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This NYC Modeling Agency Shaped the Fashion World as We Know It

By Nicole Levy | September 7, 2016 7:46am | Updated on February 8, 2017 9:32am
 Modeling agency founder John Robert Powers poses with participants of a Fashion Queen contest at the 1939 New York World's Fair.
Modeling agency founder John Robert Powers poses with participants of a Fashion Queen contest at the 1939 New York World's Fair.
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New York Public Library

Behind each model walking the runway at New York Fashion Week, which starts Thursday and goes until Feb. 16, there stands a team of modeling agents coaching and booking her.

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

The modeling world's strong connection with New York City goes back decades because the first modeling agency in America and likely the world was, in fact, born here.

John Powers Inc. shaped American standards for the ideal female model. The svelte, tall women that strut through the agency's doors — "long-stemmed American beauties" as illustrator William Brown called them — became synonymous with high fashion in the 1930s and 1940s.

Their agent, John Robert Powers, had served for years as an aide to Vogue chief photographer Baron Adolphe de Meyer. He acted the part of informal recruiter and liaison between de Meyer and the society matrons and theatrical stars who posed for him, just as fashion modeling was taking off as a viable career for women of all classes and backgrounds.

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

Powers girls

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

Powers initially charged his clients a 5 percent commission, as was custom for theatrical agents of the era. By 1946, he was taking a 10 percent cut, a share more in line with those claimed by employment agencies.

A quarter of his models' earnings in that era 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 held sway over the American imagination, as a 1941 photo essay in Coronet magazine indicates: “They sip your favorite coffee, drive your dream car, display the latest fashion, show you how to cook a waffle — for they are potent forces in the scheme of American advertising."

The faces and figures 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, discerning man named John Robert Powers appraises their charms, selects, sorts and schools them for the job of selling sables to society or groceries to the great American housewife.”

Powers girl models navy look

A "Powers girl" models a uniform overcoat for the Women's Auxiliary Volunteer Emergency Service in 1942 (Library of Congress)

The agent, who also recruited at beauty pageants, compared inclusion among his model catalogs to another contemporary feminine status symbol. "Twenty years ago, a girl might have said with justifiable pride, 'I belong a sorority,'" Powers was quoted as saying in Life magazine in 1946. "Today, she will tell you, 'I am a Powers girl.'"

Most "Powers girls" in the pages of Vogue and Harper's Bazaar fit the same physical requirements: they were 5-foot-9-inches or taller and their measurements aligned closely to a voluptuous 34-24-34.

Powers' models made him rich, but some women complained of his stinginess. The entrepreneur didn’t always pass along their share of earnings from assignments, they said.

The returns on his operation declined after 1946, the year competitor Ford Models was founded. Unlike the Powers' agency, Ford systematically recorded telephone orders and cancelations for models, and collected clients’ and models’ availabilities to schedule appointments.

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

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