“Get a room of creative people together. God knows what’s going to happen.” We speak to the founders of Community about breaking the fashion mold.
By Juno Kelly.
In a world where modeling agencies have come to personify elitism, idealistic beauty standards, and occasionally a rampant disregard for client welfare, Community is redressing agency standards. The newfangled agency, run by industry veterans Butterfly Cayley, Richie Keo, and Moe Lamstein, aims to revamp what, at its core, an agency is.
From martial artists to journalists, actors, and models, Community looks toward more than size and cheekbone shape when selecting their “catalysts.” Instead, they look for a propensity for creative collaboration, and an ability to rally against the status quo.
To mark the company’s launch, we (virtually) sat down with its founders, to talk about all things representation, inclusivity, and where they see Community in 10 years’ time.
How did you all meet and start actioning Community?
Keo: So, Moe and Butterfly are wombmates. They’re twins. I met Butterfly while working at an agency in Chicago, she was at DNA. We were talking a little bit about where we came from, in this industry we never find anyone from Laos, the country we’re all from. We exchanged family names. It turned out that their parents are best friends with my grandparents! We’re all from the Midwest. And we all came to New York with a dream to work in fashion. I then ended up working at DNA along with Butterfly for a few years. Moe was at Elite, and then about three years ago we joined her there.
During that time, we expanded beyond the modeling industry in terms of only representing strict models. We created a division called Via Elite, which was sort of our talent board. We wanted to represent different types of talents, not just sort of your go-to musicians and actors that you would normally think a modeling agency represents.
Then the pandemic hit earlier this year, and a lot of us were re-prioritizing what we wanted out of our professional lives. We were talking and we decided going off on our own and doing our own thing was the best way for us to be able to have a direct vision of the types of talent we wanted to represent, and not have to go through the red tape of a big corporate company.
Cayley: It was our vision. When you work for someone under another brand, you have to adapt to their vision, it’s not yours. Now it’s us. It’s so well curated because they (the catalysts) are the best of the best in their industry and they each have such a powerful and inspiring story.
Can you give me an example of one of the catalysts and what they stand for?
Keo: Let’s take, for example, Aaron Philip, who is a fashion model. Who is a Black woman who happens to be transgender and is disabled and in a wheelchair. Just the pure visibility of someone like her in a major fashion campaign, like Moschino, or an editorial in Italian Vogue. It’s about putting those types of people on a platform and ensuring that their communities are represented in the media.
Cayley: Moe and I are first-generation (immigrants), we’ve always been outsiders, you know, growing up, there was never anyone like us on TV or in magazines or anything. There was no one we could have looked up to.
Keo: We want to be able to be a part of helping change that.
Lamstein: Their stories are so compelling and they need to be told to the future generation just to give them hope as well.
In what way does Community embody a collaborative collective in a way that traditional agencies may not?
Keo: It’s the foundation of our company. The reason we represent so many different types of talents is so they can collaborate. That’s why we have a writer, we have a sustainable designer, we have jewelry designers, we’re able to collaborate in many different ways.
Cayley: Get a room of creative people together of 20. God knows what’s going to happen. We also want to be able to create a safe space for our catalysts so they feel they can focus on being creative, focus on their art, and not have to worry “is this client going to screw me over?” We protect them in any which way that we can.
Do you ever disagree on who you want to represent? If so, how do you resolve that?
Cayley: All the time! We flip a coin.
Lamstein: But there has to be a synergy, right? If someone feels really passionate about it then okay. You know, we trust each other enough to kick the ball and roll with it.
What societal issues is your agency attempting to address and remedy?
Keo: Lack of representation. I always thought it (representation) was a fad in fashion. “Oh! Now it’s about Chinese girls. Let’s hire Asian models now!” Great. They did it one season, the next season they slipped back to what they always did. I think if you can break all of that down, you can get down to the different marginalized communities and the issues that they face, which we would want to try and tackle. We want to create a community garden of different types of organizations that our catalysts want to support.
Where do you see Community in 10 years?
Cayley: Taking over the world! We would love to expand, and we would love to be in London, LA, Paris, all over.
Keo: It’s not just the sheer size of the company in terms of the number of clients we represent, or the number of offices that we have, but we’d love to expand into other types of the creative field as well, whether that’s offering creative services, it could be production, it could be PR.
Q&A edited for clarity and length. Photos courtesy of Community New York.