The Lions’ Charlotte Reiss is changing the LA modeling game
The modeling industry is seriously striking back.
Almost all the biggest celebrities of the moment are models – think Gigi, Kendall, Bella, Cara, etc. Plus, an increasing amount of models are breaking barriers by being way more than just a pretty face – think Slick Woods and Cameron Russell.
But who’s finding the next model of the moment? And who’s behind this change in the industry that’s given way to models as activists or media personalities, and girls that break the mold?
Meet Charlotte Reiss, the agency director of The Lions LA.
They recently opened an LA office to reflect the growing fashion scene out west, and Charlotte’s the one helping them find and shape the next big thing.
But back before Charlotte was head honcho slaying the game in LA, she was a 17-year-old living in the UK who hadn’t gone to college and was hustling her way to the top of the fashion industry. We talked to her about how she ended up in the modeling industry, how she spots the future super models of the world, and how LA is catching up to NYC as a creative hub.
What was your first job out of college? How did that lead you to what you do now?
Actually, I never went to college and I’m proud of that fact. I was a feisty go-getter from the beginning. I knew I wanted to work in the fashion world in some capacity, so at 17 I applied for a management training program at Jaeger [an English brand similar to St John] and moved to London and started working a 50-hour week at 18 years old.
So do you think college is sort of unnecessary?
My niece and nephew [are] at the age when they’re applying to University, and I appreciate all of that, but for me I’m proud of what I’ve achieved by not going. To go straight into the work force at 18 and now at 43 years old to be at the top of my game without having gone, I think it’s a great accomplishment.
It’s about hard work in life and anything you put your mind to, you can do it. I think in this day and age, living in America, college is something that’s obviously extremely encouraged, but I think if you’re a creative soul there are so many paths you can take.
It’s almost that college can take away that work ethic because you’re used to putting in a certain amount of effort in for a grade.
I think for me, a good mother, a good leader [will have] started from the very bottom. I never just slid into a position of responsibility, I worked very hard for it. I got up and went to work every single day and did any menial task that there was.
I think any profession you do, it’s about learning from others and being respectful of the field you’re going into. And also, if you don’t know what you want to do, try. Try different things, you know? I knew I wanted to work in fashion, but I didn’t know what. I didn’t know what a model agent was, I didn’t know there was such a thing. You kind of fall into the right career, but if you don’t put yourself out there, you’re never going to know.
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So how did you get where you are now from that first position? What are some career paths you went through to figure it out?
It was a very speedy and quick path that was very organic. I was working for Jaeger and that gave me structure for a year, it got me to be living in London by myself. I happened to be at a dinner party one night. At the time, Elite and Premiere was one agency, it was Elite Premiere Models and the director of the men’s agency was talking to me and he said, “you’d make a really great booker, a junior booker.” I said, “I don’t know what that is, what is that?”
He explained that they represented male models, and you need to be able to talk to people, be creative, enjoy fashion and photography, be able to talk on the phone – we didn’t have computers back then. He said, “Come interview, come meet me.” So I went to interview, he hired me on the spot, I quit my job at Jaeger – I think I was an assistant manager by then – and I started working at Boss models.
I really wanted to start a new faces division and go scouting. So I asked if I could break away from being a men’s junior agent and if I could start scouting. I found a girl in Piccadilly, which is main street in London. Her name was Carly Hangar and she pretty much became an overnight sensation. Her first booking was for Harper’s Bazaar with David Sims, her second shoot was for W Magazine with Mario Testino. Her first shoots were pretty amazing and I went to Florida and New York to shoot with her.
When I went to New York, I met with DNA Models, they wanted to represent Carly, and a week later the owner of DNA called me in London and said, “We want you to run our new faces division in New York and we will sponsor your visa to come to America, help you get accommodation, everything.” Within a week I told my parents I was moving to America, I think I was 22 years old.
I was at DNA for three years, and then I moved to LA and was at Wilhelmina models for 16 years. The rest is history.
Has scouting changed because of social media? Do people find girls on Instagram instead of going out on the street?
We do, but street scouting is very much alive and honestly the best way, because sometimes on social media girls have already pre-branded themselves. Our industry is about branding now, so sometimes you can have a girl and they’ve already built up followers and understandably they have clients reaching out to them directly. It might be hard to change their mind into what would be a better form and strategy of branding, so I personally prefer street scouting still.
But I get DMs all day long from people wanting to be a model. I admire that, I do admire that. I think it takes courage to say, “do you think that I have what it takes?” I love how diverse the industry’s become that it’s opened up different doors for women and different looks to be able to possibly get a foot in the door.
What’s your biggest challenge as an agency director?
I respect my role and position and am deeply humbled by it. To be part of such a powerful collective group of women and agents. The challenge I approach in a similar way to my parenting skills. We are nurturing and raising strong beautiful women to believe in themselves, to have an opinion, to feel empowered to narrate those opinions and build a future for themselves. The future is female.
So many industries are dominated by men, can the same be said about the modeling industry in terms of the business side of things?
No – I think that the fashion industry is one of the only industries that all inclusive. Regardless of gender, race, sexual orientation, beliefs, religion, etc. At The Lions I work with Julia Kisla, our CEO, Cristiana Tran, one of our managing Partners and Gina Barone, our NY Director. That’s a powerful group of women!
As an agency director, you’re guiding the careers and in many cases lives of young women everyday. When you became a mom did it help you in your role as an agency director?
It’s a role I take very seriously. I am passionate about the work that I do. [From] 22 years of constant dedication to guiding and building careers I am acutely aware of the impact I can have on a young girl’s life. I’m open to admitting that for the first 15 years of my career the drive was more business and financial for the talent – the purpose to make models as much money as possible.
Having children, especially two daughters, has dramatically changed my perspective. I am much more nurturing and maternal. I see the responsibility I have for making an impact on their lives. At 43 years old, I feel that I can help with so many facets of their career. As an agent you are a manager, a friend, a therapist, a publicist, a brand developer – I also think I have a sense of reliability. I was 22 when I moved to America to work in NYC at DNA. I didn’t know a soul. It was very foreign to me and I only went home once a year. And Vice Versa – being an agency director helps me in my role of a Mother.
Why is it important for The Lions to foster a community among its clients and use its unique platform to empower women in fashion and business?
Our mission is a commitment to representing woman as more than just a model, but as a brand, and that can be from whatever platform they choose. It’s important we as an agency embrace their voice. Look at Cameron Russell and her activism for leading the “Model Mafia,” a community of model activists who are eager to use their collective power to make a change. We look for the commonalities rather than our differences together as an agency.
What prompted The Lions opening an office in LA?
It was always part of The Lions’ vision. The fashion world started embracing the LA market back in 2012, and the Lions opened in 2014, so we knew we wanted to go west from the start.
Do you think there is a growing LA market for high fashion girls? Why or why not?
Los Angeles is the originator of the current generation of supermodels. Stella, Gigi, Bella, Lily, Kendall, etc.
LA has an amazing talent pool, the largest e-commerce market in the United States, never to be underestimated. Every NY agency will start to come west now, mark my words. I give it 12 months. What The Lions LA is aspiring to do is to change the perception of what “LA girls” meant historically for fashion. I believe we are leading the way.
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What is that “LA girl” stereotype and how is it changing?
That’s a good question. First and foremost, I am all about Los Angeles, let’s make that very clear. It’s about combining the high-end fashion with the brands that are in LA, and I think any market in the industry can sometimes be given a bad rep. And that’s why I chose to jump ship and come over and work for The Lions. It’s a very open minded, forward-thinking company that can see and know that LA is a huge market.
That’s the same with Prince and Jacob, when you sit and talk with them you can see they have their finger on the pulse. They’re in love with the city, they know what the city brings, what our clients bring to the table, and it’s about building the girls up. There are some incredible photographers that are based here, we have incredible studios that are here, clients that are based out here. I’m just very passionate about supporting brands that are in LA.
Are more high fashion brands starting to see LA the same way they see NYC?
There’s a very creative spirit to Los Angeles. In a society where everyone is susceptible to being over stimulated, Los Angeles has historically provided a calm creative sanctuary. This is Hollywood! We have the movie industry, music, skate, surf, influencers, the largest denim manufacturers, celebrities, artists, the largest sports management industry based here, top designers migrating out here. In short – we are a melting pot of the most creative and influential people. That’s a powerful, inspirational place to live.
You’ve worked in NYC and LA, do you find that there’s a different work culture?
Completely. LA has a certain magic to it. Even to the most highly strung person, it brings a level of calmness. There’s so much to do here depending on who you are. It’s a very healthy place to live, a creative place to live. You can be accepted for who you are in Los Angeles, you can walk down the street wearing anything you want to wear and nobody is going to judge you. It’s a melting pot of creativity – from the music industry to the movie industry to the fashion industry, DJs, you name it – we have everyone here, right? What comes with that, a more relaxed attitude in the office. Very business-minded, but relaxed. People enjoy working in the LA office. There’s laughter, we don’t take things too seriously.
How have your strategies with the agency had to change with social media’s rise, especially with models? Do you deal with models who are getting DMs from brands that want to work with them? Do you have to help a model with her Instagram page?
We are carving the paths and creating a talent with their own brand that we’ve built together as a team. Our talent has a voice, so when we are developing somebody we’re not taking on Instagram stars, we’re creating individual brands.
Like you said, girls that have a huge following, they’ve already created something for themselves, they have brands reaching out to them directly, and a lot of them are very opposed to having management, they are their own manager. For us it’s about creating our own content, figuring out the interests of our individuals. I think it’s more inspiring that way and it’s more natural and it’s teamwork.
How do you work with a model who doesn’t really know what their personal brand is?
We start from the beginning. We see our models as individuals. We talk through who they are, what they believe in, what inspires them. What’s held them back in life, what’s their footprint.
What do you look for in a model besides being pretty?
An authentic story so we can build a platform. Something true to who they are that speaks to a larger audience. We represent individuals, not just models.
How do you judge that?
By talking and communicating and listening. Sometimes if you just take the time and get to know somebody, that’s when the stories come out and you can dig a little deeper and see what people have on their wish list – fantasies of what they want to do in life, dreams that may seem unattainable. I think that’s what we’re here to do, make dreams attainable.
Someone’s desire could be to be a designer, someone might have a desire to be on the creative side or the photographic side. Someone may have a charity that’s very near and dear to them, there are so many things…and I think it’s about listening.
When will the short model revolution begin? Is it already happening?
I’m happy you asked this question. The reason I love this industry and feel so strongly about Los Angeles being a powerful part of the fashion narrative is for this very reason. The short model revolution in LA – if that’s what you want to call it – I believe started with myself. I truly do. As an agent, I never saw height as a restriction. I tapped into knowing what brands wanted and needed and we looked beyond a model’s height. Its about relatability between the model and demographic of the consumer. All of the most successful models I ever represented were 5’7″.
Here at The Lions our aim is to continue building on that success, combining layers of my knowledge of LA and the sophistication and prestige of The Lions Brand. Talent represented by the Lions are given the incredibly unique platform of a voice. Stories don’t have a height requirement.
Why do you think it took the industry so long to break these rules?
I think for some designers it’s about how their clothes fit. At the end of the day we’re in the business of selling clothes and product. For many designers it’s about how they want their clothes to be worn and how they want them to hang on the female frame. I think for beauty, fragrance, swimwear, it’s a lot easier for them to use a model that is a little shorter. And it makes sense. A lot of samples are made a certain size. I think people are really embracing different shapes and sizes. I love that.
Why do you think models are coming back as the top celebs right now?
I think that in today’s society the idea of celebrity has changed. Back before social media, an actress was an actress, a singer was a singer, and a model was a model. On the whole, people stayed in their lane.
Now, with social media giving everyone the platform, the word celebrity has evolved. Celebrities now are much more accessible than before, with Instagram videos and Snapchat. They have branded themselves as individuals. This heightens the population’s interest and therefore brands are eager to collaborate with them. It’s a welcome crossover.