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The Kendall Jenner Effect: How Social Media Is Changing Modeling

Recently, social media took on an even greater importance in the fashion world when Vivien Models manager Catherine McGill revealed that an increasing amount of brands are refusing to consider any models whose followers count dips below 10,000. This eyebrow-raising incident only seems possible in the wake of social media stars-turned-models Kendall Jenner and Gigi Hadid, whose meteoric rises in fashion are due as much to their built-in followings as they are to their looks.

Over the past year, since the pair simultaneously made their runway debuts at New York Fall 2014 Fashion Week, they’ve booked high-profile jobs based on their followers count. Just last month, Hadid covered Adweek’s millennial issue titled “Social Supermodels,” in which she talked about how her Instagram presence (3 million followers and counting) has landed her jobs. “I realized that social media was an important marketing tool when clients that I was working with started to bring up things I was posting,” she said.

The same could be said of Kendall Jenner, who booked her biggest campaign to date—a role as global ambassador for Estee Lauder—largely in part of her social influence. When she was announced as the new face of the brand, Estee Lauder global brand president Jane Hertzmark Hudis’ praise was centered around Kendall’s reach. “[Kendall] is the ultimate Instagirl, and we are excited to leverage her image, voice, energy and extraordinary social media power to introduce Estée Lauder to millions of young women around the world,” she said. Meanwhile, Balmain creative director Olivier Rousteing likened Jenner to the era of supermodels—“She’s inspiring girls the way Claudia Schiffer and Naomi Campbell did”—a fitting comparison considering that paparazzi-fueled paradigm shift transformed models from anonymous to celebrities.

It feels like a similar transition is happening in fashion now, as models—no longer relegated to the confines of the runway and campaigns—are accruing cultural relevancy, branching out into film and music, like Cara Delevingne. Social media has allowed models to become more than just hangers for clothing: it’s allowed them to blossom into full-on personalities and have more control than ever over their careers. It’s also become a liberating off-runway tactic for helping them advance in their careers. Back in 2012, Coco Rocha precociously talked about social media as a way to reclaim power in the industry while speaking at a class for aspiring models, dubbed The Coffee Shop event, sponsored by one of fashion’s favorite social platforms Tumblr. “The reason why celebrities sell covers is because they have huge followings,” Rocha told The New York Times. “But models have that, too. You just had to give us a chance to speak.”

Then there’s also the fact that the pathway to model superstardom has changed. Social media isn’t just a tool for Kendall and Gigi to stack up new jobs, it’s also a launching pad for unknowns. Take Marc Jacobs who, for the second time in a year, mined Instagram for his next campaign stars. “It seemed like a great idea to me, as casting through Instagram seemed cool, current and strong,” Jacobs told WWD. “We wanted the ads to shout with youth and energy… to be fresh and reclaim the spirit that the collection had when we first conceived of it–to be another collection, not a second line.”

As much as fashion has democratized since the rise of personal style blogging in the mid-aughts, it’s become just as gated. Think about the bloggers who’ve made the top tier: Chiara Ferragni, Aimee Song, Bryanboy, and Leandra Medine a.k.a. The Man Repeller—who’s become such a fashion authority, she’s expanded her personal blog into a lifestyle publication with a full-time staff. In many ways, their success was built on their ability to afford the flashy designer items that set them apart from the rest of the crop. Likewise, the models who’ve risen through social media—Kendall, Gigi, Cara—started as socialites; not from the bottom. So even though everyone has the same access to these platforms, not everyone has the potential to rise up. How can aspiring models, for instance, who can’t afford a revolving wardrobe with the latest "It" pieces, pricey and exclusive trips to Coachella, or even a smartphone begin with the same advantage as Kendall and Gigi?

As valuable of a tool as social media can be for models, it can be just as shuttering. With the greater control it allows models over their careers, it also has the potential to close off many hopefuls from the industry. Most models have fought their way onto the runway after being discovered by chance. There’s Natalia Vodianova, one of fashion’s most beloved models, who grew up in poverty before impressing a modeling scout in Nizhny Novgorod, Russia. Lily Donaldson was discovered while strolling by stores in Camden. Similarly, Jordan Dunn had her big break when she was browsing at Primark.

Will these kinds of stories continue to grow as social media becomes a greater force in casting? There’s no denying the power of social media, but does that come with a diversity problem? Perhaps the biggest question of all that it leaves is one first introduced with the rise of fashion blogging: Is fashion becoming more democratic or more privileged?