By Natalia Zurowski
Joining the ranks of Athens, Istanbul, and Singapore, Kuala Lumpur is now one of the best markets for models to build a portfolio. Although the market is small, it is home to several respected fashion publications that can boost a model's profile. As such, many models come to Kuala Lumpur to try to get the necessary tear-sheets to launch a career in Europe and America.
Shockingly, in the last six months, the market has experienced changes that have significantly slowed work down. An increasing number of freelance models has resulted in a noticeable decrease in jobs for contracted international models. The market is small, and almost all of the local models work as freelancers. But many international models, after spending some time in Kuala Lumpur, become freelancers as well. 25-year-old Estonian model Anna-Liisa Lorents has been to Kuala Lumpur five times. After her most recent trip from September-December in 2014, she also noticed a change in the market. She tells The Business Model that "many show directors started using a huge amount of freelancers rather than agency contracted models."
Understandably, some clients and models want to cut-out the middle man: agencies. Freelancing, or hiring freelancers, offers the attractive benefits of direct communication and forgoing commission costs. 25-year-old Iranian Masy Katry, is a popular freelance model in KL. She chose to go freelance after working with a dishonest agency. She says, "There are so many agencies around the world who won't tell you the actual amount of the job you are working for and some don't even pay you after you have finished your job." After cutting ties with her former agency, Katry couldn't be happier with her decision. "I get to be my own boss and deal directly with the client," she said. "I feel more happy being freelance. Of course there are ups and downs but I don't have to pay any commission."
However, even though becoming a freelancer does put models like Katry in more direct control of their work, it's a short-term solution for a potentially long-term problem.
With increased competition worldwide, obtaining tearsheets can be very difficult. Kuala Lumpur, being a smaller market with a fairly small labour pool, offers models a better chance at building a great book. In order for models to be able to successfully compete in the aforementioned top tier markets, specifically New York, most will need to acquire around 40-50 tear sheets. If a model is well-received in the market, they have a good chance of obtaining a substantial chunk of those during their 2-3 month contract. Losing a market like Kuala Lumpur would be a blow to those models eager to get their foot in the door with top agencies in top tier markets like New York.
Despite the decline in work, editorial clients still primarily book international models. But, working solely for magazines can't cover a model's expenses. Even the handful of models who work frequently on editorial re-bookings still need supplementary commercial work.
Losing international models would, in turn, be a devastating blow for Kuala Lumpur's market as well. As much as it can feel like an elaborate popularity contest, the modelling industry is a business after all. For agencies to contract models just for editorial work wouldn't make financial sense.
Azril Kama is the Director of Base Model Management, a leading modelling agency in Kuala Lumpur. Kama tells The Business Model that the rise of freelance models has "severely affected the pricing for jobs." He describes how the boom of freelance models has affected his business and other agencies in the market: "The number of bookings for modelling agencies has dropped between 25-30% as opposed to its usual record four years ago."
With less work and fewer models coming into town, agencies like Base will eventually be forced to close their doors altogether. Models could still come on their own, but with no contacts in the city, it would be incredibly difficult to cover expenses, let alone make a profit. Working in Kuala Lumpur is dependent upon connections and word-of-mouth, and if you don't have those connections, no one is there to promote you to clients.
Agencies and models wouldn't be the only ones affected. The Malaysian fashion industry as a whole risks taking a hit. Many large international brands such as Dior and Tory Burch, hold fashion shows and presentations in the market. But before a model is able to book a job for one of the brands, their snaps from the casting are sent to headquarters in Paris or New York for approval. These clients are very particular about who will work for their shows and they tend to favour a look consistent with their regular casting choices for jobs in Europe and New York. If there is a limited number of international models, the fashion shows or presentations will decrease or stop altogether.
Companies may fly-in models from New York, Paris, or even near-by Singapore, but raising expenses this much will be a big deterrent for companies that may not think Kuala Lumpur is worth the risk. Cutting out these major events and others like it, will affect buyers, magazine editors, potential clients, as well as studios and photographers. Futhermore, in the long-term, it diminishes Kuala Lumpur's prestige, a reputation that is still being fought for.
Clients, local models, and locals alike, must understand the importance then, of models from overseas working in the Malaysian fashion industry. The hiring of foreign models is not meant to insult local talent or deny them work. On the contrary, they're hired to help promote local brands, magazines, and market as a whole and allow them to compete on an international stage. If you want Malaysian talent to be recognized globally, you need foreign models to boost the market's profile. This is true in every lower-tier market. For example, in Toronto, Canada the biggest jobs (campaigns for Holt Renfrew, Joe Fresh, etc.) almost always go to top international models. Toni Garrn and Jasmine Tookes speak to consumers in a way that an unknown local model just can not.
As it currently stands, freelance models undercut one another to remain competitive and rates are decreasing for everyone. Agencies can help by putting in place a fair working rate for the models, and if they work together, can help provide regulation in the industry so that clients are paying models sufficiently and on time. However, even if agencies come together to create an industry standard, they still are missing government support, which Azril Kama describes as fundamental in having a healthy market.
The rules and procedures put in place by the Malaysian government makes it incredibly difficult for models to obtain work visas. For example, most candidates for a work visa need to be at least 27 years old, effectively barring most models. Therefore, it's no secret that almost all foreign models work in Kuala Lumpur under a tourist visa or social pass. On top of the crucial safety protections, by having models work legally under work visas, Kama feels "it would definitely help towards creating an efficient system."
If the Malaysian government created a work visa for models, a high standard for both models and agencies would be put in place. Not only would there be quality control, according to Kama, but "job rates would [also] be kept at a certain price." In addition, he says that "the enforcement of a work visa would relinquish the possibility of freelance models getting jobs on their own," since many freelance models also work illegally, even if they are Malaysian nationals. For models to work, they would need to be represented by a legitimate Malaysian agency where all income would be made, declared, and governed under law.
Power of implementation lies within the hands of the Malaysian government, rendering it a non-solution for the time being. Until then, agencies need to be as fair as possible in order to retain as many of their models as possible, which sounds like an obvious business strategy.
Anna-Liisa Lorents has been to Kuala Lumpur five times, and with her strong relationships with clients, could have easily become a freelancer. She has continued to work with her agency because she feels they have been honest with her. "Since the KL market is so slow, it's quite easy to get contacts for all the main show producers and agencies," she says. "[But] my agency has worked well for me and I have no reason to change that."
When asked if she would ever go freelance in Kuala Lumpur, Lorents felt it wasn't for her and valued the prestige of having an agency. "In all my many years of modelling, I have never done freelance work [...] but it looks like a pain in the ass," she says. "I feel like I have more chances to get better jobs through an agency and I feel like being signed with a recognized agency makes me a professional model in the client's eyes and my own."
Unfortunately, some agencies aren't exactly on board with financial transparency, which justifies the switch to freelance for many models. A common complaint heard from international models who've become freelancers, is the lack of proper payment from their old agencies (as pointed out earlier by now-freelancer Masy). Some agencies have given their models significantly less than the clients originally paid due to undisclosed "agency fees." If agencies want to retain models, like Anna Liisa Lorents, they need to give the models a reason to stay: fair and timely compensation is a sure-fire way to go.
Models and agencies should learn to communicate and work together to make sure that everyone is satisfied. If you're not happy with how your agency is treating you or you're not being paid what you deserve, make your feelings known in a polite and professional manner. You would be surprised the results a productive conversation can achieve as opposed to screaming matches - your booker is human, believe it or not.
Until the advent of government intervention, what needs to be done in order for the Malaysian market to grow and prosper? Agencies must be financially transparent with the models they represent. Clients must forge positive relationships with agencies and understand the importance of booking contracted models. International models must cooperate with their agencies and communicate effectively. Freelance models must understand their jobs aren't being threatened, and everyone plays a key role in the equation. Kuala Lumpur can continue to grow as a valuable market and become a strong contender in the fashion and modelling industry, but the climate of local business must change.
Thank you to our sources: Anna-Liisa Lorents, Azril Kama at Base Model Management, and Masy Katry.