IAM Models Founder, Ryan Alexander On Tackling Mental Health Within The Fashion Industry and Learning To Truly Be Yourself

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From living it up as a signed musician in LA and London to setting up his own modelling agency, Ryan Alexander is a man on a mission to transform the modelling industry in Northern Ireland. Upon first impressions, the creativity of the IAM Models team is certainly apparent but more importantly, is the mission behind their business, their commitment to the success of their models on a global scale as well as their in-house initiative IDENTITY which works towards combatting mental health issues within the fashion industry. We caught up with Ryan to chat about the nature of the modelling industry, how IAM Models got started and the reality of a day in the life of a top model agent.

On how IAM Models got started…

I used to work in the industry in London and one of the things that always struck me was that Northern Ireland wasn’t represented in the fashion industry. Major agencies in the fashion capitals – London, Milan, Paris and New York – partner with lots of agencies around the world in smaller cities, in the UK, Europe and further afield. I remember wondering why Ireland was never represented in that way. I couldn’t understand why because I knew there was talent here. I wanted to bridge that gap and be that agency that worked with the major industries in the fashion capitals and to send our models to those fashion capitals to work and to have successful careers as high fashion models there.

On what sets IAM Models apart…

We have a small pool of models and that’s very intentional. We believe all of our models to be absolutely exceptional. The clients we have and the work that we get is outstanding. Some of the biggest clients in Ireland who have worked with us include the likes of Argento, Brown Thomas, Dunnes Stores, Remus Uomo, Envoy Belfast and so we really need to make sure that we are giving those clients what they want and to achieve a product which could rival agencies and competition anywhere around the world.

We have models that work in the major fashion capitals but also all over the world in places like Asia, South America, South Africa, Australia and all around the world. We represent models who wouldn’t necessarily be able to be signed otherwise because they don’t meet the industry height requirements or they don’t meet the right measurements for this industry. We believe that beauty comes in all shapes and sizes and actually someone with an incredible character and personality and also an incredible face, a really unique face and really unique look has just as much of an opportunity and should have just as much of an opportunity as any other model who is long-legged and 5’11”. That’s part of the Offbeat section of our books. We like to think that we are changing the industry from the inside out with regards to the standards within the industry and the unrealistic beauty standards that are set by the industry.

“We like to think that we are changing the industry from the inside out with regards to the standards within the industry and the unrealistic beauty standards that are set by the industry.”

We also have IAM Identity which is an in-house initiative that works in two parts. The first part is that we fund mental health research within Northern Ireland. We fund PhDs and Masters in partnership with Queen’s University and we have Queen’s psychology students who come and work with us for a period of time. They conduct research into the industry and we learn together as to how we can best combat the issue of mental health within the fashion industry specifically. Their findings are prepared and presented to other agencies in the industry to show them what they can be doing to combat the issue. Ultimately, the end goal is to work together in order to eradicate mental health problem within the fashion industry.

The second part is that we go into schools and we educate young people with regards to the industry. We bring some of our models with us and we talk about the unrealistic standards of beauty that are set within the industry and we talk about how actually, to be attractive, to appear successful, to have done fashion week and to have worked for this client and that client means absolutely nothing. We tell these kids that their worth and their value is not in the way they look or how many followers they have on social media, it’s in their character, it’s their personality, it’s how they love, it’s who they are. We go into schools and we talk about that specifically.

“We tell these kids that their worth and their value is not in the way they look or how many followers they have on social media, it’s in their character, it’s their personality, it’s how they love, it’s who they are.”

On being who you were created to be…

We spend so much time trying to be somebody else that we forget who we are. We bow down to the pressure of conforming to stereotypes and social norms and our own individuality gets lost. We want to reignite that individuality in everyone that we meet, especially within this industry. Be yourself, don’t be ashamed to be yourself because you are fantastic. Regardless of what anyone thinks of you, to be yourself is the best thing to be and that’s who you were created to be.

“Regardless of what anyone thinks of you, to be yourself is the best thing to be and that’s who you were created to be.”

On the most surreal moment of his career so far…

IAM Models has achieved so much in such a short space of time. We’ve worked with the likes of Moschino and Givenchy, Chanel. We’ve placed models all around the world and they’ve walked incredible fashion weeks and for incredible designers and fashion houses. We’ve met some absolutely amazing people within the industry. We partner with some of the biggest agencies in the world and have built fantastic flourishing friendships with those agencies.

However, I think the most surreal moment for me was when we first signed a model called Ben. Ben has been with us from the beginning. He was the first model that we signed that we placed internationally. I knew it was possible to bridge the gap and be an agency who partnered with these major agencies and could represent models abroad but that dream hadn’t happened yet.

We signed Ben as an amateur boxer from East Belfast having had no modelling experience. We signed him and developed his portfolio and through our contacts with partner agencies in fashion capitals, Ben went on to do his first fashion week in London. At that point, my dream and all my hard work had become a reality. I remember thinking to myself that this is surreal, that we are an agency in Northern Ireland representing a model at a major fashion week internationally and what an incredible achievement and opportunity that is. Of all the success that we’ve found with IAM Models over the last few years, that moment has been the most surreal for me.

“We didn’t want to be an agency that was part of that problem, we wanted to be part of the solution.”

On what he wish he knew before setting up his business…

How much hard work would be involved. It’s such a cliche but in order to be successful in anything in life, you have to put the work in. And I knew that but I think I underestimated just how much work it would be to develop the relationships with the clients that we have and with the major agencies we now have and to find the talent. A lot of work went in. There was a lot of sleepless nights, a lot of pressure, a lot of stress. For the first year of IAM, I was in the office for 9am and I wasn’t leaving until 10-11pm every night. There was a lot of sacrifices. Although I wouldn’t change that for the world but that was something I certainly never anticipated. I also wish I knew how to best manage models and creatives. Nothing can prepare you for managing people and personalities. Everyone is weird and wonderful in their own way and has their own characters and personalities. Dealing with those personalities in a respectful and positive way is sometimes really challenging. And the only way that you learn how to do that is the hard way and I certainly learned that the hard way. I wish someone had given me a little 101 guide on how to manage personalities.

On the most admirable traits of creatives…

In this millennial age, it’s very easy to get ahead of ourselves as individuals. It’s easy to think we are something because we have 10,000 followers on Instagram and because people online like our work as a photographer or as a stylist or as a makeup artist but actually, that doesn’t wash in real life. You need the experience to back it up. You need that experience as a photographer, a stylist, as a makeup artist, as a creative, as a model in order to be able to do your job to the best of your ability. So often I meet with with young creatives and young models who think they are something, that have an arrogance about them but don’t have the credentials to back it up and this makes their work ethic very poor. And so, the thing that I most admire about creatives and the thing that I look for instantly when a creative comes through my door is, what is your work ethic? What is your attitude?

If you come into my office with an attitude of wanting to learn, of an attitude that there is always something to learn, there is something that I can always improve on. If you have a willingness to listen, a willingness to be better, if you want to genuinely achieve something and push yourself and better yourself as a creative, then that’s what’s important to me.

Creatives can have natural talent and a lot of the time you can’t learn that you either have that or you don’t. Having talent is the easy bit, that’s the gift but actually having the work ethic and the right attitude to go with that talent, that’s the bit that’s rare.

On the future of IAM Models…

I would love to have more of a platform to make a change within this industry. I would love to make a meaningful difference within this industry. I would love to educate as many children in this country as possible when it comes to social media and the value of being yourself and being who you were created to be. I would love to show people that appearance and the materialistic nature of this industry means nothing. I’d also love to continue to develop meaningful relationships with our partnered agencies and to be bigger and better and more established as an agency in order to give ourselves a bigger platform to make a difference.

Niamh Crawford-Walker

Niamh is a full time fashion and features writer at The Style Edit. Her work has previously appeared in IMAGE magazine, image.ie and Emirates Woman.

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