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Modeling agency founder John Robert Powers poses with contestants of a Fashion Queen contest at the 1939 New York World’s Fair.
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New York Public Library

Behind every model that walks the catwalk at New York Fashion Week, which begins Thursday and runs through February 16, stands a team of modeling agents who coach and book her.

These agents work for global talent management companies, headquartered in the Big Apple, whose names have entered deeper into the public lexicon thanks to the reality TV show “America’s Next Top Model”: Wilhemina Models, Ford Model, IMG.

The close connection between the modeling world and New York goes back decades, as the first modeling agency in America and probably the world was actually born here.

John Powers Inc. shaped the American standards for the ideal female role model. The slender, tall women who walked through the agency’s doors—”American long-stem beauties” as illustrator William Brown called them—became synonymous with high fashion in the 1930s and 1940s.

Their agent, John Robert Powers, had for years been the assistant to Vogue’s chief photographer, Baron Adolphe de Meyer. He acted as an informal recruiter and liaison between de Meyer and the society matrons and theater stars who posed for him, just as modeling became a viable career for women of all classes and backgrounds.

In 1923, the failed comedian opened his eponymous agency in Midtown to primarily represent photogenic actors, including Henry Fonda and Fredric March, and screen sirens such as Gene Tierney, Ava Gardner, Barbara Stanwyck, and Lauren Bacall.

girls powers

Powers models pose at the 1939 New York World’s Fair (New York Public Library)

Powers initially charged his clients a 5% commission, as was customary for theater agents at the time. In 1946, he took a 10% reduction, a share more in line with those demanded by employment agencies.

A quarter of his models’ earnings at this time came from less than glamorous work – mail order catalogs for companies such as Sears, Roebuck and Co., then popular in rural America.

Even so, they dominated the American imagination, as a 1941 photo essay in Coronet magazine states: “They sip your favorite coffee, drive your dream car, flaunt the latest fashions, show you how to cook a waffle – for they are powerful forces in the American advertising scheme.”

The faces and silhouettes of Powers’ models may have graced magazine covers and runways, but they didn’t monopolize the public’s attention.

“They come from all over America,” the Coronet essay continues, “to an office on Park Avenue… where a quiet, shrewd man named John Robert Powers assesses their charms, selects, sorts, and educates them for the job. to sell sables to society or groceries to the great American housewife.

Girl Powers Navy Look Models

A “Powers Girl” wears a uniform overcoat for the Women’s Auxiliary Volunteer Emergency Service in 1942 (Library of Congress)

The agent, who also recruits from beauty pageants, likened the inclusion in his model catalogs to another contemporary female status symbol. “Twenty years ago a girl might have said with justifiable pride, ‘I belong to a sisterhood,'” Powers reportedly told Life magazine in 1946. Powers daughter.’ »

Most of the “Powers girls” on the pages of Vogue and Harper’s Bazaar meet the same physical requirements: They were 5-foot-9 or taller, and their measurements closely lined up at a voluptuous 34-24-34.

Powers’ role models made him wealthy, but some women complained about his stinginess. The contractor did not always pass on its share of mission revenue, they said.

Returns from its operation declined after 1946, the year competitor Ford Models was established. Unlike the Powers agency, Ford systematically logged phone orders and model cancellations, and collected customer and model availabilities to schedule appointments.

But the Powers Charm School, which offered 10 weeks of instruction in subjects such as hygiene, posture and voice, continued to provide widely respected finishing training for models.

As Life magazine said, “Powers…is to modeling what Cartier is to diamonds.”