09/08/1997 at 01:00 AM EDT
AN AUSTERE-LOOKING DOCTOR'S scale stands in the CEO's office at the Ford agency in Manhattan's trendy SoHo district. The device, says Katie Ford, the head honcho at the world's most famous house of models, "is a relic from the old days." Her mother, Eileen—who founded the agency in 1946 with Katie's father, Jerry—"used to have the girls weighed and measured. But the girls found it insulting." Katie, 41, considers the era when the agency was on the city's tony Upper East Side and "the girls" were expected to wear white gloves and slips—then flashes a smile. "I mean, come on," she says. "We can eyeball a measurement to within an inch."
Modeling—or, rather, the arcane art of model management—seems bred into Katie Ford's bones. Eileen Ford, part pit bull, part den mother and all business, helped shape what women looked like and how they dressed for nearly half a century. Her Ford Models Inc., which she and Jerry started in their Manhattan walkup, imposed order on the scattershot business of beauty brokering and unveiled such faces as Suzy Parker, Cheryl Tiegs, Lauren Hutton, Christie Brinkley, Rachel Hunter and Veronica Webb.
Two years ago, though, the Eileen era ended. In a move that raised eyebrows in the fashion world and provoked charges of nepotism from some longtime Ford employees, the elder Fords assumed the title of cochairmen and handed their business to their down-to-earth middle daughter, Katie.
Eileen's abdication is still discussed wherever modeling folk meet to share a glass of water and a saltine. "Eileen had become a bit out of touch," says Faith Kates, owner of Next Model Management, one of Ford's chief competitors. "This is a youth market, but Ford no longer had young, trendy people working for them." Eileen herself, now 75, doesn't disagree with that assessment. "We were getting old," she says bluntly. "What were we going to do, let her be like Prince Charles and wait for us to die? It was her moment. You have to give people a chance."
Katie, by all appearances, has taken her chance and run with it. Since '95, she has increased the staff by 15 percent, to some 100 employees; moved the agency downtown to a funkier space; added an online service that provides entertainment news and beauty tips for teen girls; increased the agency's emphasis on magazine covers and fashion spreads; and begun revamping Ford's stable of models to make it culturally more diverse. "The models I pick are less predictable than what my mother picked in the '60s," says Katie. "The definition of beauty is much broader today. The ideal American is no longer considered Swedish."
Katie's innovations seem to be working. The agency had been at a crossroads when she took over, with a new wave of competitors such as Next and Karin Models siphoning away work and talent. Today, the agency has reestablished itself as one of the industry leaders. Says Rachel Hunter, a veteran SPORTS ILLUSTRATED swim-suit cover girl: "Ford gets a tremendous amount of respect from the girls-and their mothers and fathers." Faith Kates, Ford's rival at Next, has to concede that "it took a while, but Katie's put in place a bunch of young people who understand the market."
Success, for Katie, has meant living in the style to which she had long since become accustomed. Ford is a privately owned company, and Katie declines to discuss its earnings or her own salary. But models such as Christy Turlington earn several million a year, and the agency commission of about 20 percent obviously adds up. Katie has a spacious loft apartment above the agency, where she lives with her husband of 12 years, hotelier André Balazs, 40, and daughters Alessandra, 8, and Isabel, 3. Ford and Balazs, whose hotel properties include the Chateau Marmont in L.A., also have a renovated farmhouse on Shelter Island, N.Y.—and they often jet to where the action is. "I took Alessandra to Hong Kong to see the changeover from British rule," says Katie. "I wanted her to feel a connection to history."
It is a midsummer afternoon at the Ford agency, and Katie is feeling energetic. Already today she has spoken with designer Todd Oldham and model Patricia Velasquez and met with one of her vice presidents to discuss contracts with Pantene and Cover Girl. The Ford agency still finds its models the old-fashioned way-scouting expeditions to far-flung model agencies; an annual TV pageant called Supermodel of the World; and Ford's famous open-door Thursdays, which find hundreds of young girls lining up nervously, hoping to become one of the anointed.
What is she looking for these days? Thin is still in, Ford says, but muscle is out. Models like the unrippled Tomiko have flourished because "the gen-X crowd is rebelling against their gym-obsessed elders." As for heroin chic, that, says Ford, is fading fast-"not that it ever worried me. I don't believe people who see girls like that would go out and do heroin. What's relevant is what's selling products, and that's something dictated by ad agencies, which were trying to create a rebellious thing for teenage advertising. Heroin chic wasn't my personal taste, but my taste doesn't matter."
Katie's taste, as evidenced by her clothes and surroundings, is interestingly off-key. She rules her glitzy domain from an office chair that's frayed at the arms-and like her mother, who often slouched through the corridors of high fashion with her hem unraveling, she seems to cultivate a slightly frumpy look. Her tousled hair, wrinkled clothes and absence of makeup may be a fashion statement in their own right-a way of saying, I'm not even trying to compete with the stunning, impossibly angled women who walk through these doors.
The similarities to Eileen don't stop there. Ford also has continued the family tradition of allowing teenage models who live far from New York City to stay in her house. Katie says she has fond memories of Jerry Hall, who lived with the Fords while she and Katie were in high school. "I didn't realize until I was 30 that Jerry was 30, too," Katie says. "My mother separated us so I wouldn't realize someone my age was out all night while I was doing homework."
Yet Katie is less a surrogate mother than Eileen was. "Katie doesn't monitor the models the way her mother did," says Polly Mellen, creative director of Allure magazine and a longtime friend of Katie's. "It's more, 'Okay, kid, you want to be a model, you're in the big city. So know it.' " Her somewhat detached style, Katie admits, is partly a reaction to her mother's hands-on approach to almost everything. "We were told to hold a fork a certain way, to sit up straight," says Katie. "I had to curtsy until I was 12. When I was 19 and living with my boyfriend-a lawyer, to show you the extent of my rebellion-my mom would have her secretary call his secretary to tell him to have me call her. We talked all the time, but she wouldn't acknowledge where I was."
More than a few models appreciate Katie's lack of interest in their personal lives-and praise her for her practical advice about how to market themselves. "People may know this business as well as I do," says Katie. "Nobody knows it better."
Katie Ford has never had to sell herself to anyone as the person who was right to run the world's most influential modeling agency. She has an older sister, Lacey, who lives in L.A. with her husband, John Williams, a producer; a younger sister, Jamie, who lives in Washington with her husband, lawyer Robert Craft; and an older brother, Bill, who is president of Ford's licensing division. Yet in some unspoken way, she says, "I was always the heir apparent." Even so, there were times as a child when she says she found the business scary-and repellent. "I thought, People are harsh," she says. "I remember when a booker left with some models and my mother was very hurt, and I felt, Why would one want to go through that in life?"
For a long time, Ford says, she simply abstained from making permanent career choices. She attended the Spence School in Manhattan, graduated from Sarah Lawrence College with a degree in psychology in 1978, then got an M.B.A. from Columbia University. She first worked in TV syndication, then at a management-consulting firm. Eventually, though, the agency beckoned. "I decided I needed my own business, something to do with an art form," Katie says. "As I was describing to myself the business I wanted, I realized that I had described my parents."
Katie joined the agency in 1982 and immediately began having an impact. "Katie's a young, hip, talented woman, and that reflects in her management style," says Preston Davis, bookings editor at Vogue. Not all went smoothly, however. In 1993, Katie was made co-president along with two longtime Ford employees, Marion Smith and Joseph Hunter; two years later, when she was made CEO, Smith and Hunter left the company. Smith is now in litigation with the Fords, though neither party will discuss the specifics. Observes Katie: "It was a classic family business problem. People there for 25 years are not happy when somebody younger comes in and takes over."
The one enduring thing about the modeling business, says Katie, is that "it's always changing." At the moment she is telling girls to sell themselves to photographers not only as pretty faces but as interesting personalities. "The younger photographers are looking for girls they can talk to," she says. "They want somebody they can transform, make a part of the story they want to tell." And lately, rather than work with just supermodels, the photographers are eager to shoot somebody new. Thus, Ford is setting up an Internet system that each day can receive hundreds of images of beautiful, hopeful faces. No matter who's in charge, there can never be enough beautiful, hopeful faces around the Ford agency. "Let's hope we're inundated," Katie says. "For us, being inundated is good."