Q&A / FASHION

”It’s about time to fight for people who have been underrepresented for so long”

CHRYSTELLE ERIKSBERGER & SANNA JOHANNESSON
On reforming an outdated model industry.
September 16, 2020

ICONS is the Stockholm-based model agency that wants to change its industry from the inside. Founders Sanna Johannesson and Chrystelle Eriksberger wanted to do something about the underrepresentation of minorities in front and behind the camera, and in the model industry as a whole. Sweden is a country where people are afraid of changes and to stand out, and that is what ICONS wants to change through their model agency.

Why is your agency important?

— Our agency is important because there is so much discrimination in this industry. How people see, treat, and talk about you will depend on how you look, how tall you are, your body size, your skin color, what hairstyle/color you have, etc. We don’t follow that narrow and excluding way of thinking and we want to open up opportunities for everyone no matter if you don’t fit into the stereotypical “model look”. 

— It’s about time to include and fight for those people who have been underrepresented for so long. Every day we can hear or read about how people have been exposed to racism or excluded because of their looks. And the fact is that many people who are close to our agency have been treated badly by major Swedish agencies.

Did you find inspiration from another agency or company?

— Yes and no. Other agencies and the way they work is why we exist. We feel that there has been a huge gap in the industry where they have not worked actively to fill that void of non-representation. We also feel that the ”classic” way to work with an agency and the relation between booker and model is very obsolete.

— We want to change the fashion industry when it comes to narrow-mindedness and exclusion. Bring in more diversity in all aspects. So not only when it comes to skin color but also sexuality. Today we work more like a sales b2b company rather than a classic modeling agency. This means that we are out on client meetings all the time pitching in our models and teaching companies how to think and act more including and diversely.

You say that ICONS will work as a refuge for models where they can feel safe, respected, and included.” What can you do as an agency to help models feel comfortable?

— Open communication is key when it comes to successful relationships whether it is a partner, friend, or something else. So we have continuous conversations with our models. It is very important for us that our models feel seen and respected. We also make sure to talk to our models after each performed job to see if the makeup artist & hairstylists actually had all equipment needed for our models, and if they have complaints we will take the discussion further with the client and demand justice for our models.

Does it mean you have to choose clients more carefully? Do you want the clients to share your vision?

— As an agent for our models, it is of course always important that we review the customer and that it is a serious production that benefits our models’ careers. We hope that our customers choose our agency because they are behind our vision and want to be more inclusive, but we are also open to educate new clients and help them develop their vision.

— When our models are allowed to take up as much space as white models have been allowed to do at all times, and when they receive the same conditions, rights, and fees as white models, that’s when our work here is done and that’s when we have made the necessary changes.

Have you guys personally detected/experienced racism at work? Do you have a specific story?

Chrystelle: I have worked as a model in Sweden for several years and my career has never gotten anywhere because I haven’t had the support from an agent or agency that believes in me. I was let go from one of Sweden’s biggest agencies because they said they didn’t get enough sports requests. As if I could only model sports garment. The problem was not the clients, the problem was the agency and their lack of believing in the black skin color and wanting to fight for our inclusion.

Sanna: For example, I started this agency because of the big gap of representation in Sweden and because of a situation my friend experienced. He got cut off from one of the biggest Agencies here in Sweden just because of his dreads. They didn’t even have the courtesy to call him, he just received an email after working with them for several years. In the email, they said that his new hairstyle was an issue since they claimed it wasn’t what the clients are looking for and because it’s hard to style. For this type of obsolete, narrow, and unprofessional behavior, we just have two things to say. Your client needs a reality check and you need to hire a professional hairstylist. 

Your website doesn’t group the models by gender. Is that a conscious decision?

— We initially chose not to divide our models by gender, but since our agency has grown explosively, we will now have to divide our models by gender to make our site easier to navigate for our customers. Our website is made for the consumer. We are not interested in having a flashy agency or website our goal is set on changing the industry and attracting clients who want to make that change together with us. 

What are your experiences with LGBTQ+ models? Are they also excluded by the industry?

— Several of our models are part of the LGBTQ+ community today.  It’s hard for us to say since we don’t really know if the LGBTQ+ community has felt excluded since you can’t see a person’s sexual orientation from a picture, you kinda have to ask the person. But we would assume they have been excluded.  Since it’s a really personal question and it’s none of our business to ask about someone’s sexuality all we can do is to work for a change in the industry in that aspect as well. We also keep our fingers crossed that all the people out there in the LGBTQ+ community that wants to start modeling contact us immediately. They are entitled to just as much room in this industry as anyone else and at our agency, they will be safe, respected, and can be exactly who they are. 

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