tFS: Tell us about the first time you met Karlie Kloss.
MC: In 2004, we went to the Galleria, a mall in St. Louis. I walk into the restroom and hear Jeff yelling, “Mary, come out here!” We run around and find this boy named Michael Hope, who was a baseball player for a high school here. Two or three months after we signed him, he ended up opening for Louis Vuitton. When his father was diagnosed with cancer, we did a benefit fashion show for them called Threads 4 Hope and raised $75,000. For part of that show, we had a model search. Karlie Kloss entered the search.
tFS: How old was she at the time?
MC: She was 13, about 5 foot 6 inches. She had on a denim skirt and a little red hoodie. Her mom had shown us pictures of Karlie that she had taken at a portrait studio. She was young and not tall enough, but there was something cool about her. We had her walk in Threads 4 Hope. Then we placed her in Chicago and New York. Her first fashion show was for American Eagle. I think they paid her in clothes.
tFS: How was her walk back then?
MC: She had a very distinctive style of walking. We decided early on to keep it like that, and only tweak it a little bit. We have vivid memories of going over to her house to practice walking the runway on her front porch.
tFS: Who else have you scouted?
MC: Since we’ve been working together, we’ve had 35 models walk in shows in Europe or New York City. Right now, Grace Hartzel is getting ready to explode. We’ve been traveling with her for the past three years. We also found Ryan Mertz at a pep rally at the local high school. I remember standing beside his mom who was crying as he walked a Calvin Klein exclusive.
JC: We were at the pep rally because we were invited by Judson Birza, who went to that high school. After we found him, he ended up booking Abercrombie. A few years later, when he was out of high school and was a full-time model, he wound up on Survivor and won the million dollar prize.
tFS: How has the industry changed since you began?
MC: It’s harder to be a model because of the sheer numbers, and the stakes are higher. There’s also so much more misinformation out there that can muddy the waters, and develop someone incorrectly.
tFS: What type of misinformation?
JC: A lot of people will make aspiring models think they need portfolios before they even start. That’s so untrue. Do not spend money on pictures! Have your mom shoot you outside in natural light without makeup. You can submit directly to almost any agency now through their website.
MC: There’s a whole industry that sells dreams to people that should never be sold to them. I used to hate when Jeff would say that this is a body business, but it’s the truth. Your body has to be the number one thing you work on before anything else. You need to get your body healthy and toned. I don’t think people realize that the top models of the world are as disciplined as athletes.
tFS: Are modeling schools unnecessary?
MC: We’ve been shouting from the rooftops about modeling schools and conventions forever. They market these girls as models and set them up for disappointment. Sometimes they charge thousands of dollars. I don’t know how they look at themselves in the mirror. We made a decision a long time ago to never scout at any modeling school or convention that charges people. We’d rather work harder and street scout or walk at a music festival in the hot sun for three days and not find anyone than do that. I think that’s why good things come to us because we continue to draw the line and say “Enough is enough.”
tFS: What steps do you take to prepare your models after you sign them?
JC: For three years now, Mary’s put on a show called Tribute in November with our models. The production level is like a show in Paris.
MC: We do it the Saturday before Thanksgiving. We have models from 10 to 12 different states. This allows everyone to come together and become friends; our models work best when they’re part of a team with a strong support system. Beyond Tribute, we also work with our models on their walk and do as many test shoots as possible. We travel with them for shows, and we’ve even had models live with us.
tFS: How does that work?
MC: We love it! We’ve had models come and stay for weeks or months at a time. We’ve probably had 20 models live with us over the years. Our youngest boys just thought the models were annoying sisters until they turned 16. We’d be in the office measuring a girl in a bikini when they were coming home from school, and their friends would be like, “What is happening at your house?” It seems totally normal until you start telling someone about it.
tFS: What do your neighbors think of you?
MC: They don’t know what to think of us! When we first moved to St. Louis, Jeff was like, “When we’re scouting, we should quit telling people that you discovered Ashton Kutcher because they don’t believe you.” In fact, a local news story was talking about it and said we had “claimed” to have discovered Ashton Kutcher. So, then the next time Ashton was here doing a press junket for a movie, he was on a live feed and said, “I want to give a shout-out to my peeps, Jeff and Mary Clarke!”