Creative Space

IMG Models Chief Wants More Diverse Fashion World: "Let Me Tell You What You Need"

Winnie Au
"The young generation already has a plan," says Ivan Bart, photographed Feb. 28 at the IMG Models office in New York City.

The president of the powerhouse agency — whose clients include Gigi Hadid, curvy models including Ashley Graham, transgender talent like Hari Nef and hijab-wearing Halima Aden — wants more companies to hire diverse facies and bodies.

Ivan Bart has an office at IMG Models’ New York headquarters on Park Avenue South but he prefers to roam. His assistant even nicknamed him “Ninja” for an ability to pop up anywhere, unannounced, then hit up a conference room before disappearing to click send on global messaging to the entire company from a lunch place down the block. It’s a skill that helps Bart navigate multiple time zones overseeing more than 200 staffers, a network of IMG Models offices (New York, L.A., Paris, Sydney, London and Milan) and a roster that includes the most famous faces in fashion (Gisele Bündchen, Gigi and Bella Hadid, Karlie Kloss, Joan Smalls, Hailey Bieber and Alek Wek). Bart joined IMG Models in 1994 as a creative director, rising through the ranks to president amid ever-changing beauty ideals and an acquisition by WME in 2014 for more than $2 billion. He’s keen to talk synergy and share success stories of working with WME agents to land off-catwalk opportunities for his models (and vice versa for agency talent like Gal Gadot and Chrissy Teigen), but Bart is most effusive when it comes to opening up about passionate efforts to diversify the ranks and make space for everyone in an industry that can be cruel to outsiders. During his tenure, IMG has boosted careers of models with varying body types like Ashley Graham and Paloma Elsesser, and Zach Miko on the men’s side; transgender talent like Hari Nef; Halima Aden, who wore a hijab on the cover of Vogue; and Jillian Mercado, who has muscular dystrophy and models from a wheelchair. Bart, who lives in Brooklyn with his soon-to-be-husband ("This is our 18th year, so our time together has come of age and should be legal") and offers only that he's "in my 50s," boasts that modeling is a feminist industry where women outearn men. Many top female models make an estimated $10 million to $20 million a year.

How has your approach to business evolved over the years?

I say this with humor, that I was no better than somebody taking [a client's] order, asking, "What do you want?" I changed that conversation to "Let me tell you what you need." That has been the most freeing thing of the past five to 10 years. When you have experience behind you, you're able to say [that] with great conviction. Pushing the boundaries of race, age, size, gender has been a privilege, and we've seen results. For Ashley Graham to be on the cover of Vogue was historic. In the European shows, [Paloma Elsesser] walked for Fendi and Lanvin. How big a statement is that to have curves in luxury? There was so much resistance, and we heard, "Curvy women aren't coming in to buy luxury." But women's sizes 12 and up are CEOs and some of our [most successful] entertainers. Of course they want luxury.

What has been the hardest part of pushing for change?

Just running a business and making sure that we're solvent, that we make money, that our models are working — that in itself is tough. Every day brings all kinds of challenges, so, I don't know if there's anything that I could say that was specifically challenging. But forget fashion, I think in a lot of fields — whether it's entertainment or what have you — we underestimate the consumer. We believe we know what the audience wants to see or buy, and it's not true. On the issue of size, I’ve been told, “It just doesn't sell.” But was it marketed correctly? Did we reach out? Did the consumer know it existed? You just have to keep pushing, pushing, pushing.

You oversee many offices around the globe. How many emails a day?

Thousands and thousands. I'm copied on a lot of things, which I like. I don't have to participate necessarily, but I get to read and know, and then I might run into a model and relay a story that I saw [in email]. They might say, "Wow, you knew about that?" Of course.

What time does your day start and when does it typically end?

God bless the people I report to — [Endeavor CEO] Ari Emanuel and [president] Mark Shapiro — they're up at like 3 in the morning or something. I'm on the earlier side of 7, and I start by reading emails. Then I do some exercise because it's important for your mind. Then back to emails before taking a shower and getting to work. I still take the subway or ride my bike. I'm here [in the office] all day in meetings, et cetera, and then I'll have a coffee or a drink meeting that goes into a dinner or an event. Oftentimes, the best time for me to speak to Australia is around midnight when I'm on my couch, very cozy, in my PJs. Then I get to bed by 1.

When you look back over a quarter century at IMG, is there an accomplishment that jumps out?

Pushing boundaries, like signing the first woman of color to a big cosmetic brand — Liya Kebede [in 2003] leading into Joan Smalls, both for Estée Lauder. Now most of the cosmetic brands have multicultural, multiethnic faces. Having Carolyn Murphy on her 20th year with the brand is also a great accomplishment. Finding and identifying a talent like Karlie Kloss who has gone on to inspire a new generation by teaching young women to code. Seeing Jillian Mercado going down The Blonds runway this season was breathtaking. A lot of the stuff that's really memorable is happening now, and isn't that what fashion is? The minute you start thinking of back in the day, you're not in fashion anymore. You're out of fashion.

You said that you learned the most about the business from working at Ice Models, which was described as an “anti-fashion” agency. What was it about Ice that impacted you so much?

I give credit to Jeni Rose who works with us as a senior vice president [in IMG Models' Paris office]. That was her company, and I learned everything from her. Being a boutique agency, we were always up against the big people. What I learned is that you can't rely on the incoming phone call, you have to make the outgoing phone call.

That’s a good mantra. Are there others you live by?

God is in the details. When you're managing somebody, you really have to cross every t and dot every i. You’ve got to make sure contracts are foolproof. I made a mistake when I was young. Someone told me their name and I didn’t ask, “Can you spell that for me?” It was a youthful mistake because I didn't want to embarrass myself and I thought, well, maybe that's insulting to ask. I just assumed, which we all know: you do not assume. When she got to the airport, she couldn't make the flight because her name was incorrect [on the ticket] and she missed being on set. That was not a light mistake, it was a big mistake, and it was all on me.

At 24, Gigi Hadid has an incredible résumé that includes countless Vogue shoots, every major runway, campaigns for every major luxury brand and 51.9 Instagram followers. She even hosted the AMAs. What’s your vision for her career?

We always ask: What is it that you want to accomplish? It's not what do I see. I see that she could accomplish anything, there's no question. She's so multitalented. What I love about her is that she's convicted in her beliefs and not afraid to use social media to speak out. I admire that about her. She’s a career woman, and that’s why this goes back to being a feminist business. She is building a business and whether that grows into her own projects, brands or maybe she'll write a screenplay, who knows? It goes back to, what is it that you want to do and how do we tap into the entire Endeavor network — either film and television departments or on the digital side — to make it happen? We have so many great crossover stories.

What are some examples of how you work with WME?

Diana Silvers was in Booksmart, Ma and is filming the Netflix series Space Force. Camila Morrone just came off Mickey and the Bear. Odell Beckham, a WME client, wanted to be in the fashion space. Nothing is overnight; you have to play a little bit. So, our very first experience with Odell was to send him to the couture shows. It showed that he was serious and had an interest. From that, we were able to build upon the Calvin Klein deal, and eventually he was on the cover of GQ. We also work collaboratively with Gal Gadot. A lot of her fashion opportunities have come through us, and she has Smartwater now. We're very excited about Parris Goebel, the choreographer. We discovered her through Rihanna's Fenty show, and we started having conversations. Then she did J.Lo's Super Bowl performance and she's a spokesperson for MAC Cosmetics. We just had her walk the Tommy Hilfiger show, and we're talking to several brands about other opportunities. Bonner Bolton is a bull rider and comes from PBR. He's the face of Tom Ford’s [Ombré Leather] fragrance. [Stephen “Wonderboy” Thompson] is a UFC fighter and we’ve done several fashion deals with him. There's this great synergy, I think, both ways.

Models once got discovered on the street and became superstars. You hear those stories less because today, it's all about Instagram. IMG created the account @WeLoveYourGenes to help with scouting. How has it worked?

For [client] Diana Silvers, what we saw about her on Instagram was her personality. She's very funny and has a stinging wit. We love finding people; you could be in the Congo, you could be in Latin America, you could be anywhere. We still do traditional scouting, but it’s been a phenomenal supplement to the business.

#MeToo has led to a reckoning in Hollywood. The modeling industry has been affected as well. What protocols do you have in place to protect clients?

We've always put the health and well-being of our clients at the forefront. Thanks to the courage of many who've come forward, it's allowed models to speak more openly. We felt the need to formalize a document of what we can do, so talent know they can come forward and be in a safe space. In all these years too, I've always said to models, "If something doesn't feel right, it's not right. Call me."

Crossing over to Hollywood seemed like the ultimate goal of many models back in the day. Is that still true?

When I first started in the '90s, they'd say, "I want to be on the cover of Vogue." Now, you ask a 16-year-old model, "What would you like to accomplish?" They want to create a shoe line. They have a podcast. They have a YouTube channel. They love the idea of traditional modeling, but they also see it as a means to get to another place. The young generation already has a plan.

Interview edited for length and clarity.

A version of this story first appeared in the March 11 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.