Reading through a list of models that have recently appeared in Free People’s monthly catalogs is like reading through the Top 50 and Icons lists on Models.com. There’s Joan Smalls (currently ranked number one on Models.com), Candice Swanepoel, Dree Hemingway, Anja Rubik, Karlie Kloss, Behati Prinsloo, Freja Beha Erichsen, Erin Wasson and so many more big names that are recognizable on and off the catwalk. These are girls whose other jobs are with Karl Lagerfeld and Vogue – so how did they end up as the face for a mass market brand?
The answer is threefold. Obviously Free People’s large budget is a factor, plus the fact that it introduces models by name to a completely different demographic than the fashion folk reading Love and Industrie. But I think the best answer is that Free People has built a reputation as a creative and enjoyable place to work that showcases models’ talents, spirits and less publicized, softer sides.
How do I know? Because after 35 minutes on the phone with Free People’s Art Director of Catalog, E-Commerce and Film Lauren Cohan (a.k.a. the person who casts models and conceptualizes photoshoots, among other things), I was ready to quit my job to become her assistant. Read my interview with Cohan below to find out what it takes to be a Free People model, who her dream muses are and why she thinks a print catalog is still important in a digital age.
What’s the first thing you look for in a potential model?
I just love cool girls and I think that what somebody brings to what they wear is everything, more so than what they’re actually wearing. You know, this amazing, cool girl could be wearing a T-shirt and makes it look like a million bucks. I think that’s the fabric behind the philosophy of the casting for us – if somebody knows how to wear it, it changes. In general, the attitude that girls can bring to what she’s wearing. I always think of Jane Birkin, Debbie Harry or Kate Moss as great examples of style icons that everybody references, but they all have their own sense of personal style. No one else is doing that for them. When a girl walks into a room and she has her own sense of style, when we style her in Free People it only enhances that effortless cool. That’s really the fabric of the what the brand stands for. A lot of the time, with girls that we work with [frequently] … girls like Dree Hemingway, Joan Smalls, Karlie Kloss or Erin Wasson, we ask their personal opinions on the way they would wear something … It makes it more authentic and natural, and then the girls actually love what they’re wearing.
What’s the process like when you have a concept? Do you have a model in mind already or do you see a bunch of models?
There’s always a very short list [of models] that’s contingent upon what the concept is. So, for example, in March we wanted to do this motorcycle story, and I couldn’t think of anyone else we’d want to do it with other than Erin Wasson. The story really builds around the girl and who the character is, but it’s always themselves. And we even do that with the films that we make. We leave everybody’s names as-is and just really allow them to be, and I think that’s kind of what’s special about working with us is that you’re showing up to work wearing sneakers and get to be yourself. It’s not a day in six-inch heels.
How do you stay on top of the models and their personal style?
Honestly, most of the casting comes through Instagram, not really from looking at magazines or [another medium]. It’s just really cool to be able to see what someone is doing and what their lifestyle is like. Then you can look at that and think, “Oh, Dree [Hemingway] would be so amazing for this, or Camille Rowe or Martha Hunt.” And also knowing, personally, what they are excited about. We see everybody so often because we have so many shoots. We kind of keep the same ethos with our web models. We like to work with some of the same models for our catalogs and for web because I think the online base is just as important as the catalogs that we send out.
Do you find that your customers react to seeing the same girl repeatedly? Do you think they recognize Karlie and identify with her, or with Candice or Joan?
I think they’re excited when they see a new face with the brand, but I also think that people like familiarity, seeing the same girls. And we really do like to work with the same girls over and over again. When we were working with Joan [Smalls], we were talking about how a lot of times I propose, “Where do you want to go? What do you want to do?” Sometimes that can work in to our concepts because if somebody’s really excited about going to Mongolia, it makes the whole experience that much more special because they want to be there. It’s more than just a nine to five, it’s a full immersive experience.
Do you ever struggle to book a model that you haven’t worked with before or a bigger name girl?
Most of the time it’s just because of scheduling because everybody’s so busy. I would love to work with Daria [Werbowy] – that’s one of the girls that we haven’t worked with that I’d love to – but sometimes it’s not that they’re unavailable, it’s just that they’re so busy all around the world and our timing is so tight.
Are there any red flags that make you turn away a model?
I think the only thing is age. We really try to stick with girls that are like 24 to early 30s, and sometimes we’ll see these great girls who are younger than that, but we kind of want to wait until the confidence and the attitude is ready. And obviously people who are easy, confident and positive are great because we like to work in such a family way and like everybody to have a good time. You have to have a good vibe. Vibes are the most important.
What have been some of your favorite shoots?
One of my favorite shoots was probably three or four years ago and it was with Elsa Hosk and Martha Hunt in Paris. The two of them just look so good together, and the experience was so fun. And I think it was a catalyst for change within the brand when we stated working with these bigger faces. I love the book that’s coming out in August [with Joan Smalls], and I love the whole Roshambo series that we worked on, the film series with Sheila Marquez and Chris Abbott. That was really special because it was a three part thing, so it was kind of nice to have the audience come back and get to see something new. Anja Rubik is amazing. She’s another one who we let be really involved in the process. They’re all pretty special.
I love the shoot with Sasha Pivovarova that’s done at her home with her art. I thought that was so special.
Oh yeah! We spent three days shooting in her kitchen with her husband, Igor. They just let us in their house, and she was super involved. She illustrated the whole thing for us, and they worked together on it. It was so cute to see the two of them coming up with concepts, [deciding] where they wanted to shoot and scouting the house for locations. They’re so lovely.
What was it like to collaborate on a shoot with Freida Pinto, who was one of the first actresses to pose for Free People?
It was exactly the same [as working with a model]. Guy Aroch and I sat with Freida and pitched the concept with her. We though we’d have about 15 or 20 minutes together, but we were there for about three hours. By the end she was so excited about the project that we sent her over the script, and she collaborated on the whole thing. She helped us cast and helped us scout once we were in Jaipur. She was completely involved and engaged from the beginning to the end. I think it’s about creating an environment where everybody gets to be collaborative and together, it just is a very different dynamic.
What are do you see as the benefits of spending the money, getting the model and traveling to a location all for a mail-out catalog?
It’s obviously more of a challenge because of the way we look at images now – because there’s so many of them – to make something that’s more precious, so that you want to hold on to it and flip though it. I think our customer is excited about getting this new narrative story or magazine in the mail because of that different experience. I do still think it’s important to have something tangible to hold when there’s so many images we look at every day. Main Photo: Sasha Pivovarova for Free People’s January 2014 catalog. Photo: Free People
Free People’s Art Director Lauren Cohan (right) with model Sheila Marquez on the set of a Free People shoot. Photo: Free People / Lauren Cohan