The last word: What makes supermodel Coco Rocha hot?

A supermodel is like a ‘toxic asset,’ says sociologist Ashley Mears. Both are created by groupthink

IN 2002, A tall and skinny 14-year-old girl competed in a dance contest in Vancouver, British Columbia. There she encountered a modeling agent, who asked her to consider going out for modeling jobs. Today, the 22-year-old Coco Rocha is celebrated as a “supermodel” (however little glamazon power that term retains these days), appearing on covers of Vogue and i-D magazines, on catwalks from Marc Jacobs to Prada, and as the star face for Dior, H&M, and Chanel. You might not recognize her name, but chances are you’ve seen Coco Rocha in the past few years.

Rocha is what economists would call a winner in a “winner-take-all market,” prevalent in culture industries like art and music, where a handful of people reap very lucrative and visible rewards while the bulk of contestants scrape together meager livings before they fade into more stable and far less glamorous careers. The presence of spectacular winners like Coco Rocha raises a great sociological question: How, among the countless wannabe models worldwide, is any one 14-year-old able to rise from the pack? How, in other words, do winners happen?

The secrets of Rocha’s success, and that of the dozens of girls who have come before her, have much less to do with Rocha the person (or the body) than with the social context of an unstable market. There is very little intrinsic value in Rocha’s physique that would set her apart from any number of other similarly built teens. Rather, the social processes that bequeathed cultural value on Rocha reveal how market actors, in the face of uncertainty, make decisions by thinking collectively. In fact, this social side of markets is even key to understanding how the trading of securities backed by “toxic” subprime mortgage assets helped create the 2009 financial crisis.

WHEN TRYING TO figure out how winners happen in the modeling industry, the first thing to know is that nobody knows. This was one of the most striking things I discovered when, having been a model as a teenager, I started graduate school and once again signed up for the job, this time to research the sociology of the fashion business. Clients—designers, photographers, and stylists—don’t know what makes one model a better choice than another. And how would they? Making such a choice is an inherently uncertain task, hinging upon aesthetic preference, unknown consumer demand, and quick turnover. By definition, after all, fashion is change.

Consider the Fashion Week catwalks. There are thousands of models worldwide who vie for a chance to appear in the shows of New York, London, Milan, and Paris, and nearly all of them meet a high bar of tall, slim, and beautiful. As many as 200 models may walk through a casting director’s door in a single day during show season, and typically the shows have just 15 to 40 slots to fill. That’s a lot of models to sort through.

How do the clients know which models to choose for their fashion shows? Plucking the right face from the flock to fit a particular designer’s look of the season is, as Prada casting director Russell Marsh told me, like finding a needle in a haystack. Marsh peruses hundreds of images of women and men for potential spots in the Prada and Miu Miu runway shows and campaigns; he’s a key “Mover, Shaker, and Style-Maker,” according to the London Independent. When I put the question to him—why this model as opposed to that one?—he threw his hands up in the air, and excitedly pointed around his studio, “Why did I decide to buy this chair and sofa? You know, for me, it ticks the box. You know, it’s an internal thing.”

Like dozens of fashion producers I spoke with, Marsh doesn’t really know what it is about a kid like Coco Rocha that excites him. He “just knows” if a model is right for him, and further, he “knows it when he sees it.” Sociologist Patrik Aspers attributes this sort of decision-making facility to “contextual knowledge,” a valuable resource for producers brokering in such “fuzzy” values as beauty and edginess.

But while Russell and other fashionistas express this sixth sense as an internal thing, they feel it together. Here we have a paradox: Despite the abundant labor supply and uncertain criteria, there is enormous inequality in who gets to participate in Fashion Week. With my colleague, social networks expert Frédéric Godart, I studied the show reports from Spring 2007 and found that designers used a total of 677 fashion models worldwide for their shows. Coco Rocha was among just 60 women in the entire modeling universe to walk in over 20 shows; in fact, she walked in a whopping 55 shows. In contrast, the overwhelming majority of models, 75 percent, including myself, were used in five shows or fewer.

So our plot thickens: What’s at the center of this collective gut feeling that happens to land on Rocha, ratcheting up her popularity and, hence, her economic value? The answer holds parallel lessons for how traders in finance markets were able earlier this decade to assign so much inflated value to toxic mortgage-backed assets.

ROCHA HERSELF COULD be considered toxic, depending on whom you ask and, crucially, when. To the average American consumer, Rocha isn’t exactly good-looking. She has what industry insiders call an “edgy” look: pale and thin, with long brown hair hanging over a small face with a sharp small mouth and big almond eyes. She certainly is strikingly interesting, but a New York casting director of 14 years explained his initial reaction when he first saw her for show castings back in 2005: “Like Coco, urgh!” Making a sour face, he continued, “Ooh, like she came in and I was like, in my head I was like, ‘What trailer park did she come from?’” (This might sound particularly cruel, but rest assured it’s pretty routine for people in the industry to talk about bodies as a car mechanic might talk about an engine.)

A year after this casting, Rocha graced the cover of Italian Vogue, shot by powerhouse photographer Steven Meisel. And when the next spring runway season concluded, she boasted a résumé of 55 shows, from Marc Jacobs to Chanel. By the time the next show season rolled around, when Rocha made her way back to the initially skeptical casting director, he desperately wanted to book her.

He explained: “I can’t just book any girl I want. After I see all the girls, you know, I call the agents up and I say these are the girls that I would like for this show. The first thing they ask you is, ‘Well who else is in the show?’ They want to know who else you’ve got. So I always have to get that one girl. If I can get … I guess this season was Coco.” At this he rolls his eyes, and continues, “You know as soon as I got Coco in the show, it was like, okay, now I’ll book whoever I want.”

Today, this casting director still cannot see what it is about Rocha that makes her a winner. “But now,” he explained, “it doesn’t matter. It doesn’t matter what I think now. Like she is, you know, it right now.” As in the fable of “The Emperor’s New Clothes,” even if one does not believe in the legitimacy of a social order, one obeys its conventions due to the belief or calculated guess that other people find the social order legitimate and will obey. An individual tastemaker might not be able to grasp why a model stands out as a winner, but the label legitimates itself as other tastemakers imitate their high-status peers.

Imitation, however, is a funny thing. It’s not as simple as mere mimicry of established players, because established players are generally the best imitators. That is, a Russell Marsh also has to know what to imitate and at what moment. To do this, he needs a little help. Within the fashion market, I found that there were both formal and informal means of sharing information. Informally, producers talk. They hang out at lunches, dinners, parties—one group of booking agents I studied in New York brought models and clients together for a regular karaoke party. The producers talk constantly—Facebooking, texting, and drinking; they even date one another. Social ties are important for them since there is so much uncertainty and ambiguity in their work. Lots of industries work this way: publishing, film, art, and even, sociologists have found, financial investing.

The fashion modeling market also has a formal mechanism in place, known as the “option,” which helps tastemakers read the tea leaves. An option is an agreement between an agent and a client that enables the client to place a hold on a chunk of the model’s time. Like the options trading in finance markets, an option on a model’s availability gives the buyer the right, but not the obligation, to make a purchase. (Unlike the options traded on Wall Street, model options come free of cost; they are professional courtesies extended by agents to their clients, and also a way for agents to manage models’ hectic schedules.)

While the actual runway casting may take just minutes, the work of optioning models begins weeks before Fashion Week when each agency sends its clients a “show package,” akin to a press kit, announcing every model available for hire. Each agency can have 20 to 50 models up for the shows; given that there are at least 12 high-fashion agencies in New York alone, that means somewhere in the range of 600 model cards vying for each casting director’s attention. It’s a familiar sight in the months of February and September to see stacks of these cards lining the walls of casting directors’ offices.

This pre–Fashion Week ritual begins the important work of circulating buzz, because options signal the model’s popularity to all other clients. During castings, clients are likely to ask models, “Which shows are you optioned for?” thereby monitoring their competitors’ tastes. Modeling agents, meanwhile, use options as selling points, as in, “Russell Marsh just optioned Coco Rocha for Prada!” To most fashion designers’ ears, such words sound like warm honey; they greatly reduce the anxiety of having to sort Rocha from 676 other striking teenagers.

These formal and informal mechanisms of gossip result in a classic cumulative advantage effect. Successful goods accrue more success, and small differences in quality snowball into large differences in popularity. This is how, among a pool of nearly identical Sashas, Dashas, and Mashas, fashionistas can pick out a supermodel of the moment such as Sasha Pivovarova.

In the language of economic sociology, options are “performative”; they create what they putatively just describe. Options enable investors to anticipate other investors’ actions, which spurs herding behavior, causing actors to disregard their own information (i.e., “That Coco Rocha, urgh!”) and imitate instead the decisions made by others before them.

IN BEHAVIORAL ECONOMICS, Coco Rocha’s success is a case of an information cascade. In financial markets, herding and cascades create problems. They lead to bubbles and crashes, even when investors were aware as they created the bubble that they were artificially bidding up asset values. This, it turns out, was largely the case with the pre-crash housing market. Investors, like fashionistas, reacted to one another. Values were assigned to particular assets by people who were consciously trying to be “in fashion,” and this exacerbated systemic risk.

Perhaps what’s most worrisome about our response to the economic crisis is that many of us seem committed to using an ethos of individualism to make sense of it all. We chalk the crash up to a few bad apples and “greedy” executives gone astray—individualistic language, by the way, that’s not far off from rhetoric in the fashion press now celebrating the genius new beauty of Coco Rocha.

©2010 by Ashley Mears. Originally published by


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