Ford Models, Inc.
Known as the matriarch of the modeling industry, Eileen Ford founded Ford Models, Inc. with her husband in 1947 and it quickly grew from a small operation to a trend-setting, multimillion-dollar force in the world of fashion and beauty. For more than 50 years the agency was renowned for placing top fashion models on runways and in advertisements around the world.
Eileen Ford first got into the modeling industry when taking summer jobs modeling, while she attended Barnard College. After graduating with a major in psychology, she continued to work in the field and honed her skills working as a photographer's assistant, catalog stylist, copywriter, and reporter. Through her photography position Eileen met Jerry Ford, a naval officer and ex-football player at Notre Dame. The two married in 1946, the year Eileen turned 24, and launched Ford Models, Inc. together the following year. At the same time, they began to raise a family of three daughters and a son, Lacey, Katie, Jamie, and Bill. Katie and Bill would later join the business. Before founding the company, Eileen Ford did clerical work for Arnold Constable and Company in New York City.
Despite the glamour associated with her business, Ford has been described as a plain-dressing—even frumpish—woman who wore little makeup, and she was shorter than the minimum height normally required of her models. She shied away from high-profile events. Her personality was characterized as being strong and blunt, yet Eileen Ford also professed the traditional Protestant middle-class values of her upbringing concerning hard work, family, and social etiquette.
Ford Models Inc. started as a side job Eileen Ford ran from her home while she was pregnant with her son in 1946. The Fords formally launched the business in 1947, and by the next year they already had signed 30 top models to their New York City agency. First-year billings reached $250,000. Jerry Ford handled the financial side of the business while Eileen concentrated on identifying and signing potential stars. Within a few years, the agency was the biggest of its kind in the world.
Eileen Ford was legendary for running a tight ship at her agency. She not only managed the professional lives of her models, who she called "my girls," but she also attempted to supervise the social lives of the often teenage women. Ford housed many young models either in her home or in quarters above the agency's offices, practices that are still common today. She also endeavored to enforce curfews at night and teach the young women etiquette, but this heavy-handed approach often kindled resentment from the models. The Spanish model Veronica Blume recalled an instance at age 16 when during a meal she wasn't sure which fork to use and noticed Ford watching her intently. Blume said that Ford wanted the models to be educated and have manners. "It's like going to school," Blume recalled. Many models who stayed with Ford avoided her chaperoning by sneaking out at night. But Ford had little hesitation to release—or never sign in the first place—models whose personal lives conflicted with their careers.
Ford Models became associated with big modeling talent, and the agency was regarded as the most prestigious in the business. It set trends both in how it conducted its business with models and clients as well as in the kinds of models it brought to stardom. Famous, top-dollar models such as Brooke Shields, Elle Macpherson, Christy Turlington, and Lauren Hutton made their mark through the company. Eileen Ford had a remarkable eye for picking new talent and would travel the United States and Europe looking for new models. Once models were recruited, Ford worked vigorously to ensure they had favorable opportunities to showcase their beauty and talents. In part through her efforts modeling became a highly lucrative occupation for top prospects.
Ford also had success as an author and published several books that gave beauty and fashion advice and glimpses into the modeling industry. These included Eileen Ford's Book of Model Beauty, Secret of the Model's World, A More Beautiful You in 21 Days, Beauty Now and Forever, and Ford's Crash Course in Looking Great. She also wrote a syndicated fashion column called "Eileen Ford's Fashion Beauty."
The Fords remained part of the agency well into their 70s, but in the early 1990s they began to cede some high-level responsibilities to others. In 1993 a three-way copresidency was established at Ford Models consisting of Kate Ford and two other senior executives. Although Kate had been working at the agency since 1982, her ascent to the co-presidency was seen by some as nepotism.
Other negative publicity also plagued the Fords in this period. In 1995, Eileen Ford reacted angrily to a book by Michael Gross titled Model: The Ugly Business of Beautiful Women. The book claimed that Ford's husband had an affair with an agency model in the 1950s. The book may have prompted Ford to publish her own interpretation of the modeling industry.
Also in 1995, Ford and her husband further withdrew from day-to-day management of the business by appointing their daughter Kate as CEO. Eileen was 73 at the time, but the elder Fords continued to co-chair the board of directors. Kate's promotion ended the co-presidency and triggered a lawsuit by one of the other copresidents who felt Kate was promoted unjustly. The reshuffling of the management ranks also led to some defections by models who weren't satisfied with Kate Ford at the agency's helm.
In her later years, Eileen Ford was criticized for growing out of touch with the youth-centered fashion industry—a charge she came to agree with. Ford was accused of selecting models based on a narrow definition of beauty that stereotypically included women of northern European descent with blonde hair and blue eyes, the so-called Swedish look. These complaints were voiced in spite of the Ford agency's legacy as the first to sign women of color. She admitted that the agency had stagnated and that she was getting too old to have a sense for youth trends and the youth market. In 1997 she said in reference to her daughter's new position, "We were getting old. What were we going to do, let her be like Prince Charles and wait for us to die? It was her moment. You have to give people a chance."
Chronology: Eileen Ford
1947: Founded Ford Models, Inc. with husband Jerry Ford.
1948: Recruited 30 leading models in New York.
1957: Opened first international affiliate.
1981: Chosen as Woman of the Year in Advertising.
1988: Named Outstanding Woman in the Fashion Industry.
1993: Gave up presidency of the agency to her daughter and two others.
1995: Retired from active management of the agency.
Social and Economic Impact
Eileen Ford's vision created one of the world's leading fashion model agencies, with more than $40 million in annual billings during the 1990s. She is credited for bringing dozens of well-known models to the fore of the fashion world, and in the process she had a strong influence over the direction of the modeling business. In the 1990s, top-name Ford models could expect to earn $20,000 a day or sign contracts in the tens of millions. Ford Models, Inc. typically took a 20 percent commission from each modeling contract. Though the standard for beauty constantly changes and featured Ford models have a variety of looks, the company continues to be a leading actor on the American fashion and beauty stage.
Sources of Information
Contact at: Ford Models, Inc.
142 Greene St.
New York, NY 10012
Business Phone: (212)753-6500
Bernstein, Roberta. "Kate Ford: Two Years After Taking Control, Eileen's Daughter has the Ford Modeling Agency Sitting Pretty." People, 8 September, 1997.
Chun, Renee. "Eileen Ford Eats Her Enemies for Lunch." New York, 24 July 1995.
Cunningham, Kim. "Fork Lifts." People, 27 September 1993.
Harte, Susan. "Model Relationships Eileen Ford." Atlanta Journal and Constitution, 15 May 1988.