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Developing Canadian Runway Models

November, 2007

There probably aren't a lot of parents in Canada that would be entirely comfortable sending a 15-year-old to Paris Fashion Week on her own. That's understandable. But I'm willing to bet most would be quite proud to see their daughter walking in Toronto or Montréal.

So when Montréal Fashion Week organizers recently banned models under the age of 16 they may have got themselves a whole lot of headlines, and probably even some pats on the back from people that don't understand the Canadian modelling industry, but they also dealt a blow to the development of Québec area models.

Sensation Mode, the organization that oversees MFW, declared its mission to "raise awareness of an important issue and to encourage the fashion industry to fall into step." Sounds grand, especially when you add the part about how the initiative was intended "to ensure the development of a working environment that favours the health of models."

The release did not explain how banning a 15-year-old is good for her health. The timing of the release however - just eight days before MFW, after the designers had already auditioned and selected their models - did explain their primary motive.

I'm not suggesting, even a little, that those involved with Sensation Mode don't care about models. I'm sure they do. What I am suggesting is their decision to ban those under the age of 16 was a poorly conceived publicity grab, and if they genuinely want to support the health of Canadian models they should reverse the decision and continue to provide a safe, professional training ground for the bigger stages in other markets.

In Canada I have the unique position of not only reporting on the modelling industry, but helping to select models for some of the bigger shows in the country. In recent weeks I consulted on four L'Oréal Fashion Week shows in Toronto, including casting a New Face show for designer Nada Yousif. Six of those girls were under 16, and not one was forced (or even requested) to do anything vulgar. This is Canada.

To be quite honest I would have no problem casting a girl as young as 13 if she had the maturity and presence to sell the collections. It didn't happen this season, but it could. I certainly supported the decision to feature Paméla Bernier in shows when she was 14, because every now and then an exceptional girl comes along and you want to see her get a good, safe start, before she inevitably heads off to the markets where real pressure awaits.

I've written a book about breaking into the Canadian modelling industry, and interviewed many of the top people in Canada and abroad. This I know: a model is better off getting experience at home before heading off to Europe or New York.

"I wouldn't be where I am today if it wasn't for Toronto fashion. The first place I came to, to start my career was Toronto. You have to think back to that... they supported me, I support them."

Heather Marks speaking to Modelresource, March 2006

Heather Marks, 2006
Heather Marks is one of the most versatile runway models on the planet, and at the age of 19 - seven years after she started - is in enormous demand for her catwalk presence. Like many other Canadians, she was working overseas before she was 16, but was given the opportunity to develop in Calgary and Toronto before heading to castings in Milan and Manhattan.

Young models have been working for decades, from Carmen Dell'Orefice to Penelope Tree to Jerry Hall, and typically face a lot less pressure and demands than top gymnasts and figure skaters at the same age.

To suggest that 15-year-olds can't handle the pressure of a Montréal runway, solely based on age, is ludicrous. Ban them from doing sheer. No problem. Ban them from doing lingerie. No problem. But don't ban them from the runway altogether.

If Sensation Mode really wants to support a healthy environment they would do better to let the designers and agencies work together without interference, and build headlines around the models that got their start there.

"There is no real concern a 15-year-old model from Canada is going to quit school because she walked a few shows in Montréal Fashion Week ... I see no problem with a 16 or 15 year-old spending three days, twice a year working on Canadian ground for Canadian clients, then returning to school and a normal teenage life ... it provides the best training ground offered."

London, Ontario's Michael Lord,
Agent/Scout at Nathalie Models, Paris.

"It is not as though we are unaware of the ages of girls in a show. We know we have to watch out for them when they are younger and every designer, casting agent and modelling agent does that. This is a safe place for them to start, to practice and learn and I don't think you would find many models under 16 or over who would disagree with that."

Toronto's Paola Fullerton,
Casting Agent (Pink Tartan, Stephen Trigeuros)

What is an appropriate age for models at Toronto and Montréal fashion weeks?
No minimum age
Not below 13
Not below 14
Not below 15
Not below 16


In the 1940s, 13-year-old Carmen Dell'Orefice (now known simply as Carmen, and still modelling at the age of 76 for Ford) was retained by Vogue, and paid $12/hour to pose topless for Salvador Dali. Condé Nast, which owns Vogue, was so certain of her potential that a year later they had a doctor prescribe hormone injections to induce puberty.

At her mother's urging Jerry Hall travelled to France on her own at 15 to try to break into the modelling industry. Her career now spans four decades, and along with two daughters from Rolling Stones' front man Mick Jagger (one of whom is just 15 and already touted by as one to watch) she continues to lend her image to advertising.

Other notable early starters:
  • Holland's Appolonia von Ravenstein, who one week after signing with her first agency, was working in Spain at age 15.
  • England's Penelope Tree, who shot with renowned American photographer Diane Arbus when she was 13. First published in Mademoiselle at age 15, shot by Guy Bourdin.
  • California's Stephanie Seymour, had just turned 15 when Elite founder John Casablancas selected her as a regional winner of the Elite Model Look contest. Before her 16th birthday she had tested in New York, and travelled to Rome to shoot the alta moda collections.
  • Alberta's Natasha Henstridge, now best known as an actress, moved to Paris when she was 14, after placing second a year earlier in the Casablancas Modeling Agency's "Look of the Year" contest.