Starmaker Paul Rowland on Legacy and His Latest Comeback

Paul Rowland by Bell Soto | Image courtesy of Ford Models

There’s an element of fashion that can feel like musical chairs, as models keen to rise through the ranks shift placement based on who can lead them to their lofty goals. Renowned model agent Paul Rowland, who knows the power of a rebrand all too well, stepped away in 2010 from a major legacy of model representation in a move that shook the New York fashion scene. Known for taking models to the next level, Rowland, who co-founded two agencies — Women in 1988 and Supreme in 2000 — had vividly shaped the modeling landscape, representing Kate Moss in her teens and other industry icons like Naomi Campbell and the late Stella Tennant. An ex-model and photographer in his own right, his discerning eye and drive propelled many models to stardom, and his preference for unique, intellectually stimulating beauty led to the rise of models like Daiane Conterato, Alana Zimmer, and Hanne Gaby Odiele. Surprisingly, he stepped away from it all, moving to Ford to head the Women’s division before he was bluntly fired. “I had never been fired from a job ever,” he asserts. “It teaches you that everyone is replaceable, and it doesn’t matter how great you are.” On the grind since he moved to the city, Rowland decidedly moved with his family to Marrakech, determined to prioritize a slower life. Now, he returns to Ford working with the Ford Models Barcelona outpost to usher in a new era of rising stars. sat down with Rowland during a rare New York visit to discuss his legacy, moving past his lowest professional point, and what it means to cultivate a model star.

Photo – Bell Soto | Special thanks to May Au

Who were you before you came to New York?
I’m the same person I was then, to be honest. I came from humble beginnings; I worked on a farm, surrounded by nature all the time and spent a lot of time outside. I went to the University of Arkansas and got a BA in fine arts, and after I finished school there, I always wanted to come to New York. It was the late ’80s and no one in my family had even been outside Arkansas, Texas, or Georgia, so it was peculiar for my family, but for me, it was just my instinct that brought me to New York. I had saved some money, had a one-way ticket, and I had a friend who let me stay on her couch somewhere around FIT. It’s funny because New York is a city that either works for you or against you. There’s never really an in-between and it worked for me. When you grew up in the South, everyone knew your business; they’d known you since you were a kid, and you can be anonymous here, and it was just very freeing. It was very liberating to be whoever you wanted to be.

New York is very much like a hustle gig economy. You worked in a restaurant and had a fateful moment where you served Bethann Hardison and Azzedine Alaïa.
I had no idea who these people were. I was a 26-year-old kid. You know what I mean? It was a Japanese restaurant uptown. That’s when the whole Japanese craze came in, and so there were a lot of young actors and people who were moving to the city and working there. You would get a lot of celebrities and actors. It was on the Upper West Side, so there were a lot of actors and fashion people. And, yes, Bethann and Azzedine came in, and they said to me, “Oh, have you ever thought about being a model?” I had never thought about that and didn’t even know what that meant. What got me was they said, “Well, you could make more money than you’re making here.” I said, “Well, I’m not sure about that,” because I was making good tips, like $400 cash a night. That was good. I had a cheap apartment downtown and was happy, but I said, “Okay. Sure. I’ll look into it.” Then, I met Nadia Shahrik, who taught me how to be an agent. She was my agent as a model, initially at CLICK, and then she left CLICK and opened MEN Management, so I followed her. This is in the ’80s; people just did things. Everyone just did what they wanted to do. You know what I mean? People started businesses. She had to go to Paris for shows and had one booker. I think the booker was sick, and Nadia panicked, “What am I going to do?” I said, “Well, I’ll answer the phones for you.” It was like that. I’m like, “I’ll do it.” She said, “Okay.” She was gone for about a week, so I manned the phones. Meanwhile, I was still represented as a model.

You said, “Learning from your agent was the best crash course in what it meant to be a model agent.” I wonder if your modeling experience also informed you. Was it a positive thing for you?
It wasn’t a negative thing, but the idea of being a model meant I knew I would not make a lot of money, and, at that point in my life, I was just looking for a secure paycheck. I wanted a check at the end of the week so I could pay my rent and modeling. Plus, I knew I was not going to make a fortune. My career just fell in my lap, and I became an agent. I started doing that, and somehow I liked it. So, I became a men’s booker with her for a year and a half maybe, and then, at that point, I thought, “Well, if I’m going to work with someone, I should work with women,” because it’s more of a women’s industry than men’s. Back then we had a big loft on 19th Street and she goes, “Oh, well, just go in that room, and you can open a women’s division,” and that’s how I opened Women Management in 1988.

You’ve worked with Kate Moss, Naomi, and Stella Tennant as an agent. How was it to be part of that era? Now that it’s behind you, how does that era translate to the present? Is it just history?
I feel like it was a very different town in the late ’80s and early ’90s. It’s hard because you can go into this whole nostalgic way of thinking, “Oh, it was better; it was this and that.” I’m sure it was different. It was more fashion-oriented and less business-oriented. Sure, there was a lot of money in the ’80s and ’90s. Girls were paid crazy money back then, but there was just a lot of money in the world. The one thing I will say coming back into this, it’s still the same job. It’s finding a girl or a guy and knowing how to manage them and get them where they need to be. Sure, there’s the social media aspect of it, but the core of the industry is finding talent that you believe in, and having the connections to get them where they need to go.

Are people taking chances on talent compared to then?
It’s your reputation that gets you places. If people trust you and your judgment, they’re more likely to take a chance on something they may not understand. For me, I was always that person who was always trying to think ahead of the game and ahead of the curve. I was never trying to follow a trend. I just went on my instincts. I opened my business like that; I’ve just gone on my instincts for everything in my life. If there’s one thing I would ever tell anyone, it’s to listen to your instincts because other people’s opinions don’t matter. What matters is what you think, how you see yourself in the world, and what you believe in, whether it’s beauty or a more appealing thing, and I feel like that’s always served me, good and bad. Depending on who you talk to, I was never one to compromise my own vision, and I knew that if it didn’t work, it didn’t work. You find and do something else. People gravitate toward people who have a conviction about something. So, the success of becoming a great manager, agent, photographer, anything, stylist, whatever it is, is your convictions and your vision of what you believe. People may not get it in the beginning, but you need to stick it out, and, at some point, it will catch on.

As you mentioned, 35 years ago you opened Women, and 24 years ago you started Supreme Management. What were some of your biggest wins and the hardest lessons you learned from running your own agency?
Women Management, at that point, became boring for me because it was already a machine, and it ran on its own. I just needed to be inspired. When something becomes too calculated, I become bored. This is where Supreme came in, because I know many things about painters, and I would always have these images in my head of Modigliani’s faces and Picasso’s. I thought, “I need to find girls that translate somehow into that for me,” so I started to look at girls with a specific vibe that was an idea of intellectual beauty. It isn’t the standard of everyone’s idea of beauty standard. It was a bit edgier.

When it comes to the hardest lessons to be frank with you, it’s a weird business because, let’s say, you find a girl, and you cultivate this girl; she’s 17, 18, you spend years with her, and then one day, she leaves your agency for whatever reason. That’s very difficult because you’ve invested your time and your energy. To these models, you’re a father, you’re a psychologist, you’re an agent, you’re many faces to these people, but, at the same time, it’s business. It’s tough for me, too, because you’ve invested so much of yourself in them. The good thing for me is I know how to make them. Not everyone knows how to do that. I always say this: “All you can expect is the commission that you make at the end of the day.” Whatever comes on top of that, it’s all gravy. You need to be clear in your head about what you’re doing.

After taking a brief break from the US, you were in Marrakesh for almost a decade. How did your priorities change as you grow your family, and what life lessons did it instill, especially when it comes to work/life balance?
No. I got fired. Everything in life is some type of lesson and you have to look at life like that. I had never been fired from a job ever. I was a waiter since I was 14, and my work ethic is crazy. It teaches you that everyone is replaceable, and it doesn’t matter how great you are. That was a bit of a gift because, after that, I had time to reflect. I spent, I don’t know, 27 years every day doing this, and you just had no time for yourself. You were immersed in this machine, and it was so important for me. When I got fired, later I saw that I needed to regroup and spend quality time with my kids who are now 15 and 13, so it’s all good. It gave me time to distance myself from this business, as well as just be with myself, and be with my family, and live a normal life, if that makes sense.

As an artist and photographer yourself, was being a multi-hyphenate a needed factor to rise through the ranks in an industry like this? I imagine being able to creatively lead helps in development.
It was a necessity because, if you get a brand-new girl you probably won’t have major photographers taking pictures of her. So, you have to get young photographers, but I could never get the images I saw in my own life with new photographers. Stephen Sprouse was a good friend of mine and one day, I called him, and there was a girl, and I said, “I want to do these …” They were these kind of Mapplethorpe pictures, “Will you do them?” He said, “Yeah. Yeah. Yeah.” So, we went into the studio, and he had his camera, but me, I’m art directing the whole thing, “No. I don’t like that. I don’t want this.” He asked, “Well, why don’t you just take the picture?” I was just like petrified. I said, “I know nothing about a camera.” He replied, “No. I’m going to show you.” So, then I just started to take pictures, and I still know nothing about a camera. I just know what I want to see. When I was taking photographs, to be honest, I would hire a lighting assistant, I would hire a first assistant, and so you’re more a creative director. I had something in my head, and I got people that could get it for me.

Addison Soens | Image courtesy of Ford Models

Scouting is probably the most obvious way to interpret change over time, but what differences do you see or find yourself more interested in when looking at new talent now?
I have an idea of what I’m looking for, but I never know until I see it. It can be so random. You see it while scouting someone like Addison [Soens], and it clicks. I asked them to send me all the new faces they had, and the only girl I was remotely interested in was her. She represented to me how Ford has always been about the idea of American beauty. Addison was the girl next door. Returning to Ford, Ford is about diverse beauty – wholesome, more approachable beauty that more people understand, with a little bit of a twist to it somehow.

Going back to Barcelona, Spain, do you think its rising influence is because of its financial power and the work it represents for talents and creatives?
Working there was strictly out of convenience. When I talked with Decio [Ribeiro, owner of Ford Brasil] about coming back, I was like, “I’m not going back to New York. I don’t want to go to New York. My family is here; I have a good life.” He said, “No. We’re opening Ford in Barcelona.” It’s a two-hour flight for me. I thought, “Well, that’s doable.” I was not returning to work full-time; I needed to be home and with my family. Spain now is a huge market however, my interest was not to necessarily book in Spain, my interest was the fact that you can build new faces anywhere. We can develop girls there, and then I would break them during these shows in Milan and Paris. It seems to work, and there’s a lot more happening in Europe than here right now. I was in New York in the best days of it. Sometimes New York is stronger, sometimes Paris is stronger. It just fluctuates. At the moment, New York, the market in terms of fashion, is not as prevalent as in Europe.

What do you think has gotten more interesting since you’ve been gone, and what is it that you would love to see come back?
When I left, I didn’t follow fashion or look at it. I have Instagram, but I never really followed it. I never really looked at what other people were doing. I feel like that informs you too much, so I try not to see what’s happening around me and stick to what I see. I would love to see shows where girls didn’t look miserable. I would really like to see personality, something from the girl. We’ve been seeing this whole look for many years, and I loved it at a point, but I think it would be nice to see. It’s such a dark world, so it’d be nice to see something a bit lighter regarding how girls present themselves, just some personality. It’s not over-the-top, but just some personality. That would be nice.

Do you feel like it’s still possible to make stars?
Always, everybody wants stars. The world wants this thing to take you out of your misery of everyday life. It’s to dream. That’s the thing I’m missing. Fashion was about dreaming. None of it was real, but the fantasy of all of it gave people motivation. Now I feel a lot of that is gone, and it would be nice to see that return.