World-Class Fashion Talent Comes To St. Louis For Tribute Fashion Fest

Jeff and Mary Clarke of Mother Model Management in St. Louis have discovered famed figures in modeling and entertainment like Ashton Kutcher, Karlie Kloss, Alanna Arrington, Grace Hartzel and more—but they used to joke that fashion and entertainment industry players in New York and Europe knew more about the knack of developing top-tier talent than their hometown of St. Louis. “It’s swinging in the other direction, which has been very exciting,” Mary Clarke mentions on the phone, deep in preparation for the upcoming annual Tribute Fashion Fest on Dec. 2.

For this year’s Tribute, the Clarke’s have enlisted a team of talented models, stylists, designers, production designers and more to transform St. Louis’ Union Station into a bedazzled high-fashion spectacle, with a runway that will launch their brand-new talent. “I can say this with no doubt: we’ve never had this many top-level new faces in the history of our company. Jeff and I keep looking at each other going, ‘Our roster is the strongest we’ve ever had.’”

We spoke with Mary Clarke to discuss what to expect at this year’s Tribute, Clarke’s journey in model scouting and talent management, her take on the state of change in the fashion industry and more.

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What is the background of Tribute, and your vision for the show?
It has really evolved. We’ve launched a lot of really successful models from the Tribute runway—oftentimes the first show they ever walk is Tribute, and then the next one might be a show in New York. We discovered Caitie Greene at Target in Kirkwood a couple of years ago, and Tribute was the first fashion show she ever did. She went on to walk in Gucci and ended up on the cover of Italian Vogue. You can go from zero to 100 very fast.

At first it was a celebration of the models we had who were working and traveling, but as their schedules become busier it becomes more difficult. We don’t always know who will be able to make it back. But with the new models it has become a launching pad, with the discoveries we make as we travel.

The concept of Tribute has also evolved. It’s not your traditional fashion show. It’s really a production. We celebrate the past, present and future of fashion, with amazing sound and lighting technicians, hair and makeup professionals, models and designers. Over the past years, the show has been a curated mix of thrift and vintage. The pieces may be something we’ll literally take from the pages of the current collections, or things we’ve seen as we travel. We go to the top fashion shows in the world, so we pull inspiration from there.

We have models walking in this show who we know are going to be making their fashion debut on the runways of 2018, so it’s launching them—and the models who can come back will [return]. These are models that either have walked, or are getting ready to walk, some of the top runways in the world. And some we’ll be developing from a couple of years out. We’ve also had our models, like Alanna Arrington, cast in the Victoria’s Secret Fashion Show, which will be in Shanghai this year, so we’ve moved the date of the show to increase the likelihood that she’ll be able to come. Everything in our world works so last minute.

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You’re also working with the six St. Louis Fashion Fund designers, who have dressed everyone from Beyoncé to Taylor Swift. Tell me about that collaboration.
We’re super excited about the collaboration—we’ll be producing a segment for each designer. Susan Sherman and their leadership came to the show last year, and when it was over they came up to us and said, “Oh my gosh—what did I just see?” It really rivals the shows you see in New York City. The beauty of those six designers is that they are so gifted, so talented and so different. We’ve told them that our goal with this is to give each of them their own show within a show. They all have such a clear vision of who they are as designers. Our eldest daughter, Tiana Gandelman, is a creative producer in L.A.—together, we prepare the creative vision for it.

Our goal is to turn this into more than a show, which is why we’re calling it Tribute Fashion Fest. Home will always be St. Louis, and we’ll always do it here once a year. And we want it to be a real platform for young photographers, models, designers, hairstylists and makeup artists. Sometimes I think people associate the term “fashion show” with something stuffy and unappealing. But we don’t want people to feel limited about what that means. It’s a very diverse audience, because you have people in the fashion industry, the friends and family of models, and St. Louisans coming together. It’s an unexpected, beautiful mix. The best compliment we get every year is that it’s a very inspiring, uplifting experience.

What do you look for when scouting?
The first thing you notice is their height and their body. Some people hate that that’s what we look for, but it’s the criteria for the high-fashion world. Then you look for a face that’s beautiful—and that’s a broad word. You look for interesting and unique. I always say it’s not the girl that the guy at the sports bar thinks is hot. It’s that interesting beauty who looks like they’re from another part of the world, or another time. We recently had a girl from Kansas who’s never been on a plane before, and she looks like a China doll, like she could be from Iceland—and she’s from Hutchinson, Kansas. It’s a mix. Some of them are on the brink and getting ready to go, and then we have the young ones who we are developing for the future. It’s exciting, because we’ve worked long and hard to do this the right way.

The modeling industry has long been criticized for promoting an unrealistic standard of beauty. What do you make of that these days?
For us, we see beauty in reality and in high fashion, and those worlds are coming closer and closer together. We have a really impressive roster of plus-size models. And here’s what’s exciting about the fashion world as far as diversity: there have been times in the past where we’ve found beautiful, diverse models and there was no interest. That was so disheartening for us.

The plus-industry has also evolved and changed, and that’s a beautiful thing. In the fashion world, there were periods of time where the criteria was not realistic. But as with so many things in our culture right now, things are evolving. People are embracing a broader sense of what beauty is. Those Victoria’s Secret girls, for example—they represent to me a little more of the middle road. But they also have to be toned and in shape. Here’s the other thing—we get some crazy emails and comments about this, because sometimes people don’t want to hear the truth. To me, it’s no different than if our son wanted to play professional sports, for example. He’d need to be in phenomenal shape.

The term “model” means you are an anomaly. You stand out. You just look different. It’s like when the Rams players were in St. Louis and you’d see them walking around and think, “They were just built for that.” For us, the way we’ve been able to operate with that in the high-fashion world has been really cool. If anyone ever questions a model’s health, it’s not tolerated. You’re supposed to be the most toned representation of your body—nobody else’s. I’ve been doing this for 25 years, and I’m really proud to say there has been positive change. A lot of that has come from people speaking up.

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How do you help your young talent navigate the pitfalls of such a cutthroat industry?
If people knew the amount of time and effort and conversations—it’s mentoring, coaching and parenting, when need be. We have a girl getting ready to leave, and she has never been on an airplane. We do everything the way we would as though we were parenting—talking them through each step and explaining it. And during fashion week, we travel because it’s demanding, and you want to be there for the highs and lows. There’s so much that goes with it. It takes a certain way to develop them and get them prepared for that. We have that skillset mastered.

Beyond that, what we’ve learned is how to help them maintain that success once they get there. Because once you’re on that radar and traveling the world—in this highly competitive global business with other young men and women from all around the world—the stakes are really high. There’s a lot of money and potential and beauty, and the pitfalls can really take them out. We’re very present. And when we’re not present, we jump on a plane and have a conversation.

It’s a really competitive business. They learn how to navigate at a young age. And we do everything we can to help them stay level. You see, as someone who ascends to the top of anything, there comes with it people who might not have the best motivations, and you can be there to advise them through that. It’s similar to when you’re young and you need your parents all the time, and when you get older, you still need them—just in a different way.

How did you originally get into this line of work?
I started doing local fashion shows in my hometown of Cedar Rapids, Iowa. My friend was a hairstylist, and we’d need models for [the shows], and it all started with my love for putting on fashion shows. I found a few girls who began working in New York, and I fell in love with that. Then when I discovered Ashton Kutcher—that was my moment of, ‘Wait … this could be a business.’ Things happened so fast for him. I remember being wined and dined by all these agencies, because everyone wanted to represent him. Then we discovered Michael Hope at the St. Louis Galleria—who went on to become the face of Louis Vuitton—and Karlie at a model search for a benefit fashion show we did.

What has it been like to run a world-class modelling agency in St. Louis?
It’s been a process. I think for a long time people here weren’t really aware of what we were doing. For the initial concept of Tribute six years ago, we wanted to bring attention to St. Louis and the careers being launched here. Over time, we had people from St. Louis who were becoming major players in the fashion industry, and the city slowly took attention. For a while we joked that people in New York and Europe were more familiar with our work than our hometown. But over time that evolved and changed. And we’ve been here since 2001. These really deep fashion roots are finally being realized as a city, which wasn’t really its focus for a while.

What have you learned through this process and journey?
I’ve learned to trust where your heart and passions lie, even if it doesn’t make sense. I’ve learned to be open to your ideas and vision. It’s also important to keep it loose so it can grow, evolve and change. Tribute has become a big part of Mother, but we also have other things we want to build out.

And, most importantly, I’ve learned the more you give to other people’s lives, the more your life will be a magnet for good things. We’ve always believed that if we pour ourselves into these young people, that we can never measure how much it impacts them. As Jeff and I do this together, it really makes you appreciate the importance of surrounding yourself with good people.

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