image: Louis Vuitton

image: Louis Vuitton

Are we sick of celebrities? Old Navy thinks we just might be. The retailer recently announced that it will do away with celebrity-centric advertisements in favor of models. “We came up with [our new] campaign to really make consumers believe that fashion is fun again,” Old Navy chief marketing officer Jamie Gersch, who joined the company last fall, told Adweek. While its celebrity-centric ads “served [Old Navy] really well and were super effective,” Gersch says the retailer is ready to move on.

And the mass-market retailer is not alone. At the other end of the spectrum is Balmain, the Paris-based brand, which has, in recent years, built its image almost entirely on the appeal of the Kardashians, Jenners, Hadids, and co. Kim Kardashian may have been on hand for the brand’s recent Los Angeles store opening, but she – and her famous family and friends – have been noticeably absent from its ad campaigns for over a year now. In their places: Plain old models.

The recent re-embrace of models is something of a contrast to the pushing out of catwalkers in favor of celebrities as the faces of ad campaigns and magazine covers over the past few decades. In a May 2009 article for the New York Times, entitled, “Actresses Are Edging Out Models on Magazine Covers,” Suzy Menkes wrote: “Have models lost their clout to celebrities? While the Metropolitan Museum is showing half a century of models on magazine covers, today’s issues are more likely to feature Hollywood stars.”

This is firmly in line with what Vogue editor-in-chief Anna Wintour – one of the ring leaders of the celebrity-as-model trend – said in 2009, addressing the magazine’s massive shift to utilizing actresses-as-influencers: “Until models become celebrities again in their own right, I can’t see them selling as well on magazine covers as actresses.”

Now, less than a decade later, the industry is a mixed bag when it comes to brands/publications’ ambassadors of choice. Old Navy and Balmain, for instance, are pro-model. Vogue and LOVE magazines, among others, are still very much celebrity – or at least celebrity model – central. So, what gives?

Well, the game has changed – because we have changed, and it is no longer as simple as pitting the celebrity and the model against each other. There is more to it than that in our hyper-connected age. 

As consumers, we are no longer faced with and/or influenced only by the most conventional celebrities. The advent and widespread reliance on social media by brands, publications, bloggers/influencers, and consumers, alike, has provided new ways of presenting products and content. From this follows the proliferation of a larger pool of individuals – from editors and street style stars to other less traditional influencers – who have the capacity to sell products to the masses. And the definitions of “model” and “influencer” have expanded accordingly.

As luxury strategist and writer Ana Andjelic told TFL, celebrities are “as effective as ever” at selling products to consumers, but there is simply much more going on right now. Models “are not the only ones who sell fashion items anymore. Today, fashion consumers are influenced by everything, everywhere,” she says. “Now [models] compete with Instagram influencers, bloggers, YouTube celebrities, street style personalities and social activists.”

Traditional models and influencers are also up against another group entirely: Regular people. Due to the increased access we have to people within our own smaller circles of friends and acquaintances now (thanks to social media), our cues are no longer just dictated by “famous” people.

This word of mouth influencing has allowed brands like Glossier – which launched a representative program late last year that calls on its real customers, no matter how many social media followers they have, to market the brand within their own circles – to bank on regular people who serve to influence their own regular friends.

With this ever-growing web of influence, Andjelic says “it is dumb to pay a celebrity to wear something if people are influenced by some street style blogger to buy that same thing.” Veteran journalist and fashion critic Christina Binkley echoed this notion recently, telling TFL, “Social media has changed the face of celebrity, and those movie and television stars that used to dominate it now feel a little too obvious.”

Add to that the increasing intricacy of the fashion marketing model, which has been rapidly shifting in light of the demands of the digital era. “The fashion-celebrity complex has gotten more complicated, not the least because it ceased to be defined by editorials and photos spreads in magazines,” per Andjelic.

Yes, “it is really difficult to gauge any individual’s conversion potential, no matter their status within the industry,” says Vicky Yang, the marketing coordinator of the Society Management, which represents Kendall Jenner, Adriana Lima, Liu Wen, and Andreja Pejic, among other big names. But what we do know to be true is that “it proves most effective today if the person – celebrity or model – strongly embodies the brand in long-term, authentic ways and actually generates connections between their personal audience and the products they represent.”

Moreover, Yang says, “The quantity of model-centric magazine covers has definitely increased in recent years, but in order to improve that even further” the onus is on model agencies. “Agencies also have a responsibility to scout and cultivate talents who ‘jump off’ the page in ways far beyond appearance.”

The most successful models now are those who “possess a voice of their own, that can utilize publications effectively as additional platforms, and that can generate connections between their existing personal audience and the product – which in this case is the magazine itself,” says Yang.

Andjelic agrees: “Women get selected to walk fashion shows now because they stand for something (Nyakim Gatwech), they are different (Ashley Graham, Hari Nef), [and/or] they have a signature lifestyle and accompanying large social following (Gigi Hadid).”

While celebrities have the immediate advantage in terms of garnering publicity for brands and magazines and bringing their own existing audiences into the fold, Yang says, “more and more, models today actually have the same capabilities – as long as they are given the opportunity.” The bottom line is: We, as consumers, are open to both and beyond. Long gone are the days of just one or the other.