Cool Kids for Sale!

A New York agency is turning being hip into a job

Two weeks ago, at the Bowery Hotel in New York’s Lower East Side, Annabelle Dexter-Jones, the younger half-sibling of the artistically diverse Ronson family, described what can happen nowadays to kids like herself who don’t have professional representation.

“I had done this collaboration with a major clothing company,” she began. “And the person they hired to do the casting tried to charge me a fee. She tried to rip me off, basically. My friends and I did this shoot together, and one other person and I were the only ones she sent this e-mail to. I checked.” 

The week she met The Observer, Dexter-Jones, a petite blonde with a healthy tan, had turned 24. Her résumé includes attending Chapin and Dwight Schools, and Bard College; modeling in campaigns for Erin Kleinberg, Hogan, Louis Vuitton eye wear and sister Charlotte Ronson’s line; appearing in Teen Vogue as an It Girl; acting in a short film by Theo Wenner; and currently dating André Saraiva, the 39-year-old proprietor of the forthcoming Le Baron nightclub in New York—in other words, the kind of modern, post-debutante existence that has made her fashion sense and bicoastal connections appear “marketable.”

“I’ve been offered design collaborations,” Dexter-Jones said. “Companies ask me to direct short films. This week, I had a meeting with a brand because they don’t want to be thought of as a mother’s brand. They want to access younger people. A TV network that wants to do scripted shows contacted me, asking if I knew anyone who would be great for this or that.” 

Dexter-Jones wants to be an actress. She is working with an acting coach in the West Village and plans to relocate to L.A., temporarily, for pilot season. But while her agent, Emily Gerson Saines, at Brookside Artist Management, handles her acting career, Dexter-Jones has signed with the 2-month-old Collaborative Agency to handle all of her other, well, collaborations. The agency’s other clients include Gia Coppola (model, filmmaker and Sophia’s niece), Isabelle McNally (actress, model and Keith’s daughter), Lucien Marc Smith (artist, model) and Tracy Antonopoulos (filmmaker, model).

A few years ago, Dexter-Jones would have been called a socialite, a title that has become increasingly difficult to dispense given how much young men and women have capitalized on their socializing by designing, modeling, acting, styling, photographing and DJ’ing—possibly all at the same time. These are the kids who take lunch meetings at the Smile and reconvene later that evening at the Jane or the Bowery hotels—activities that instead of intervening with their careers have actually helped make them. The marketing departments of companies such as Levi’s, Club Monaco and Target—eager, in this economy, to re-brand, downsize and cozy up to the buyer looking for their local designer boutique—have begun asking them (often through Facebook, how else?) to lend their distinguished coolness to national brands: Could Dexter-Jones design a capsule collection? DJ a brand launch? What about television—does she want to do television?

Jean Touitou, the founder of A.P.C., the French clothing brand, mused to on a recent trip to New York, after attending a dinner hosted by Purple magazine: “There are too many hip kids. Hip is not a job. It makes me worry about the future.” And yet his own marketing team might disagree: A.P.C.’s winter campaign last year featured Ms. Coppola. Being hip, it turns out, to Touitou’s dismay, is very much a career path.

“It’s kind of a new phenomenon,” Dexter-Jones said. “If you want to record your own music, you can have a studio on your computer. With DJ’ing, you can just use an iPod. There is just access to more fields now, and that’s why people aren’t defined. They can be a DJ, actress and three other things if they want.”

Her older sister, Samantha Ronson, who is considered to be a very good DJ, approached the table, overhearing Dexter-Jones’ last line. “Jack of all trades, master of nothing,” Ronson sighed. Dexter-Jones became self-conscious and giggled. Ronson asked her sister to accompany her to the Jimmy Fallon show, where she was booked as a guest, and the ladies hopped into an SUV with tinted windows.

“I think companies see me as being in the demographic they’re looking to achieve, people that they want to be watching or buying their products,” Dexter-Jones said. “I’m trying to think of a way to say this without sounding obnoxious. … I’m not really conscious of what I’m doing; I just do what I do, and if that works for you, and we can do something interesting together, then maybe it’s something we can benefit from mutually.” 

According to Aaron Bakalar, the 23-year-old founder of the Collaborative Agency, the downtown stage of young, painfully hip 20-somethings hasn’t been harvested properly for business and marketing opportunities. “When it has been tapped into it, it’s been tapped the wrong way,” he said. “Like Cory Kennedy and the whole strict party girl thing and nothing else. This article was written somewhere calling us the ‘It Kid’ agency. But I’m 23; some of them are 24. We’re growing up now, and that whole downtown party ‘It Boy and Girl’ scene needs to grow up. I wanted to get their careers on track and introduce them to people who are working 9 to 5, marketing for a brand. Just, like, give them an adult self.”

Bakalar declined to disclose his clients’ fees, but said that he consulted with modeling and talent agencies when considering pricing. “There is no standard rate. It’s like Hollywood—if someone gets paid a million dollars for something, it becomes a new standard. Last week, I had to call this guy and I said, ‘Look, they’re experienced and unique so if you’re going to use them, please try to have a bigger budget because they’re not just kids you’re hiring off the street anymore.’ They’re learning they can’t low-ball these kids.”

But can these kids maintain their downtown cred after signing their names to shoe companies? “They’re not a Kardashian that’s going to work with TrimSpa,” he replied. Later, he added, “The whole downtown scene in New York is pretty sensitive. If someone does a certain project or dyes their hair red, everyone is going to talk about it whether it’s on Facebook or at the Jane hotel on Saturday night. They’re very cautious.”

Last week, Antonopoulos, a former Nylon intern whose close friends include Coppola and Sage Grazer, Bryan Grazer’s kid, spent three days shooting a European campaign for Levi’s that Bakalar negotiated the terms of. “Now, I can just focus on the creative side,” Antonopoulos said about having an agent. “And not have to call parents’ friends, asking them for advice on how to handle fees and being my own agent.”

Asked whether she was worried the insular downtown world would accuse her of selling out, Antonopoulos said, “I’m not afraid of that. If you can make something that’s commercial good, then that’s the best work of art because more people see it. I think it’s awesome that kids in Middle America, who don’t know about some small indie scene, get to see amazing work, too.”

Photographer Ryan McGinley’s “Go Forth” campaign last year was masterminded by the advertising agency Wieden + Kennedy, hired to reinvent Levi’s image. “Part of it is about discovering who makes the stuff,” said Tyler Whisnand, a creative director at the agency. “And when it’s Ryan McGinley, maybe the consumer is curious that he’s an artist and how interesting it is that Levi’s collaborates with someone like him and such a young person on a big campaign. … Whomever we work with is a reflection of Levi’s as a brand.” 

Increasingly, Whisnand has seen companies cleverly using local, sometimes recognizable faces in their national campaigns instead of professionals. “For Levi’s, it makes sense to use regular people and cast people who are interesting,” he said. “But if you’re talking about Ralph Lauren, they’re going to swing to high-end supermodels and celebrities. Nowadays, with the way the economy is, brands like J Crew and Tommy Hilfiger and Diesel, even, are thinking, ‘Let’s be a bit more realistic. Let’s not be so high end.’”

In 2007, a creative director at Urban Outfitters contacted Jack Siegel, a young man who had a website called The Skullset, on which he posted photos of bicoastal kids looking beautiful, carefree and remarkably cool. Their request? Take photos of your friends, the way you already do, wearing our clothes. “I was surprised they asked me because I never had a job before for my pictures,” said Siegel, who is 24.

It was perhaps inevitable that an agency (and soon agencies, perhaps) would be founded on that word of the early “aughts” we all memorized: lifestyle.

“Someone realizes that brands are casting street people,” Whisnand explained, “and maybe that can be done easier with an agent to make sure their contracts are done properly. That will grow and grow and become the norm, and then brands will find a new way of doing it—YouTube or Twitter or Facebook casting sessions.”  Because once the casting process becomes regulated, what’s missing is this: “I think it was Doris Day or another Hollywood starlet who got discovered at the drug store,” Whisnand said. “Just down at the five-and-dime having a malt and then in walks John Huston or whoever and says, ‘My God, kid, you should be in the movies!’”

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