Where Have All the Models Gone?

Once an alluring symbol of South Beach, the fashion industry has all but disappeared

Ray Lata is about to wax nostalgic. The director of Wilhelmina Models' Miami office leans back in his chair and casts his gaze out the window of his Lincoln Road office. "When Miami was at its worst, the fashion industry was at its best," Lata opines of the turn-of-the-decade period when a stroll around then-decrepit South Beach left him practically "tripping" over models.

"Back in 1989 you only saw one or two Ferraris on Washington Avenue, and they were driven by drug dealers," he recalls wistfully. Then he scowls: "Now you go out on a Friday night and there's a Ferrari in front of every restaurant!" The cocaine cowboys of the Eighties have been superseded by investment bankers, attorneys, and real estate developers; ramshackle Art Deco hotels now abut high-end corporate behemoths such as the Loews, the Ritz-Carlton, and $500-a-night rooms at the Delano.

Lata's lament may seem a bit odd. Isn't the disappearance of crackhouses from South Beach agood thing? But his perspective is echoed in conversations with staffers at several other local modeling agencies. The fashion trade, these figures argue, has become a victim of its own success, priced out of the very burg it was instrumental in rejuvenating.

"People are always calling South Beach the American Riviera," Lata says, his voice rising. "Well, nobody goes to the South of France to shoot catalogue. It's too expensive!"

Although Beach officials have been quick to point out that the declining number of fashion shoots has been partially offset by growth in film production, it's precisely this kind of thinking that infuriates many in the modeling world. (The film and print division of Miami Beach estimates that the fashion industry generated some $46 million per year during its late Nineties peak. While that figure was matched in 2000, it also reflects the spiraling cost of operating on the Beach: Only 1286 print permits were issued, down from more than 1600 the Nineties regularly averaged.)

Indeed a series of meetings earlier this fall between city officials and representatives of the Beach's modeling agencies appears to have generated few tangible results. In October the city commission passed a set of emergency production incentives, touting them as a lifeline to the recession-strapped film and print industry. Yet to qualify for the bulk of these benefits (the waiving of fees for Beach access and police administration, free convention center parking for RVs), a visiting production would need to prove it was utilizing at least 100 hotel-room nights, as well as meeting two out of three criteria: a crew of 75 or more; a shoot of five days or longer; a budget of least one million dollars. While major film studios can easily meet these hurdles, most print shoots are left out in the cold.

At Wilhelmina the numbers speak for themselves. Lata expects to put only twenty models "on-stay" --on retainer and in an agency-rented apartment in Miami for the season. That's less than half the number he had here in 1998. Lata says he and several other agency directors once regularly rented a host of furnished condo units in Lincoln Road's Decoplage building, convenient to both agency offices and beach shoots. "You could get a “junior one bedroom' for $1000 a month," he remembers, pausing to chuckle at the creative term real estate agents coined for the studio apartments into which they would cram three girls.

Since work was plentiful, agencies could afford to ship in a horde of new talent eager to build their careers. And Decoplage realtors were more than happy to take advantage of their portfolio-toting tenants: Sure the building's air conditioning was spotty, hot water seemed to come and go, and several balconies were beginning to crumble away. But did we mention the topless models sunbathing poolside?

In fact the entire Beach seemed to revel in this parade of beauties. With model-sightings as common in the Publix checkout line as in clubland's VIP sections, these genetic freaks of nature became the bait that lured thousands more -- from restaurateurs and Italian playboys to Midwestern vacationers and free-spending conventioneers.

Today, however, catalogue shoots -- the bread and butter of the local fashion biz -- have largely relocated to the more affordable South Africa or Spain, and with them most on-stay models. Overexposure is a factor as well; after a decade's worth of South Beach layouts, many photographers are hungry for fresh backdrops. The Decoplage, which had nearly doubled its asking price for junior one bedrooms, is now just another hulking high-rise with structural problems.

"They killed the goose that laid the golden egg," Lata sighs. "This city has changed from a fashion destination to just another tourist destination."

Over at Ford Model's office, a few blocks east of Wilhelmina, there's no easily discernible sense of crisis. Staffers still sit around a long table fielding calls from clients and checking on bookings. The lobby door swings open, and six-foot Belgian model Maud Arnold-- the new Oil of Olay girl -- strides in. Her two golden Labradors bound past her and begin luxuriously rolling around on their backs as Arnold whips off her green-tinted sunglasses. She shakes her artfully bobbed hair and begins excitedly relating the afternoon's casting session to her agent, Steven Reider. It would seem a camera-ready South Beach moment. Even Arnold's dogs are fabulous.

Yet Reider admits to Kulchur that he too is feeling the economic crunch. Ford has only 26 girls on-stay at the moment, down from 50 in 1999. "The models can only be here if the clients come here," Reider says. "People blame September 11, and sure, some clients are afraid to travel. But there was a recession long before that. What made Miami Beach attractive for this industry no longer exists. It used to be easy for the German [catalogue outfits] to get a hotel for $35 a night. They could afford to stay for a whole month, eat out at a restaurant every night, and they could walk right out onto the beach and shoot for free." Now, though, he continues wryly, "people are beginning to question paying ten dollars for a vodka tonic."

And despite a rollback immediately following September 11, hotel rates appear to be returning to their familiar stratospheric levels. "You've got old Art Deco hotels charging hundreds of dollars a night just because they can, even if the service isn't up to par," Reider notes. "It's like the dot-com companies during the Internet boom. There's no substantiation behind it all."

So if the local service industry refuses to drop prices and city hall remains unwilling to intercede, what is to be done? Should we get ready to air-kiss goodbye the Beach's long-legged giantesses? Is it all over for the modeling biz here?

"Oh, please!" dismisses Ford's Barbara Neumann, head of the agency's men's division. "I don't think it's over at all. People don't have the same budget they used to, and maybe models are going to have to pay for their own hotel rooms and airfare now, instead of the client. But you can fly down from New York for $140. What model is going to turn down a five-day booking at $2000 a day for a $140 ticket?" Neumann adds with a laugh: "That's less than a bottle of champagne at a nightclub!"

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