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In fashion there is much talk about the legacy left by designers, photographers and magazines, but not many people look at a vital piece of the industry that connects all the dots: the modeling agency. Eileen and Jerry Ford, as you can probably tell by their name, were pioneers, founders of the Ford Model Agency, now simply known as Ford Models. One of the most established and recognizable brands in the world with offices spread throughout the continents, Ford is also the oldest and longest running modeling agency in the world, a true landmark of the fashion industry. For many people, the names Eileen and Jerry Ford won’t mean much, but in the small world of fashion, they are synonymous with royalty.
Eileen Otte met Gerard W. Ford in 1944 outside a drugstore near Columbia University, where he attended school for midshipman as part of his service with the United States Navy. The couple fell in love and got married later in that same year in San Francisco while Gerard, also simply known as Jerry, awaited to be shipped out to sea for the World War II.
With Jerry’s departure, Eileen returned to New York where she started working as a secretary for a photographer, as well as a stylist and a fashion reporter for the Tobe Report. While working in the photography studio, Mrs. Ford would constantly meet models and from those relationships, soon enough she also started working as a secretary to some of those girls who felt their agency wasn't efficient enough in taking care of their bookings, therefore, having their own secretary would guarantee that their clients would get the attention they needed and the girls wouldn't lose any jobs to other models.
Upon Jerry’s return from the war, he resumed his studies at Columbia University, for Business/Administration, while Eileen continued to work for the models out of her father's apartment. As business grew and Eileen acquired more models, she and Jerry came to the conclusion it was time to expand business and make a more serious investment towards it. Jerry saw how much passion Eileen had for her new found career but above all he saw great potential in it, as her success was increasing continuously. Jerry and Eileen then sold their car and moved their business into their own location at 949 Second Avenue, in Manhattan, above a woodwork shop. The location wasn't the most glamorous, but it was their own and it would give them room to grow and expand their business. At this point Eileen was about to give birth to her first daughter Jamie and would have to step out to take care of her baby, that's when Jerry decided to step in to help, and what was supposed to be a temporary thing turned out to become a passion for him too.
With a great reputation for honesty and efficiency the Fords attracted a high volume of models and guaranteed the return of a huge clientele. There was no such thing as delayed payments and missed calls with the Fords, and even working out of a small office the couple managed to become one of the three most successful agencies in the country, grossing an average $250,000 in a year. Threatened to be put out of business by their main competitor, the agency Huntington Hartford, who said they would implement a weekly payment system through the use of vouchers, an innovation at the time, Jerry and Eileen made yet another investment and pulled some money together to quickly implement the system in their own agency, which at the end turned out to be the best decision.
Representing talents like Jean Patchett, considered by Eileen the best model she has ever seen, the couple's careful managing skills attracted the attention of the iconic model Dorian Leigh, who by then also owned her own agency and was dissatisfied by the management her younger sister, Suzy Parker was getting from her managers at Huntington Hartford. In a smart and excited move, Eileen and Jerry signed on a pregnant Dorian Leigh and her young sister Suzy, without having even met the girl. Suzy was the opposite of her sister, tall and red-haired, she was different from any other girl available in the industry and went on to become the most famous and recognizable fashion model of the 1950’s, breaking boundaries and becoming the first model to achieve superstar status, headlining fashion magazines and making appearances in Hollywood films; Suzy Parker was a sensation and one of Ford’s biggest triumphs.
The Ford Model Agency had become the biggest in the world, working closely with Dorian Leigh’s agency in Paris they formed a successful network that guaranteed a rewarding career to the models they represented. With a keen eye for innovation, the Fords never limited themselves or their models. Dovima, one of the most iconic models of all time and known for Richard Avedon’s image “Dovima with Elephants” went on to become the highest paid model in the industry and earned the nickname of the “Dollar a Minute Girl” making an average $60 an hour. Following her modeling success, Dovima was given a speaking role in 1957’s Paramount movie Funny Face. Dovima showed great comedic talents in that role and her part in that movie opened the doors to other models, like the then famous Suzy Parker, to develop careers in the movie industry too.
Yves Saint Laurent once said that “a good model can advance fashion ten years”, but a good modeling agency and managing skills have proven to advance an entire industry.
By 1974, The Fords were at the top of their game and had no competition, they had invented the contract for models, in which a model would exclusively represent a specific brand, securing higher fees and better exposure. Jean Shrimpton's contract with Yardley of London was the first one and Lauren Hutton and Evelyn Kuhn are said to be the first models to ever have exclusive contracts with Revlon, which then became and still remains one of the most sought after contracts in the industry.
With names like Candice Bergen, Ali MacGraw, Jerry Hall, Christie Brinkley and Rene Russo in their roster, they were unbeatable and were billing an average of $100k per week, as told by Mr. Ford to the The New York Times at the time. Even after the opening of the french powerhouse Elite Models’s office in New York, the Fords remained strong and ahead of the game. Always competing head to head and starting the “model wars”, in which models would switch agencies constantly according to who would make the better offer.
The Ford business remained strong and innovative, always together, Eileen and Jerry continued to pull through with passion and belief in what they were building. In the eighties the ever creative couple started the Ford Supermodel of the World contest, that remains to this day one of the largest modeling competitions in the world, moving hundreds of thousands of submissions yearly and from which talents like Victoria’s Secret model Adriana Lima have emerged.
In 1995, after 50 years in charge of the business, Eileen and Jerry stepped out into the spotlight for one last time to celebrate their agencies' 50th anniversary and allow for its empire to then be led by their daughter Katie Ford, who at that point was already a part of the booking team and modeling industry for quite some time.
Eileen and Jerry remained married, successful in business and in their personal life, with a family that includes four children, eight grandchildren and four great-grandchildren. In a recent phone conversation, Eileen told me she turns 90 years old in March of this year and is excited to celebrate this iconic date with a lunch organized by her children. Jerry however won’t be there to celebrate, as he passed away at the age of 83 on august 24, 2008 and left behind a loving wife and a legacy that will be remembered throughout the times to come.Their work together in fashion was a labor of love that broke boundaries and revolutionized an entire industry, they have established philosophies of work that are still followed by most agencies around the world and they have set the standards really high for everyone that followed them.
The Ford family brings the family into the expression “Family Business”, in aspects never before seen in the fashion industry, from housing some of their models in their own homes to making sure that their models were cared for in every aspect, they gave their talent every tool they needed to succeed, from financial to emotional support, it wasn’t just about the profit, but mostly about the relationships created within the modeling agency.
Nowadays, Ford Models is no longer in the hands of the Ford family, but it remains one of the biggest and most powerful agencies in the industry representing established names like Emma Balfour, Ana Claudia Michels, Rose Cordero, Karmen Pedaru and Sigrid Agren; as well as rising new talent like Tao, Julia Nobis and Kate King. The interesting part however, is to think that some of this young talent represented by Ford Models, walks those hallways completely unaware of the history behind them, that this multi million dollar business once started in a small office on second avenue and was solely responsible to set an entire industry in motion.
To see Ford Models' website go to www.fordmodels.com