FASHION EXPERT Lionel Dejean

Poetry, Grace and Rebellion: this is the motto of the internationally renowed model agency CITY MODELS, which celebrates its 40th anniversary in December and remains the reference in terms of creating the new fashion icons in Paris. We took the chance to meet its director, Lionel Dejean, and share views about the evolutions and future of modelling.

– Lionel, first tell us a bit about City?

– City was founded in 1978, which makes the agency the oldest one in Paris. Under the management of Louise Despointes, the muse of Guy Bourdin and a pure child of the New-York Factory movement, it quickly became something special: a place where artists – painters, movie

directors, photographers, designers, musicians – used to meet and develop projects together.

Then the 80’s came, often remembered as the age of supermodels, with their signature mix of sex and glamour, but even in those days there were rebels, and City was leading them.


You speak of Rebellion, what does it mean in modelling?

– In this time of curvaceous bombshells, the agency could recruit in the streets, to find « real faces », and be the first to believe and impose models with bold hair and a big tatoo over the head, androgynous girls, tomboys with fiery temperamenet and bags of personality. Feminine James Dean, tattooed aliens or a pure Crow Indian met by chance in a reserve in the USA. Skinned cats of a poetic singularity ending up on the cover of Vogue. The agency stood aside from the competitors with «an unparalled ability to see beauty where others couldn’t, until

they could ». We try to stay loyal to this legacy.


– Could you name some of those who were discovered by CITY?

– The list would be long, it goes from Carla Bruni to Eva Herzigova, Helena Christensen, Tyra Banks, Elle Mc Pherson, Carmen Kass, Isabelli Fontana, Carolyn Murphy, Hye Park, Bar Refaelli, Ines Sastre, Irina Shayk, ... to name a few.

Many of them were refused by other agencies before joining City.

And the most unexpected result of this unconventional scouting was to gain the title of the « Perfume agency» as it became the one with the highest number of perfume campaigns in the last 30 years.


– With the benefit of nearly 40 years of experience, what would you say has changed more in modelling?

– Well, ... so many things! Till mid 90’s, there were very few models, finding them was a long and difficult process. Then, with the Fall of the Wall, suddenly beauty was not rare anymore: thousands of models were able to travel and invaded the catwalks of Paris and NY.

Some lucky, but talented few, became Supermodels, and most of the other ones enjoyed a fairy tale life in an era where money was pouring in.

With the difficult years of the 2000’s, and the arrival of internet, suddently, no more need to travel to far away countries to find the next jewel. In a click, you could submit your application to an agency in Paris and next week do the shows.

In the last ten years, it led to the creation of a torrent of models landing every season on the shores of the fashion weeks and armies of clones presented by model agencies networks, often without any kind preparation to this profession. And thus, of the 800 new faces in Paris or NY

every season, no more than 50 will work and see the next season. The other 750 will never come back. Likewise appeared the « 20 seconds career » syndroma, when a model walks for an exclusive show and will never work again after.


– The unlimited offer of new faces changed the whole market. Is there a defence against it?

– To priviledge a small, limited, selected roaster of new models, in order to be able to prepare them to face the difficulties of this job: train them to walk, simulate castings, develop a strong portfolio and wait till they are ready to make a first great impression. But above all, dedicate

hours and days, 24/7, to listen to them and support them. Modeling may be a battle but a battle you conduct together, as a team, with the support of your agency. A « Band of brothers » as Shaekespeare wrote.


– By the way, this sounds intriguing. How would you describe your work as an agent?

– Help models to realize their dreams.


– And what are you looking for in a model? what does it take to become a CITY ‘s model?

– Grace, grace, and grace!

Discovering an aspiring model must be a breathtaking moment: the same as when you see a great ballerina entering on a stage. Magic, charisma, something theatrical that suspends time. She can be still in the state of chrysalis, but there must be in her some inspiring dimension. You use the word « personality », how does it influence the success of a model, most of them never have to speak? It s true. This is the magic of the artistic activities. Why every smile of Audrey Hepburn illumininates the screen, every step of Sylvie Guilhem burns the stage, or every song of

Janis Joplin moves your soul. Our responsibilty is to identify it and help its growth.


– Any example of it?

– By passion, CITY to recruited and helped those who were only young models to become respected actresses for instance. Even if many of them may not be familiar to your readers, Julie DELPY, Emmanuelle SEIGNER, Anna MOUGLALIS, MAIWEEN et Isild Le BESCO, Zoe FELIX, Elisa SEDNAOUI, Lou DOILLON, Clemence POESY, ... two generations of the most famous french actresses started with us. We could also name number of singers, writers, painters, movie directors, photographers, who blossomed their talent in so many fields. Modelling was an exceptional plateform.

You know modelling may be a brief period of a life, so an agent has the responsibilty to prepare models to what will come after too.

Other noticeable changes happened in the last years?

One significant is that till 2010, models and actresses used to share the international beauty campaigns. They were the Icons of this time. And with the development of the social networks, influencers, bloggers, or more often TV reality stars, popped up to « steal » these highly enviable jobs. Surprisingly, even the most respected and aspirational luxury brands put a TV reality star in their ads. You can question how the buyers of these brands can relate to an american bimbo show off star but it is still a reality.

With them the brands may be totally out of the scope of their status and clientele, but they buy visibilty at a low cost. Even now for models, in casting brief you will find, as a criteria of the looked for model, « with more than 500.000 followers ».


– So it does impact the way the market selects models now. Was it better before?

Better? Certainly not. Different, yes.

– The growth of a model was done at a different rythm, based on her realizations and the reputation she acquired through each new shooting or show. To a certain extend now you can either buy 1 million followers or date a football player – or do both – to become a renowned model. Famous does not mean talented, of course. But nowadays, on demand.

The tyranny of social media ruling/ruining our lives and the modelling business has imposed to all of those who accept it as inescapable a new way of evaluatiing themselves: a way purely based on metrics, where numbers reign. And led all the models, and their fellow competitors come from TV or blogs, to show to the world an irrealistic dreamt life, formated, encapsulated by filters and photoshop, that no one, including them the first of course, does know. For this, as for many fake truths we face: Allow the world to live as it chooses, and allow yourself to live as you choose.


– Still, it s a personal standpoint, any general hope about it?

– Unfortunately, no one can predict future, but ... If you do believe in humankind cleverness, yes. One day people will wake up and start to ask themselves why they spend hours of their lives contemplating (« following ») stories that are neither theirs, nor are real.

See: the TV reality programs like Big Brother and their fake stars slowly disappeared, and the huge keen interest they once created has vanished as dinosaurs did. Why should it go another way when you consider the vacuity it vehicles. Time should dissipate illusions.


– Other major changes?

– Supermodels disappeared. Once again, we can wonder if it's good or not but it is a fact. How many people in the street would be able to name one of the models who started in the last ten years?

The top models of the 90’s still rule and no one took their crown. But even if not as famous as these legends, every year we see one personality appearing on the fore front of fashion. Because she has something so unique that she emerges from the crowd.

In this sense, we are very proud of the place that our « Elf » Unia Pakhomova took in this world. She looks like no other and her incredibly rich, unconventional, rock’n roll personality and multiple talents make her a name to remember.


– She is by all ways a true City ‘s model. What about diversity?

– As mentioned before, we have always been very keen on opening – something breaking the door down, if needed – to the unexpected talents we discovered. When the whole market was only booking caucasians, we propelled the french-algerian Farida KHELFA, with the help of J.P. GAULTIER, GOUDE and ALAIA, to the top of modeling, paving the way for a generation of north-african models.

Likewise, we believed and supported for years Joan SMALLS, before the fashion world made her the worldwide number one model.

What could be more natural as we had the chance to welcome Tyra Banks when she was 16 and started her career in Paris, twenty years ago and offered her the first french magazines covers featuring an afro-american model? The key change we can notice is that, due to the importance of the asians market, and particularly China, the demand of asians models has literally exploded in the last three years. Only a few seasons ago only one asian model used to walk in every major show, now you ll find five or more. And it s only just the beginning.

Of course, there are still a long way to go before reaching a balanced representation of all kinds of beauties, but the start has been given and the phenomenon is unstoppable.


– May be there are some aspiring models reading these lines, do you have an advice for them?

– Allow me to quote Richard BACH, as he said it all: «You are never given a wish without also being given the power to make it come true. You may have to work for it, however».