week.
Moreno said a fit model can now command $125 per hour--the agency gets a 20 percent fee on top of that--up from $85 per hour a few years back. In New York, they are paid up to $250 an hour. The high demand for fit models has brought about new challenges for local agencies focusing on the specialty, with agencies outside the niche jumping in.
At Wilhelmina Models, where print, runway and informal jobs such as sales presentations make up the bulk of the work, fit modeling has become more commonplace, making up about 15 percent of its local business. "I have been getting a lot more calls for it lately," said Jill Sullivan, an agent in the Los Angeles office of the New York-based agency.
Getting a fit modeling job isn't too different from getting an acting gig; an agency will send fit model hopefuls to an audition with an apparel company, which picks on the basis of what model's body best represents the company's audience.
"These kinds of jobs are fantastic for acting," said Michelle Kova, who is represented by Wilhelmina and works as a fit model for Tarrant Apparel Group as she tries to develop an acting career. "I can easily maneuver them into my schedule. You make enough to make it through the week or hopefully the month."
And competition is sometimes less stiff than for other modeling jobs, especially for men. Luke Ryan, a fit model represented by Rage Models, said that while 100 men might show up for one of his traditional modeling auditions, only about five with the required measurements try out for a fit modeling job.
Ryan, who fit models for Anaheim-based Pacific Sunwear of California Inc., Los Angeles-based Forever 21 Inc. and others, reasons that the competition for fit modeling is muted not only because print pays more, but because not too many people know about the niche. "All these other people are trying to get into magazines, but I am working regularly every week," he said.
Some designers who opt to save on fit modeling expenses by using their employees. Los Angeles-based !It Jeans uses one male staff member and one female staff member as its fit models; that way fitting can occur any time.
Another cost-cutting approach: sophisticated synthetic body models. City of Commerce-based Tukatech Inc. makes Tukaforms by electronically scanning a fit model and creating a mold made out of a human-like waxy material. "It is like having a fit model. We even make soft breasts and butts," said Ram Sareem, founder of Tukatech.
But even Sareem doesn't believe that his forms can totally supplant fit models and Lee agrees. "It is not the same to fit on a hard body," she said. "Women are soft and fleshy and malleable."