The face of modeling is changing, although there’s still a long way to go before it truly reflects the diversity of the real world.
The MENA region has evolved into a fashion powerhouse over the past few years, with more young women storming the industry, fronting numerous international brands.
Industry pioneer Iman Eldeeb, the founder of Egypt’s first official modeling agency UNN Model Management, says countries like Morocco, Lebanon, Jordan, Egypt, and Saudi Arabia have young professionals who can have a global career in fashion.
“As long as we do not give in completely to Western characteristics and dig deeper to discover our core individuality, away from pre-set rules that constrain us, the future is hopeful and limitless.”
A CREATIVE UPRISING
Throughout her extensive fashion and modeling experience across different markets in Europe, Asia, and the US, Eldeeb noticed a gap in the representation of Middle Eastern and North African models worldwide.
Besides the striking lack of diversity, there need to be more local modeling agencies in the region that could fully support and develop young talents from tough cultural and traditional backgrounds.
UNN came to life as the first modeling agency of its kind in Egypt, intending to discover new faces, create career opportunities and promote Arab and African talent internationally.
“We scout for people who would walk the runways of the world’s biggest luxury brands, get signed in fashion capitals, or grace the covers of top magazines,” Eldeeb said. “We have noticed a shift in the fashion and modeling industry, particularly in Egypt, which has caused a circular impact locally, regionally, and internationally.”
According to Elias Samia, founder of Lebanese talent agency Local Vice MGMT, the regional fashion scene has witnessed a creative uprising on multiple fronts.
For a while, foreign models have been in the limelight. However, local models have more recently managed to turn things around, says Samia, showing that “with proper formation, management, and good exposure, they have what it takes to compete with and even outshine foreign models.”
“Putting locals upfront in regional campaigns sounds more logical and relevant, especially from a target audience perspective,” he adds.
People relate to a brand or product if they see a familiar face promoting it. “This will lead to a positive impact on brands by generating higher reach and more sales. Enhancing the local fashion cycle while spreading awareness on changing beauty ideals and increasing diversity will automatically give the fashion industry a sustainable spectrum,” said Samia.
And while some brands have been opting for local influencers to front their campaigns, many luxury fashion houses and international retailers are looking for unique and fresh local faces.
“Modeling requires a certain kind of confidence, character, and personality that many influencers lack,” Eldeeb said. “With the speedy growth and high competition on social media platforms today, influencers struggle to keep their brand image up and find a niche style for themselves while models already have that.”
TAPPING INTO LOCAL POTENTIAL
With Saudi Arabia emerging as the largest market for online fashion in the MENA region, reaching an estimated $3 billion in 2022, creatives in the kingdom are expanding their fashion ventures. At the forefront of the scene stands model-scouting startup Clay Models, the brainchild of Lina Malaika and Farah Hammad.
Born out of a casual conversation between filmmaker and creative industry pioneer Malaika and renowned fashion designer Hammad during the pandemic, Clay aims to develop the kingdom’s next generation of talent, tap into their full potential and reach both local and global audiences.
“Lina and I have been in the creative industry for over a decade,” Hammad said. “She had a database of models she would resort to for her work, so I helped make the idea an official concept to bridge the market gap.”
The modeling industry in KSA remains relatively new, but they have witnessed it flourish year after year, with the demand for local talent becoming higher. “The sky’s the limit with the diverse talent we have.”
Despite being more prolific than KSA, the local modeling industry in Egypt is still nascent due to restrictive mindsets, which Eldeeb has been pushing against for the past few years. “Even though there is still a long way to go until Egypt has a matured modeling industry, I believe the impact will be much bigger and maybe even quicker than other neighboring countries in the GCC,” she says.
Powered by its large population, acclaimed creative industry, and high retail demand, Egypt can fast-track its modeling industry with the right foundations and education in place, says Eldeeb. “With Egypt’s over 100 million population density, even a 1% would generate enough demand for luxury brands to diversify their modeling talent to better target customers in the region.” She adds that her team continues to invest its knowledge and experience into developing models’ careers to prepare them for new opportunities.
“Modeling is not just about the face. It’s how you carry yourself and your flexibility to adapt to different directions. Models grow very fast with a circuit of placements and a growth ladder based on experiences around the world. The MENA region will see this potential once more Arab faces start working internationally.”
A TALENT-FORWARD FUTURE
While the modeling industry in Lebanon has been around for longer than other countries in the region, it remains largely open to improvement in scouting and talent development practices. With much of the creative industry hitting an all-time low, Samia sees it as an opportunity to revive the fashion community by shedding light on local models and creative talents. “We have always believed that our country is home to real beauties and rare traits,” he said.
From distinctive faces to renowned artists to fashion gurus, the small country has all it takes to make a difference on the regional scale.
“We always encounter many aspiring models that share a curiosity and passion for fashion and modeling. This gives us a higher incentive to guide them and opens new avenues for the modeling industry to blossom. Modern fashion is all about openness, genuineness, and diversity. I believe this is where we should be heading.”
Samia says talent agencies must keep raising the standard by scouting hidden talents. “We must diversify recruitment and form models well through our specially designed programs so that once they are ready, we can give them opportunities to network with established artists and fashion houses.”
Through their experience in the Saudi market, Clay Models co-founders have witnessed the growth and positive shift in the industry outlook.
“When we first started, it was quite an obstacle to scout new models and have them sign and trust to have agents. As our credibility grew through working with local and international luxury brands, the volume of applications we receive on the daily is immense,” says Malaika.
According to Eldeeb, the region needs professional facilities to train and educate up-and-coming talents in the industry properly. “Our mission is to empower, expand, and create a solid foundation for young talents in the region to fully express themselves and see an accurate representation of themselves through fashion.”
Although a lot is left to be done, experts say with the right talent development tools, networking, and systemized professional practices, the modeling industry can put more local talent on the global map.