The grand opening of Wilhelmina Philadelphia included telltale signs of a big-league modeling agency: golf ball-sized shrimp, a nicely styled runway presentation, and local fashionistas preening front and center.
But there was something small-town about the late June soiree at Trust, an Old City hot spot. Maybe it was the way Wilhelmina local owner Kelli Walters (to the horror of spectators) butchered the pronunciation of red-carpet design duo Badgley Mischka. Or maybe it was the models who unsteadily teetered down the runway.
Was this really the same high-powered New York agency that represents Tyra Banks, Zoe Saldana, and former Philadelphia Eagle Terrell Owens?
It looks as if Wilhelmina Philadelphia has more than a few ruffles to iron out - from battling its models' green reputation to answering questions about Walters' methods - before it can convince locals that the affiliate is the real fashion deal.
And while many hope Wilhemina's presence is a sign that Philadelphia's burgeoning fashion scene is worth watching, local retailers, ad agencies, and editorial publications say they still may turn directly to New York for their big-job needs.
Nonetheless, Walters is confident that by next year Wilhelmina will have beaten the biggest local competition - namely Reinhard, largely seen as the go-to agency for fashion models, and Expressions.
At least for the models who live here, it might make life easier. Instead of signing with a Philadelphia agency and a New York agency (typical for models who want high-fashion editorial work), they get more of a one-stop shop with Wilhelmina, which has offices in Los Angeles and Miami, as well as eight affiliates in cities such as Richmond, Va., Charlotte, N.C., and Salt Lake City.
"We can offer our models direct contact to a major network," said Walters, the 42-year-old former model who in early 2009 connected with Wilhelmina New York at the same time the company was expanding its affiliates. She signed the contract that February, and changed the name of the Harman Agency in Harrisburg to Wilhelmina PA two months later.
She opened her second office, Wilhelmina Philadelphia, based in Whitemarsh Township, and held its launch party last month.
When it was announced that Wilhelmina was coming to Philly last spring, local buzz reached stiletto-tapping proportions. After all, the big-name agency was started 43 years ago by model Wilhelmina Cooper, whose doelike eyes and "brick house" proportions - 38-24-36 - won her a place on 255 magazine covers.
"I think that recognizable name in modeling says good things about our potential impact on the [fashion] industry," said city representative Melanie Johnson. She's currently involved in her own fashion whirlwind as she tries to combine the individual efforts of three entities to create one Philadelphia Fashion Week. For the past few years, there have been at least two competing for fashion domination.
It is this dynamic - a fashion scene that is often decentralized with conflicting priorities (does Philadelphia want to promote its retail sector or the work of its designers?) - that hints at why so many people want Wilhelmina to make a significant impact. What if one organization could declare with its presence that Philadelphia has its own fashion cred?
So you could understand the hype surrounding Philadelphia Fashion Week's use of Wilhelmina models during three days of runway presentations in October. The models, albeit green, lent some credibility to the event, headed by Kristie Bergey, but fashion insiders were just as interested in the fact that Wilhelmina provided the 40 models for free.
(For runway work, local agencies typically charge from $250 to $500 per model - plus agency fees - depending on the number of fittings, hair and makeup sessions, and rehearsals.)
The gesture was to provide exposure for the models, says Wilhelmina's Philadelphia booker Will Ball, who does a fair share of appearances himself. The 23-year-old former Expressions intern with a cherubic face and blond Justin Bieber-style bangs is a regular at Philadelphia fashion events. His goal: to secure business and get his models seen, a challenge in a town where modeling is less Naomi Campbell-sized stardom, and more a steady 9 to 5.
There are some high-fashion gigs - such as an Oscar de la Renta show at Saks every now and then - but most of the jobs in Philadelphia are commercial, coming from advertising agencies' campaigns for local hospitals, technology companies, and restaurants. QVC, based in West Chester, uses a staggering 22,000 models a year for its home-shopping presentation needs.
For Wilhelmina affiliate offices like Philadelphia's, one of the goals is to find homegrown beauties. While the industry is rife with Brazilian and Eastern European models, it's getting more difficult to develop those relationships. Flying models to the States and laboring with visas can get expensive in these recessionary times. Besides, it's quite fashionable to be made in America.
"It is harder to bring girls in from foreign countries, and ethnically ambiguous is so big," said Tara Intoci, director of agency licensing for Wilhelmina, referring to the melting-pot appearance that is good for corporate brochures. "Isn't that the true American look?"
And when it comes to modeling, looks aren't the only thing that matters. As evidenced by America's Next Top Model, the way you move and the attitude you project are just as important. It is these qualities that Philadelphia models don't share with their New York City counterparts, critics say.
So despite Wilhelmina's big name, some marketing and advertising agency executives believe the best local models - like West Philly's Sessilee Lopez, a regular on Marc Jacobs' runway - will still leave for New York.
"When you think of fashion meccas, Philly is not necessarily at the top," said Carl Teitelman, chief strategic officer of 20nine, a Conshohocken-based advertising agency and studio. When 20nine created an ad for the Franklin Institute's Cleopatra exhibit, it relied on nonlocal agencies for models.
Still, Wilhelmina Philadelphia has signed about 150 models in the last year - five of those also have been signed to Wilhelmina New York. Ball said he is working with the Screen Actors Guild to get some of them acting gigs.
Wilhelmina Philadelphia also has added an "alternative" category in response to more requests for models with tattoos, piercings, and spiky hair. So far, Ball says, there are eight models in that division.
Wilhelmina's presence, especially its offer of free models, is bound to take away some business from the established local agencies, which previously had a lock on providing talent in these parts.
But Virginia Doyle, owner of Reinhard, says that she hasn't felt a financial strain from Wilhelmina's presence. Greer Lange, who books models for Expressions, agreed.
That said, this is a tight-lipped industry, and modeling executives don't want to publicly say anything negative about the new competition.
They do like to point out that their agencies don't charge talent as much, upfront, for certain services. Upon signing a contract with Wilhelmina, models are asked to pay a one-time $1,775 fee, which covers a professional test shoot, comp cards, a portfolio and ongoing workshops on walking and nutrition. If a model already has a book, all or some of the fees can be waived.
While other agencies may ask their clients to seek out the same services, models can shop around and then pay the vendors. The only service the agencies get paid for directly is for posting models' online portfolios: Expressions charges between $100 to $150 to post a model's portfolio, Lange said. And Reinhard charges about $250.
Critics also cite 12-year-old charges levied against Walters by the Pennsylvania Attorney General's Office. It claimed in 1998 that Excel Model Management, Walters' former agency, charged models hundreds of dollars for classes and photography with promises of jobs. She was fined $5,000, and the following year, in resolving another claim, the Attorney General ordered her to pay more than $15,000 to 20 aspiring models. (Walters declined to comment on anything "that happened more than 10 years ago.")
None of it matters to Philadelphia models. They are glad to have a shot with a big-name agency.
"They can broaden my avenues and possibilities," said Masha Diduk, a 17-year-old model from the Northeast, who paid the $1,775 fee to Wilhelmina upon signing her first modeling contract in January. She says she has earned half that back.
"Since I've signed with them, I've done the Rittenhouse Square show, Philadelphia University and Moore College. They are offering me an opportunity and I'm excited."