We’re stating the obvious, but fashion today looks very different than it did 11 years ago. It was an era when Karlie Kloss was the newest model name to know, the world was far from caught up with the Kardashians, and, in the most drastic difference, Instagram wasn’t a thing. Perhaps no one can speak to the then and now better than Sarah Salem, a model agent at L.A. Models who’s worked in the industry for a little over a decade.
“When Instagram was around for a year or two [Ed note: The social platform launched in 2010], people became more interested in the content there, and because of that change, the models and the demand changed,” Salem tells us when we ask about the shift in her career of scouting and managing fashion’s most familiar faces. Clients and brands, she says, “want not only beautiful, skinny people. Now it’s all shapes, ethnicities, and sizes. Clients want multifaceted talent that has something interesting behind the pretty face—the personal brand, what they stand for, their message to their followers.”
While Salem’s an authority—at times perhaps an intuit—on which models have major star potential, there’s much to be said for her contributions to fashion that go beyond recognizing talent on a social media app. But first, let’s back up. The Laguna Beach native got her start in the industry like most of us: as a fan. “I’ve always been involved in fashion from an early age. My mother had a subscription for Harper’s Bazaar and Vogue. I was the kind of girl who had Kirsty Hume and Trish Goff, idols of mine, plastered on the wall. So it’s something I’ve always been interested in,” Salem explains to us, “but I kind of got into it by way of photography, by accident.”
After a position working with the late fine arts photographer Bob Siedemann, famous for his rock-and-roll covers, Salem moved to L.A. and landed an internship with Next Models. “Because of my photography background and because I went to a top-tier college,” the Duke graduate tells us of a fateful moment, “somehow they hired me on the fourth day of my internship to just start at the bottom.” The bottom meant developing new faces in the company, which at the time were now industry vets Arizona Muse and Ruby Aldridge.
Five years after her start, Salem joined the L.A. Models team, where today she most notably represents Sofia Richie, Victoria’s Secret model Bruna Lirio, as well as Salem Mitchell and Gabbriette Bechtel, two up-and-comers who both just landed the Savage x Fenty lingerie campaign.
“I remember thinking [with Arizona Muse], Wow, you look like a pixie, like a fairy,” Salem says of the start of her career, comparing it to what she looks for when searching for talent now. “It’s sort of the je ne sais quoi. It gets below the surface level of if they look tall and skinny and pretty—there’s something special about them.”
As fashion has slowly become—and continues to grow to be—a place where diverse definitions of beauty are celebrated, Instagram is a huge tool Salem uses to seek out different faces the industry hasn’t seen on magazine covers and major runways yet. She tells us she still scouts in person, including in unexpected spots—“I go to Disneyland a lot with my girlfriends. I find a lot of cool, interesting people there. They’re not really expected to be approached by a scout”—but she speaks to how social media has broadened her ability to discover. Similarly, on the flip side, it’s made it possible for any aspiring talent to market themselves to the world before they ever officially get the stamp of approval from an agency.
“Instagram is sort of the definition of the American dream today,” as Salem puts it. And though it’s hard not to assume it’s a bit of a numbers game, she also tells us that follower count is not always the most important measurement of success. “We booked a Prada campaign with someone who had like 1000 followers. It matters, and it doesn’t,” she explains. “For big money endowments from brands, I would say it’s [required to have] half a million followers and above, but then there are micro influencers that brands connect with on a lower scale. Some high-end brands like that a model has a low following because they’re trying discover new talent.”
That said, if you happen to be an aspiring model yourself, Salem wouldn’t suggest getting caught up in a followers-counting frenzy either. “Stay true to yourself and your brand, and don’t be afraid to be 3D person, not 2D. You see some models whose Instagram don’t really help them, because all they’re showing is photos that are perfectly curated; they look beautiful in every shot. People on Instagram don’t really know who they are,” she says, adding, “but when you start integrating video and showing who you are and not necessarily caring about curating everything for a certain audience, it benefits you more.”
That said, if your own dream career more mirrors something like Salem’s, there are also some key takeaways. “Besides being as hardworking as possible,” Salem caveats, “I’m also open-, not close-minded to talent that comes in. Someone might not be traditionally beautiful, they’re outlandish, etc., but there’s something there. Just giving it a chance to explore is definitely a positive characteristic to have if you’re working in this industry."