Two weeks ago, at the Bowery Hotel, Annabelle Dexter-Jones, the younger half-sibling of the artistically diverse Ronson family, described what can happen nowadays to kids like herself who don’t have professional representation.
“I had done this collaboration with a major clothing company,” she began. “And the person they hired to do the casting tried to charge me a fee. She tried to rip me off, basically. My friends and I did this shoot together, and one other person and I were the only ones she sent this email to. I checked.”
The week she met The Observer, Ms. Dexter-Jones, a petite blonde with a healthy tan and those squinty, downward-slanting Ronson eyes, had turned 24. Her résumé includes attending Chapin and Dwight Schools, and Bard College; modeling in campaigns for Erin Kleinberg, Hogan, Louis Vuitton eye wear and sister Charlotte Ronson’s line; appearing in Teen Vogue as an It Girl; acting in a short film by Theo Wenner; and currently dating André Saraiva, the 39-year-old proprietor of the forthcoming Le Baron nightclub in New York–in other words, the kind of modern, post-debutante existence that has made her fashion sense and bicoastal connections appear “marketable.”
“I’ve been offered design collaborations,” said Ms. Dexter-Jones. “Companies ask me to direct short films. This week, I had a meeting with a brand because they don’t want to be thought of as a mother’s brand. They want to access younger people. A TV network that wants to do scripted shows contacted me, asking if I knew anyone who would be great for this or that.”
Ms. Dexter-Jones wants to be an actress. She is working with an acting coach in the West Village and plans to relocate to L.A., temporarily, for pilot season. But while her agent, Emily Gerson Saines, at Brookside Artist Management, handles her acting career, Ms. Dexter-Jones has signed with the two-month-old Collaborative Agency to handle all of her other, well, collaborations. The agency’s other clients include Gia Coppola (model, filmmaker and Sophia’s niece), Isabelle McNally (actress, model and Keith’s daughter), Lucien Marc Smith (artist, model), Tracy Antonopoulos (filmmaker, model), and Alex Olson (pro skater, designer, aspiring fashion photographer.)
A few years ago, this newspaper would have called Ms. Dexter-Jones a socialite, a title that has become increasingly difficult to dispense given how much young men and women have capitalized on their socializing by designing, modeling, acting, styling, photographing and DJ’ing–possibly all at the same time. These are the kids who take lunch meetings at the Smile and reconvene later that evening at the Jane or the Bowery hotel–activities that instead of intervening with their careers have actually helped make them. The marketing departments of companies like Levi’s, Club Monaco and Target–eager, in this economy, to re-brand, downsize and cozy up to the buyer looking for their local designer boutique–have begun asking them (often through Facebook, how else?) to lend their distinguished coolness to national brands: Could Ms. Dexter-Jones design a capsule collection? DJ a brand launch? Make a video short for our Web site? What about television–does she want to do television?!
Jean Touitou, the founder of A.P.C., the French clothing brand, mused to Style.com on a recent trip to New York, after attending a dinner hosted by Purple magazine: “There are too many hip kids. Hip is not a job. It makes me worry about the future.” And yet his own marketing team might disagree: A.P.C.’s winter campaign last year featured Ms. Coppola. Being hip, it turns out, to Mr. Touitou’s dismay, is very much a career path.
“It’s kind of a new phenomenon,” said Ms. Dexter-Jones. “If you want to record your own music, you can have a studio on your computer. With DJ’ing, you can just use an iPod. There is just access to more fields now, and that’s why people aren’t defined. They can be a DJ, actress and three other things if they want.”
Her older sister, Samantha Ronson, who is considered to be a very good DJ, approached the table, overhearing Ms. Dexter-Jones’ last line. “Jack of all trades, master of nothing,” Ms. Ronson sighed. Ms. Dexter-Jones became self-conscious and giggled. Ms. Ronson asked her sister to accompany her to the Jimmy Fallon show, where she was booked as a guest, and the ladies hopped into an SUV with tinted windows.
“I think companies see me as being in the demographic they’re looking to achieve, people that they want to be watching or buying their products,” said Ms. Dexter-Jones. “I’m trying to think of a way to say this without sounding obnoxious. … I’m not really conscious of what I’m doing; I just do what I do, and if that works for you, and we can do something interesting together, then maybe it’s something we can benefit from mutually.”
As the SUV maneuvered through midtown traffic, Ms. Ronson noticed a pair of bejeweled Uggs in a store display window. “That is the scariest thing I’ve ever seen,” she said.
“Oh, the Jimmy Choo Uggs? Yeah, those are pretty bad,” said Ms. Dexter-Jones.
Ms. Ronson returned to her BlackBerry, tapping the keys. “How do you spell collaboration?” she asked. Ms. Dexter-Jones rattled off the correct letters.
“Collaborations are huge right now,” said Aaron Bakalar, the 23-year-old founder of the Collaborative Agency, now representing Ms. Dexter-Jones, over coffee a few weeks ago. (The agency doesn’t have an office, and he conducts most negotiations by email or phone.)
Mr. Bakalar, who looks so young he can pass for a Glee cast member, has perfect, adolescent skin, dark hair and pursed lips. While at Parsons, where he studied branding and marketing, Mr. Bakalar interned at Radar Entertainment and Shadow PR agencies and worked at the nightclub Socialista as an events coordinator. His clients are his friends or young people he knew socially.
“Gia can make a video for a company and that company can create a screening, use it on their Web site, use her as the face and make her brand ambassador,” he continued. “But maybe she doesn’t even make anything, and they just use her as a consultant or take her on as co-designer. Tracy and Gia and even Alex can do film work, whereas Isabelle is more of an actress and model but she is creative, too. Annabelle and Isabelle are looked to in New York for their trends and what shoes they’re wearing. I can’t say what brand, but a certain shoe and clothing company wants to take them on as brand ambassadors and do a capsule collection for fall ’11.”
According to Mr. Bakalar, the downtown stage of young, painfully hip 20-somethings hasn’t been harvested properly for business and marketing opportunities. “When it has been tapped into it, it’s been tapped the wrong way,” he said. “Like Cory Kennedy and the whole strict party girl thing and nothing else. This article was written somewhere calling us the ‘It Kid’ agency. But I’m 23; some of them are 24. We’re growing up now, and that whole downtown party ‘It Boy and Girl’ scene needs to grow up. I wanted to get their careers on track and introduce them to people who are working nine to five, marketing for a brand. Just, like, give them an adult self.”
Mr. Bakalar declined to disclose his clients’ fees, but said that he consulted with modeling and talent agencies when considering pricing. “There is no standard rate. It’s like Hollywood-if someone gets paid a million dollars for something, it becomes a new standard. Last week, I had to call this guy and I said, ‘Look, they’re experienced and unique so if you’re going to use them, please try to have a bigger budget because they’re not just kids you’re hiring off the street anymore.’ They’re learning they can’t low-ball these kids.”
But can these kids maintain their downtown cred after signing their names to shoe companies? “They’re not a Kardashian that’s going to work with TrimSpa,” he replied. Later, he added, “The whole downtown scene in New York is pretty sensitive. If someone does a certain project or dyes their hair red, everyone is going to talk about it whether it’s on Facebook or at the Jane hotel on Saturday night. They’re very cautious.”
Selling Blue Jeans
Last week, Ms. Antonopoulos, a former Nylon intern whose close friends include Ms. Coppola and Sage Grazer, Bryan Grazer’s kid, spent three days in Bushwick and Williamsburg shooting a European campaign for Levi’s that Mr. Bakalar negotiated the terms of. (Ms. Antonopoulos also modeled for Ryan McGinley’s “Go Forth” campaign for the denim company when she was his intern.) “Now, I can just focus on the creative side,” said Ms. Antonopoulos. “And not have to call parents’ friends, asking them for advice on how to handle fees and being my own agent.”
Ms. Antonopoulos has also directed a music video for the band the Postelles; modeled in a Club Monaco lookbook; and directed a video with Ms. Coppola for Opening Ceremony featuring Kirsten Dunst and Jason Schwartzman. (If you care to keep up: Gia is Francis Ford Coppola’s granddaughter, making Jason Schwartzman her cousin. We think!)
Asked whether she was worried the insular downtown world would accuse her of selling out, Ms. Antonopoulos said, “I’m not afraid of that. If you can make something that’s commercial good, then that’s the best work of art because more people see it. I think it’s awesome that kids in Middle America, who don’t know about some small indie scene, get to see amazing work, too.”
Mr. McGinley’s “Go Forth” campaign last year was masterminded by the advertising agency Wieden + Kennedy, hired to reinvent Levi’s image. “Part of it is about discovering who makes the stuff,” said Tyler Whisnand, a creative director at the agency. “And when it’s Ryan McGinley, maybe the consumer is curious that he’s an artist and how interesting it is that Levi’s collaborates with someone like him and such a young person on a big campaign. … Whomever we work with is a reflection of Levi’s as a brand.”
Increasingly, Mr. Whisnand has seen companies cleverly using local, sometimes recognizable faces in their national campaigns instead of professionals. (Think American Apparel’s street-scouting.) “For Levi’s, it makes sense to use regular people and cast people who are interesting,” he said. “But if you’re talking about Ralph Lauren, they’re going to swing to high-end supermodels and celebrities. Nowadays, with the way the economy is, brands like J Crew and Tommy Hilfiger and Diesel, even, are thinking, ‘Let’s be a bit more realistic. Let’s not be so high end.’”
Mr. Whisnand continued: “Tommy Hilfiger tapped into that years ago, where basically friends of friends”-Jake Sumner, Sting’s son, with Alexandra and Theodora Richards in 2003-”would go on shoots. Then Juergen Teller was doing stuff for Marc Jacobs, and it probably goes all the way back to Andy Warhol and the Factory being something people could market, and the Interview magazine phenomenon. Everyone loves the romantic idea of an artist moving to the city and starting some kind of movement, whether that be in Brooklyn or Jersey City or years ago, it was Soho or the Village, and tapping into those trends. In the ’90s it was Larry Clark’s Kids and Chloë Sevigny and that Harmony Korine phase.”
‘Not Going Into a Nine to Five’
In 2007, a creative director at Urban Outfitters contacted Jack Siegel, a young man who had a Web site called The Skullset, on which he posted photos of bicoastal kids looking beautiful, carefree and remarkably cool. Their request? Take photos of your friends, the way you already do, wearing our clothes. “I was surprised they asked me because I never had a job before for my pictures,” said Mr. Siegel, who is 24.
Some of the kids featured in the lookbook were Harley Viera Newton, now a recognizable face (DKNY, Dior, Lexus) and DJ; Ms. Antonopoulos; Mike Moonves, son of CBS president Leslie Moonves; and Clara Balzary, daughter of Flea from the Red Hot Chili Peppers. They were paid in $500 gift cards; Mr. Siegel received $5,000 for his photographs. (No one at Urban Outfitters was available to comment for this article.)
“I think it’s attractive to see young, good-looking kids and not the polished type of people you see on TV,” explained Mr. Siegel. “These kids kind of embody not going into a nine to five. Even if people don’t want to live that way, they want to look at it.”
It was perhaps inevitable that an agency (and soon agencies, perhaps) would be founded on that word of the early aughts we all memorized: lifestyle.
“Someone realizes that brands are casting street people,” explained Mr. Whisnand, the ad agency creative director, “and maybe that can be done easier with an agent to make sure their contracts are done properly. That will grow and grow and become the norm, and then brands will find a new way of doing it-YouYube or Twitter or Facebook casting sessions.” Because once the casting process becomes regulated, what’s missing is this: “I think it was Doris Day or another Hollywood starlet who got discovered at the drug store,” said Mr. Whisnand. “Just down at the five-and-dime having a malt and then in walks John Huston or whoever and says, ‘My God, kid, you should be in the movies!’”
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