In the 1990s, Ocean Drive’s sherbet-hued Art Deco buildings were a regular backdrop in glossy magazines, and Miami was synonymous with high fashion and modeling. By day, photo shoots blocked crosswalks up and down Ocean Drive; by night, gamine young women filled the Miami club scene.
“Miami used to be huge for modeling. And then, it kind of crumbled,” said Rasheed Alli, 31, former model and founder of the year-old South Beach-based modeling agency DAS Model Management. And while Alli may be a tad young for remembering the heyday, he is betting that he can bring the former modeling glam back to Miami.
“There’s so much more growth in Miami,” Alli said. “It could be what it was before, and more.”
In its first year of operation, DAS — named for the initials of its three managing partners: Spencer Dienes, Alli and Jake Silverstein — generated more than 520 booking confirmations and signed more than 250 male and female models. Among them are runway gigs at Miami Swim Week, which runs through July 25.
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The agency scouts around the globe to discover and sign talent, and then connects them with clients for jobs in Miami and worldwide.
Industry sources who watched the earlier decline of Miami’s modeling industry give different reasons for the collapse. Some site stricter permit requirements for outdoor photo shoots, rising Miami Beach prices, and the challenges of operating in a seasonal market where it’s too hot to shoot half the year. Others point to the murder of fashion icon Gianni Versace outside his Miami Beach home and the rise of tourism as factors that damaged Miami’s reputation in the industry.
But Miami’s explosive growth in arts, culture and fashion led Alli to open the fashion division of his company, DAS Model Management, in Miami in July 2016. He runs a separate promotional company that opened in April.
Miami’s modeling agencies also include major international, national and local agencies, including Next, Elite, Wilhelmina, Caroline Gleason, Nicole Shelley and Michele Pommier.
Recent efforts by industry investors and Miami-Dade’s Beacon Council, the county’s economic development agency, to elevate Miami’s place in the fashion world have been paying off. The 2017 Miami Fashion week joined Milan, New York, London and Paris as the fifth officially recognized worldwide fashion week, and fashion designers are showing increased interest in the international city.
“You have this move toward Miami in related industries, and for us it made sense to bring the modeling industry along,” Alli said.
Alli said he also saw an opportunity for modeling agencies that prioritized professionalism toward both models and clients. Alli, who was discovered at age 13 at an Orlando mall and later was represented from ages 15 to 22 by Ford in New York and San Francisco, saw female models frequently paid late and squeezed for money by agents. Some of these practices include charging models for being listed on agency websites to fees for outgoing faxes and hotel costs they were told would be covered.
His goal was to run an agency that made money off commissions rather than taking advantage of its models. DAS charges both its clients and models a 20 percent commission fee for bookings, the industry standard, though the client fees can fluctuate depending on the job.
The company helps models develop their talent and portfolio through free use of in-house photographers and makeup artists, and complimentary printing of marketing cards — services that come with a fee at most agencies. In return, Alli expects higher levels of dedication from the models, and as a result, happier clients.
Lani Baker, 18, began modeling at home in Tulsa, Oklahoma, with a local agency, then signed with DAS in October after a DAS scout found her on her first agency’s website. She has since made three trips to Florida and others abroad for bookings with DAS. Her experience with DAS has been nothing but supportive, she said.
“When I go to visit the agency,” she said, “it’s like walking into a room full of aunts and uncles that just want you to succeed.”
Like Baker, most of the models DAS finds are already working at other agencies. DAS scouts these agencies in-person and online, then approaches the agents about signing specific models into the markets that DAS serves. Some agencies allow models to sign with more than one agency.
In addition to his modeling experience, Alli brings a background in accounting and finance. Before founding DAS, he was a co-founder of a consulting business for startup fundraising and created another promotional modeling company, X2 Models, which he sold privately in 2013.
To build his current company, Alli hired experienced professionals, including Anton Urusov, director of operations, and Paolo Buonfante, vice president of operations. The company has 13 employees. When the company first started, DAS employees leveraged existing relationships they had built during decades in the industry to find clients, and in the past year they have received a growing amount of business through word of mouth.
“The secret for a company that is new is not about the name, it’s the people that you work with,” Buonfante said. “Combined we have more than 100 years of experience. We start fresh, but with experience.”
Buonfante spent a decade beginning in 1997 as a manager at Michele Pommier, a top local agency that opened in 1979. In 2007, he joined Elite, an international agency with a major Miami presence, as its Miami director of operations.
(Buonfante and DAS are currently defendants in a lawsuit alleging Buonfante breached his contract with Elite by joining DAS and soliciting Elite models to sign with the company after Elite did not renew his contract at the end of last year. DAS declined to comment on the lawsuit. Lawyers for Elite did not respond to a request for comment.)
Urusov had worked from 2006 to 2008 in Miami as a booking agent for Michele Pommier before joining Kohl’s and heading the company’s booking division to hire models for the company’s national advertising campaigns.
As a former client, Urusov has thought hard about how he can improve client service. “I saw certain things that needed fine-tuning. Nobody’s reinventing the wheel, but there’s certainly things we can do better.”
For Urusov, this includes all parties leaving egos at the door, being transparent about fees and keeping commitments.
“I thought that there could be a little more of a balancing act as far as treating models, clients and agents with the same professional courtesy,” he said, “and expecting the same thing in return.”
Florida has the third-highest number of physical agency locations, accounting for an estimated 8 percent of the country’s total, according to a 2016 industry report by IBISWorld, a global market research company. The market is dwarfed by New York and California, which have 33 and 22 percent, respectively, but is still more than twice the size of any of the other 47 states.
“We’ve witnessed a huge turnover in Miami of modeling agencies,” said Didier Benitah, an executive producer at Season Productions who has worked with DAS. “In order to survive you have to reinvent and update yourself daily.”
“Rasheed is a guy who has approached the modeling industry with a non-modeling view,” Benitah said. “He comes from a finance background, and that’s maybe why he’s successful.”
Some of DAS’s strategies come in response to challenges that didn’t exist in the boom days of the ’90s. Instagram and Facebook have threatened businesses by allowing clients to find models directly.
“Through social media, models have an easier time promoting themselves and advertisers have an easier time finding talent, thereby cutting out the middle man,” according to IBISWorld.
DAS’s offer of free services for models is partially a business decision to compete in a market where every model can be their own agent. It is increasingly harder for agencies to survive, Alli said, if they can’t spend the money to bring in top talent and employees.
According to IBISWorld, social media has put pressure on profit margins for modeling agencies and was in part responsible for moderated growth at the end of last year.
But technology also helps DAS grow its business during Miami’s challenging summer. The same weather that makes Miami a popular spot for a swimsuit shoot in dead winter melts makeup and ruins clothes during the humid months.
In the slower season, DAS continues earning commissions by connecting clients and models in other parts of the world. With the internet, models overseas can be booked by a client in New York for the next day. This wasn’t possible in the days of FedEx-ing books of photos back and forth before selecting a model, but online portfolios allow clients to confidently choose a model they haven’t met. These types of bookings make about 70 percent of DAS business, Buonfante estimates.
Though the majority of its clients and models are outside of Miami, the company chose its location with the goal of rejuvenating the local market and expects more business to arrive in the city.
“Miami is very up and down. It always has a great comeback, you just need to adapt to the situation and provide the very best models you can,” Buonfante said.