Why modelling giant Elite is building a fashion brand

NEW YORK– On Saturday night, Elite World Group will send Elite models down a New York Fashion Week runway wearing a collection designed by Elite for the first time.

The new fashion brand, called E1972, is part of the modelling agency’s pivot to becoming a talent ecosystem. The collection includes streetwear-inspired T-shirts and sweatpants alongside made-to-measure gowns and occasion wear in a palette of nudes, navies and blacks with hints of gold — all meant to recall a model’s on- and off-duty wardrobes. Elite chief executive Julia Haart, who is also E1972’s creative director, was inspired by her fashion past to design a collection that made shopping easier for women who struggle with finding their correct size. (Haart previously founded a namesake shoe brand and served as La Perla’s creative director.)

E1972, named after the year Elite Model Management was established, will be available in both custom and ready-to-wear offerings. Elite will launch a 3D body measurement tool, timed with the roll-out of the collection at the end of July, which will take customers’ measurements and store them in a profile. If a customer orders a made-to-measure garment, the sizing details will be used in the design process. If they’re ordering from the ready-to-wear collection, the measurements will be calculated to determine the right garment size.

Ninety-seven per cent of the collection will be made-to-measure, which Haart says contributes to the brand’s goal of having as small a carbon footprint as possible. Outside of a small run of ready-to-wear, nothing will be produced until it’s ordered, resulting in less fabric waste and limited overproduction. “I wanted to see if there was a way I could create a sizeless brand,” she says. “The reason it makes sense to do this with Elite is logistics.”

With 3D body measurements, Elite is taking on a challenge that the retail industry itself has yet to fully solve. Sizing, and size-related returns remain an issue for e-commerce companies, but cracking that is crucial for Haart to eliminate what she considers a main point of friction for women shopping in stores and online.

A fashion company for the 21st century

Since taking over as CEO in March 2019, Haart has been re-establishing Elite World’s positioning. Last year, the company launched two new divisions dedicated to growing the digital presence and production capability of the company’s 4,000 models, actors, singers and artists who represent 3 billion viewers, according to Haart. Elite, which is privately owned, doesn’t share revenue figures, but says that it expects revenue to increase by 20 per cent this year.

Sketches of the E1972 collection.

© Elite

Now, Haart says, she wants to extend Elite’s network effect to fashion design. With an in-house production team, and models who can wear and promote the brand, E1972 is the product of the modelling company’s modern evolution. “E1972 makes so much sense because it’s my talent – the whole company is behind this,” says Haart. “They post about, they wear it, they’re part of the brand.”

Tony King, CEO of creative agency King & Partners which has worked with Kim Kardashian’s Skims brand, Kate Spade and Outdoor Voices, says that it’s a natural next step for a company like Elite. “Step 1: we manage the models working for our brands. Step 2: we deal with the brands that our models are wearing and carrying,” says King. “Step 3: the talent wears and carries our brand.”

Would-be E1972 customers can shop the collection online or visit one of Elite’s 32 global offices to be measured. Pieces are customisable, a trait Haart says further gives women freedom to decide what they’re wearing – and producing the designs on demand enables the brand to use more premium fabrics than they could if they had to order in bulk.

With design, e-commerce and marketing strategies — including the 3D measurement tool — all being sourced in-house, Elite can launch and operate a fashion brand with less lift than a brand starting from scratch. Whether or not having access to those means will be enough to make the brand a success remains to be seen, particularly as Elite is balancing multiple ambitions for its business. “It’s hard to bolt on new businesses,” says King. “Many who have tried have failed.”

To produce the collection, Elite has recruited a network of small designers in New York, rather than partnering with a factory, which Haart says will narrow down the turnaround time for custom items to four to six weeks. The vision is for a fashion collective of small designers that mirrors Elite’s model network. “I want to do the same thing in the fashion industry as I do with models, which lets small businesses stay afloat and be financially independent If you’re not LVMH or Kering-owned, it’s very difficult,” she says.

Designers and models have more access to build their own audiences and brands thanks to customer-facing platforms like Instagram. But Haart argues that having the ideas to run a business and having the means to do so are different. If Elite can harness its talent and following and put the business operations behind it, it’s secured its own future.

“Companies like Elite are looking at what’s happening and trying to get ahead of it – it’s going from beyond just being behind an image to being behind the product,” says King. “It makes sense.”

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