Tokyo Report: Zucca Models

Initially becoming involved in the fashion industry after answering an ad calling for people with good English skills to become drivers for foreign models, Toshimi Ichiki ended up taking over well established Tokyo agency Zucca four years ago. Now fast becoming known for putting her own punk rock viewpoint on the models she brings to Tokyo, Toshimi and the Zucca team have had a hand in introducing tattooed, androgynous, and progressive girls to the otherwise conservative “kawaii” centric Japanese market. Full disclosure, Zucca (along with the Tokyo Fashion Week organization) kindly invited the Models.com team to Tokyo for Fashion Week, so we took the opportunity to stop by and talk to Toshi about her vision, how social media has changed scouting, and bringing diversity to the homogeneous country that is Japan.

Interview by Rosie Daly, with Felix Chang and Stephan Moskovic
Photos by Stephan Moskovic, except for Cris Herrmann backstage by Irene Ojo-Felix for Models.com

How did you start Zucca? What makes you different to the other Japanese agencies?

Toshi: Zucca has been around for 28 years… 29 years! This is our 30th year, this year. My old bosses Kumiko (Ueno) and Akemi (Tominaga) started Zucca, and then, when they retired, I took it over. That was four years ago. Before that in Japan there were a lot of Brazilian models, not so much diversity. Now, since I started, we try to have more diversity and we started to have a lot of Russian and Polish models. Those [type of] girls other agencies would have too, so we started to look for girls with an edgy look. Just recently I went to LA to look for girls and we found a couple of really great looking, edgy girls who Japanese clients would like. And before that I had this scout in Canada who found Sara Cummings, who was really successful in Japan. Even though her height was not so tall she did really great in Japan. Then we really started to go for more “edgy” look girls, and models Japan doesn’t really have, so we would like to keep going that way, as well as expanding into Asian and maybe male models in the future. But for now, Asian models and half Asian models.

How did the clients react to the edgy models you brought to Tokyo? You said they are used to the Russian, cutesy type, and you bring different types of girls here.

Toshi: They take it as really fresh… they, I think, appreciate what we do. That’s why we have more clients now. In the last three years we have expanded to a lot more clients than we used to have because of Asian look and edgier looks.

“In the last three years we have expanded to a lot more clients than we used to have because of Asian look and edgier looks.”

Is there a type of model who works really well in Japan but is maybe different to what works in the USA/Europe?

Toshi: Height really doesn’t matter here. Smaller the better, maybe, these days. I was surprised, we would have [minimum height] 170cm and then we would have 168cm… and we would be like maybe 166cm works. It’s really interesting. I mean, for show seasons you have to be tall, 176-178cm, but if you go over 180cm that’s too tall for here.

What kind of work can girls expect to do in Japan?

Toshi: Pretty much everything. Catalogs, commercial, TVCs, editorial, shows, look books… pretty much everything. We have a real variety of kinds of jobs here. Every day, all year around.

From top left clockwise: Tina Veshaguri / Beautiful People, Cristina Herrmann / Mihara Yasuhiro, Masha Myronenko / Dresscamp, Azila Jangutdinova / Hiroko Koshino

And regarding diversity, I noticed here there’s a lot more diversity in the men’s side of modeling than the women’s side, in terms of what is considered ‘diversity’ in Europe or America, there’s a big issue of race. And here you are talking more about a diversity of look. Why do you think for men, for example, there are more black models working in Japan?

Toshi: That’s a tough question. It’s not about us segregating anyone but, also, we are very ignorant. We don’t know any better. Because Japan is an island. And for us it is, hard to say, normal, to just have Japanese or Asian. Even though we are open to many others, since we don’t have them, it’s not like we have anything negative to say about other diversity, we just don’t have it.

Do you see that changing in the future? I notice you represent Kota, who is mixed, has she had a good response?

T: Yeah, she has been having great responses. People do like changes here, they go for new, new looks all the time. They love new things here. But since we don’t have enough [racial diversity] coming in, it’s going pretty slow. But yeah, I see the changes in the last few years, and it will change more, I think. I hope.

I understand you do most of your scouting outside of Japan. And now maybe a little bit in Japan?

T: We have to start. I’ve heard about other agencies going to universities and sitting there for ages to find models. I think we might have to do that sort of thing.

And you scout in Asian countries as well?

T: Not yet but [booker] Nagi is going to go to Asian countries soon, I think. Hopefully this year, maybe, or next year, to meet with agencies.

Sara Cummings, photo by Masao Yufu for Models.com

Do models from other Asian countries have the same rate as the other imported (caucausian) models?

T: Here other Asian models get less. Because they are not coming from as far plus, if they are Japanese, they don’t need their expenses covered. We’re trying to get [model] Azila, she has Asian heritage but she’s from Kazakhstan, so we’re trying to get the same rate as the caucasian models but it’s kind of hard. Cause clients just see her as an Asian model. But I would like to not only have variety in [racial] diversity but also sexuality as well. Because it’s really interesting, the responses from clients, when we had Sara Cummings, who’s very androgynous, and Tami [Glauser]. Same thing, Japanese people are ignorant about sexual diversity but they get it as like a ‘cool thing’ now, so I want to get into that more and push it.

“I would like to not only have variety in [racial] diversity but also sexuality as well..”

How has the market here changed since you’ve been in the industry?

T: I would say the market used to be, in my opinion, more commercial. The same kind of look, agencies would go find girls who clients would like. But now we are more into looking for something new, because Japanese people get bored of things really fast, and always search for new things. Now it’s a matter of who brings somebody different. And I think there are a lot more new designers now than before. I feel like the generation is changing. So it’s changing really fast.

So what you’re saying is that you used to bring in the models that clients would want but now clients are actually looking for your opinion on the models, on what’s really new and different?

T: Yes, I think so.

What about social media? What kind of an impact does it have here and which social media platforms do brands care about?

T: When Facebook came out, it got bigger and bigger. But when Instagram came out, Japan was pretty slow to catch up. In the last not even 6 months, it took off… before, [image] usage would just be website. Now we have to separate homepage, SNS, instagram. Now it’s getting more important.

Do clients now request models that have instagram followers?

T: That hasn’t happened… yet! But I feel it might happen. And clients do get excited when girls have a lot of followers.

In America now there are call sheets with specific numbers, minimum, that they need just to submit the girls to the casting.

T: Really? That is crazy! Because there are girls who are really good at instagramming, like they would put really cool pictures on and present themselves really well. You have to have a sense of… not artistic, but…

Performance?

T: Yeah, performance. Some girls just don’t have it but they’ll be really beautiful. So I feel really bad, like it’s too bad…

It’s an additional dimension. It’s not always a requirement, because there will always be brands for which it won’t matter. But it’s moving so fast, now the latest thing is Snapchat…

T: Yeah, Snapchat, I just don’t get it! [laughs]

Would you scout, or do you scout, on social media?

T: I found Kota on instagram! Because Sara [Cummings]… I think she has a lot of influence on Zucca now, because she opened up a lot of different ways to find models for us. She would show me this photographer and I would go to his page and then I saw Kota, and, like, whoa… it’s really interesting. I have written to a few agencies about girls I found on instagram. A few agencies replied but other agencies don’t, but still, it’s a really, really good way to find models. On instagram, if you find somebody they stick out.

What about if you found someone who wasn’t already signed anywhere but you liked them, would you contact them directly?

T: I would, I would. It hasn’t happened yet but I would.

I think it’s pretty rare…

T: [laughs] It is, it is.

Where do you see Zucca going in the next three, five years?

T: I just don’t want to be “just” a modelling agency. I’d like to have a lot of international people coming in and out of my agency, not only models but creators, photographers. I’d like to go to some countries and bring cool people and bring their creativity and maybe use our models to create something. I would like to stay in the same way as the old Zucca, where it’s really comfortable for models. I would always appreciate who comes to our agency and create something together, change Japan.

For more from Tokyo Fashion Week, click here.

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