Wilhelmina Rising

The venerable Wilhelmina agency, founded in 1967 by internationally known model Wilhelmina Cooper has emerged as a fiscal giant in the latter day modeling industry, led by its powerhouse men’s divison. Currently headed by President Sean Patterson, the wide-ranging organization with offices in NY, LA and Miami and one of the most diverse array of divisions in the business is poised for a new level of visibility with its upcoming VH-1 reality series.

Tune in as Mr. Patterson sits down with MDC’s Betty Sze for an in depth discussion about his past, his future goals and his ultimate ambition for the Wilhelmina brand.

Betty Sze: Could you give our readers a quick summary as to how you came to your present position at Wilhelmina and also what your duties involve?

Sean Patterson: It’s a little bit of a long story, basically I started here, almost 14 years ago. I was just out of college and knew a bunch of agents on the men’s board. I had just finished school at NYU and just being around New York and knowing some of the men’s agents, they had come to the owner at the time and said, we want to hire this kid, we think he’s a good talker. Dieter (Esch), the owner of the company didn’t like that one of my side pursuits was that I was a club promoter, from being a student at NYU. He said, “Absolutely not, I won’t hire a club promoter to work in my company”.

Luckily, the board kind of prevailed upon him to hire me anyway, so he ended up relenting and hiring me. I started as a junior agent, I was making no money at all, it was very hard to live on what I was making as a junior agent. It was a lot of pasta, I would make that box of Ronzoni last the entire week. I worked my way up, little by little and at a certain point I became a full fledged agent and then at another point I became director of the men’s board, a few years later I became a vice president, then an executive vice president.

Then one day, about three years ago, Dieter, one of the owners of the company (owned along with his partner, Brad Krassner) asked me to have dinner with him at a very nice restaurant on the Upper East Side. I got a little bit nervous because Dieter and I are kind of chicken and ribs sort of guys, we’re not really the white tablecloth kind of guys. We ended up going to this restaurant, I sat down and thought to myself, “He’s either going to fire me or else… something’s going on”. He says to me, “Sean, I always promised myself that on my 60th birthday I was going to retire.
This August I turn 60 and I’m still planning to retire and I want you to run the company”. He said that, “If you don’t accept this, I am going to have to appoint someone else to run the company and you’re going to have to work for them, but I am retiring nonetheless, but I’m hoping you take this job because I think you’d be the best at this.” He said that I had 2 days to give him an answer. He wrote down on a little business card what my salary and bonus structure would be, and said, “This is your offer and you have 2 days to give me an answer”.

I went home that night and didn’t know what to do, I was really kind of beside myself. I was 31 years old and I was being offered to run one of the oldest and largest modeling agencies that ever existed. It was hard because I loved working here with Dieter, I loved being his right hand man and it was a lot of pressure to be thrust into this position where I have to basically call the shots myself. So that’s the basic outline of my ascent here at Wilhelmina. It’s been a long journey and it’s been very humbling in a lot of ways, very eye opening in a lot of ways,

It’s one of those situations where I feel like we are getting a lot of great traction, there’s been a lot of changes going on here and I’m doing my best to try to navigate what I think is the best direction for the agency right now. I am taking the agency in a slightly different direction than what Dieter had set the course of the agency on. I feel good where we are. Is it nerve wracking sometimes? Yes, it can be.

BS: So what are your duties like on a day to day level, it seems like you’re very hands on?

SP: Very hands on… and I think you really need to be that way. I’ve seen too many of my contemporaries, who were agents that were appointed to positions of some kind of administrative capacity at their agencies and I saw them start to sit in an ivory tower and think they can still be in touch with what’s going on in the business and I just don’t think that’s possible. You need to have a feel for what’s going on in fashion at all times with the models, with the clients, with the agents. That’s the reason I’ll never fully leave the booking table, because I think you HAVE to be hands on and you have to be able to relate that to the rest of your staff.

Last night I had a great dinner with all the women that run the Sophisticated women’s division and this is a division where not one of them has less than 20 years experience on the board and AT Wilhelmina. They’ve been there a long time and most of them are actually there 25+ years, so between the 4 of them, they’ve got combined 100 years of experience not only in the business but ONLY at Wilhelmina.

BS: That’s so rare in this business…

SP: That’s incredibly rare and it shows you the heritage and what we are and where we come from. It’s humbling for me and it gives me a certain amount of respect for what this company is. These women set the gold standard in the business and I have to be able to relate to them and talk to them about what’s going on in their board and strategize with them and give them the assistance that they may ask for. It’s one of those situations because of my agent background that I have the extra insight and ability to help them.

BS: What advice would you give to an aspiring model who truly desires to be a part of the the Wilhelmina brand?

SP: I think they should go about trying to apply to us in a very straightforward way, there are no gimmick-y ways to get our attention. I think they should try to do a submission to us, either through MODELS.com, which is one of our scouting vehicles, which is always a great way for us to find talent or they can submit to us directly by sending in a polaroid or headshot, etc, or they can try to come to our open call. I tend to find that when the agents have the most time to be able to sit for an hour and look at photos, it’s normally using the MODELS.com vehicle because then they can sit there and they can literally just have an hour at home at their computer and they’re just looking at headshots and they’re looking at what’s on the MODELS.com site and then saying, “This one l’d like to see”, “This one I’d like to contact for more information.”

Sometimes, photos or polaroids sent to us, that can be a little bit tricky because we get so much on a daily basis and there’s different people sorting through mail and maybe that person doesn’t have the time or the energy at that moment in the middle of their day to focus on that photo. So I do find that the fact that we do have the relationship with you guys that we do and we use you as a scouting vehicle, is very important. It’s very helpful. In a way, it’s probably the best way for us to gain access to new aspiring talent.

» [Continued on Page 2]

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