John Casablancas obituary (2024)

John Casablancas created the definitive fantasy of a fashion model, out of his own desires and a realisation that there was a need for a new pop culture figure: the supermodel, whose purpose was to preen herself across all available media and earn sensational sums for doing so. As his protege Linda Evangelista told Vogue in 1990: "We don't wake up for less than $10,000 a day."

Casablancas, who has died aged 70 of cancer, did not originally plan to dominate the model agency business for over two decades. His parents – a businessman and a former Balenciaga model – had migrated to New York to escape the Spanish civil war, and ran a prospering textile machinery company. He was born in New York but was sent to boarding school in Switzerland. He attended several European universities but never graduated, and then went into public relations, with a stint marketing Coca-Cola in Brazil.

At around this time, he married his French girlfriend, Marie-Christine; the couple split up, though, on their return from Brazil to Paris. He was living alone in a hotel in 1967 when he met Jeanette Christjansen, 19, a Danish model, who became his second wife. She encouraged his half-thought-out idea for an agency, to be named Elysées 3. The idea was to scout in Scandinavia, the source then of most models for the mainland European market (not the British – we grew our own), or for more profitable export to the US.

The agency wobbled financially until he brought in his brother, Fernando, to manage it. In 1971, Casablancas upgraded to a more chic venture, Elite Model Management. The whole business was still small enough for most players to know each other – Casablancas ceded models to, or shared them with, the all-important Eileen Ford agency in New York. He did not, however, share Ford's famous finishing-school rulebook for her models, and thought her a prude.

Casablancas mingled in the music business and pop arts culture and did not care how wild the talent was, as long as the pleasure showed in the shots. By his own admission he was "a competitive, aggressive and sometimes ruthless agent" who fought to represent established names, and in 1977 he moved to New York, where he directly challenged Ford and her rival, Wilhelmina Cooper. A period of "model wars" ensued in which they poached each other's signings; Ford and Cooper sued Casablancas for breaking territorial treaties, but lost as the arrangements were not in writing.

His genuinely original perception was to realise that the florid couture presented since the 70s in catwalk shows that were more like rock gigs had created an opportunity for large-scale, Warholian stars. Their high fees and high visibility, especially in crossovers into the new music videos and MTV, built immediately recognisable, saleable identities.

His first supermodel was Christie Brinkley: he tripled her earnings in a year. Then came Cindy Crawford, whom he persuaded to pose for Playboy, Naomi Campbell, whom he hired and fired on a loop, and thought "odious", Claudia Schiffer, Gisele Bündchen, Heidi Klum and Evangelista. Many were discovered through Elite's annual modelling contest, which began in 1983. Prestige and notoriety were the combination that sold best. In 1995, Crawford earned $6.5m a year. But the models cost Casablancas weary grief. He later called them selfish, spoilt trouble-makers with brainless entourages: "Impossible. Impossible."

It did not end well. Supermodels proved just another fashion to be superseded in ads and on magazine covers by movie stars and celebrities who based their self-projection acts on supermodel antics. The rates for models, in oversupply as a result of Casablancas' seductive myths of modelling and agenting, plummeted.

In 1990, he sold Elite, which was by then developing a worldwide structure of management, scouting and training. However, he continued to work for the agency until a 1999 BBC documentary, later withdrawn, showed Elite agents in Europe boasting of sex and drug exploits with young recruits. Casablancas was not implicated, but he had had enough contention and resigned. In semi-retirement, he still had to deal with retrospective lawsuits over price-fixing and working conditions. He continued with scouting and briefly advised Elite after its post-bankruptcy restructure in 2004.

Casablancas was frank about his personal preference for girls of only just legal age – "child women". His relationships were far beyond complicated, though he denied the rumours that he had charmed entire portfolios of Elite employees into bed.

His 1978 marriage to Christjansen ended because of a very public affair in 1983 with the model Stephanie Seymour, aged just 16; in 1993 he married Aline Wermelinger, 17, whom he had met as a schoolgirl entrant in an Elite contest in Rio de Janeiro. Their three children survive him, as do a daughter by his first wife and a son, Julian Casablancas, lead singer of the Strokes, by his second wife.

John Casablancas obituary (2024)
Top Articles
Latest Posts
Article information

Author: Reed Wilderman

Last Updated:

Views: 6599

Rating: 4.1 / 5 (52 voted)

Reviews: 91% of readers found this page helpful

Author information

Name: Reed Wilderman

Birthday: 1992-06-14

Address: 998 Estell Village, Lake Oscarberg, SD 48713-6877

Phone: +21813267449721

Job: Technology Engineer

Hobby: Swimming, Do it yourself, Beekeeping, Lapidary, Cosplaying, Hiking, Graffiti

Introduction: My name is Reed Wilderman, I am a faithful, bright, lucky, adventurous, lively, rich, vast person who loves writing and wants to share my knowledge and understanding with you.