Born in Manhattan to Spanish parents, legendary modelling impresario John Casablancas founded Elite in 1972 with Alain Kittler. (These days Casablancas has to share headlines with his son Julian, lead singer of The Strokes.) Five years after the Paris agency was opened, Elite hit New York in 1977, encroaching on the territory of the pre-eminent Ford Models, and leading to the ‘model wars’ of the 1980s. Thanks to Casablancas’ unerring vision and canny use of marketing, Elite swiftly conquered the Big Apple, while the arrival of Gérald Marie (a former husband of Linda Evangelista) in 1986 helped drive the agency’s international expansion. At its height, Elite would go on to represent an incredible 80% of the supermodels of the day.
In 1983, the agency launched an international modelling contest in over 55 countries under the name ‘Look of the Year’ (it wasn’t until 1995 that it became the Elite Model Look contest we know today). Reading through some of the past finalists’ names is like reading a Who’s Who of the modelling world – from inaugural finalist Stephanie Seymour to Karen Mulder (1st RU 1986) and Inés Sastre (winner 1989). It wasn’t only the finalists who went on to success of course – for during its search, Elite Model Look has managed to unearth a vast array of supers: Cindy Crawford, Gisele Bündchen, Alessandra Ambrosio, Tatjana Patitz, and today’s top model (1996 contestant) Lara Stone.
Long before series like America’s Next Top Model and Make Me A Supermodel, Elite had helped steer the growing reality TV market in a glamorous new direction with its own The Making of a Supermodel. The dramatic TV specials, crafted around tapes of the Elite Model Look USA finals, were aired on the popular E! Entertainment channel. The title was undoubtedly apt: more than any other agency, Elite under Casablancas was synonymous with the rise to power of the supermodels. In 2005 he told the New York Times: ‘When I first came to New York - 30 years ago […] Actresses in Hollywood’s star system were famous, and models were just models. We started creating the myth behind the look’.
Of course, certain models didn’t need as much help: Janice Dickenson claimed to have coined the term supermodel herself in 1979 when her agent at Elite, Monique Pilar, asked: ‘Who do you think you are, Superman?’ Although the first supermodel is usually credited as Lisa Fonssagrives, active in the 1930s-1950s, it was in the 1980s when models began to endorse products and sign exclusive contracts with fashion houses, and the supermodel really came to prominence. By now, Casablancas’ plan was coming to fruition: a new wave of ‘super’ models enjoyed the kind of star power formerly reserved for Hollywood icons.
The real tipping point for the new supers, and the moment that their fame grew such that they could be referred to by first names only, was 1990. It kicked off as it meant to go on with a legendary British Vogue cover featuring the top five supers of the day photographed by Peter Lindbergh. Three of them – Linda, Cindy and Tatjana – had been discovered by Casablancas himself, while Naomi and Christy had at some point worked with Elite. Supermodels had arrived in the public consciousness and they even had an infinitely quotable tagline: ‘We don’t wake up for less than $10,000 a day’ Linda Evangelista told Vogue. Such was the impact of the spread that pop star George Michael even recreated the lineup in his hit song Freedom! ’90.
Fast forward to the late 1990s, and there was much talk about the return of the fabulous supermodel after fashion’s fling with pop stars and a more androgynous wave of girls. Elite was once again dictating the news: the ‘new trinity’ of Gisele Bündchen, Adriana Lima and Alessandra Ambrosio had all been discovered by Elite Model Look (Gisele somehow only made the 1994 semi-finals). Casablancas still had time to help launch Heidi Klum, before leaving Elite in 2000, and returning to his long-established John Casablancas Modeling and Career Center in New York. Since 2003, the agency has continued to adapt to the changing demands of the fashion world, scouting new cover girls Constance Jablonski and Enikő Mihalik, alongside rising Asian stars Ming Xi and Fei Fei Sun. Heading towards the future, and Shanghai's Elite Model Look World Final on December 6, the agency that changed the face of fashion forever will continue to dictate its future.