Skip to main content

Los Angeles has always traded on a gauche glamour. Think sex and the city, when Carrie and the gang took an ill-fated trip west, relieved to return to the infinitely more civilized New York City. For a long time, Los Angeles lost all fashion credibility for cultural capital as the epicenter of the entertainment industry. When Natalia McDonald left London for Los Angeles to join the then newly launched agency Freedom Models, her colleagues had only two words: “career suicide.”

“There was a time when it was really hard to find girls here in LA,” McDonald says. “There was this mentality of, Why would you need an LA agency?

Then came the Dior show, the Tom Ford show. The Prada campaign. Hell, even Gucci sent models on the Hollywood Walk-of-Fame last month. Freedom Models, a black-owned, women-led agency founded by Maia Holmes, would emerge among, if not the first to take Los Angeles seriously as a fashion hub. Assuming the role of director, McDonald moved Freedom forward according to her 2020 vision: that Los Angeles would soon become fashion’s new market and its agencies the Mecca of modeling.

models of freedom

Six years later, it is happening. Los Angeles’ work-life synergy and fashion’s growing proximity to entertainment means models arrive from New York and never leave. Freedom’s business model ushered in talent from outside markets to break fashion’s beauty standards from within. Clients began to request models for their charisma, hobbies, side-activities, as much as their looks. With every new girl arriving fresh from New York, McDonald’s asked the same question: “What do you want for yourself?” To which each replied, “Well, what do you see for me?”

“A girl would be signed at 16, hit a runway at 17, then move to New York, then shoot campaigns,” McDonald says. “There, NYCs hustle for five years, then they get to 22, breathe and feel lost. We asked a question they had never been allowed to answer.

Freedom quickly established itself as an outlier for its inclusive list. Industry insiders were shocked to learn that their shorter and shorter models (some barely exceeding five feet) were among their most successful clients. Holmes says that while Freedom intended to “raise the bar” in terms of fashion production in Los Angeles, she primarily framed the agency as a forerunner in the then-nascent conversation about diversity.

models of freedom

“We also knew there was a segment of the population that wasn’t visible and we wanted to bring variety to the fore,” she explains. “‘Build it and they will come’ was kind of our motto at the start.”

“We were very quick to pivot, and we have such a strong identity now,” McDonald echoes. “We have a responsibility to the women we represent, as well as those who watch them.”

Therein lies the key takeaway. While aspirational content will always have its place, Natalia McDonald faced the reality of shopping habits that “people want to buy from people who look like them.”

It’s this vision for the future that makes a great model agent, shares Maia. When the industry ground to a halt in the early months of the pandemic, McDonald’s oversaw a strategic pivot: developing a social service in which girls coordinated their own shoots from home. Simultaneously, Freedom supported signatories who took the hiatus to pause modeling, taking a more holistic approach to representation and brand building than a traditional agency. Natalia McDonald is listed as a key contact for model Freedom Courtney Coll’s outdoor clothing brand.

models of freedom
models of freedom

“We’ve moved to this 360° management situation, where we’re not just managing day-to-day modeling jobs, but pushing the girls to do their own thing if that’s what they want to do.” Now customers want girls with something to do. say – they want a story – and we were able to become more than just a modeling agency. It’s something that evolved very naturally.

Despite more than a decade in the business, McDonald’s hasn’t grown less fervent in her mission to change the modeling industry. Its main demands? More women of color. More women whose bodies fall between straight size and plus size (she notes how much less girls who wear size 6-10 work than girls in size 6-18 or 2-4). While you’re at it, she would also appreciate a higher sample size. Above all, she wants every girl to see herself reflected in a magazine or phone screen, and for the models to feel heard as much as seen. It may seem like an impossible feat, but you’d be surprised what can come from a little freedom of thought.

“I want every girl to be able to find herself,” she says.