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Gillis MacGil: from top fashion model to owner of a model agency

Gillis MacGil is one of the few top fashion models to move into the successful ownership of a model agency. At the height of her career, in the early 1960s, she began to wonder what her future might be. She decided to remain in the field she knew best - modeling - and to represent other models who were looking for some of the same satisfactions she had experienced. To her advantage, she knew and had the respect of key people in the fashion industry.

So she opened Mannequin Models Inc. in Manhattan 23 years ago, while continuing to work as a model herself for another 10 years. Her agency now handles bookings for 75 models.

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Miss MacGil, a native New Yorker, has watched models come and go, and fashion itself change and change again in its seasonal convolutions. Yet she retains the same slender good looks and light-up-the-face smile that placed her in such demand during the 50s and 60s.

She notes many changes. ''I grew up watching beautiful movie stars wearing the most extravagantly lovely clothes,'' she says. ''I took in everything, the graceful way they moved in them, sat in them, and went up and down stairs in those sinewy evening dresses, their impeccable grooming. I read Vogue and Harper's Bazaar each month, and was exposed to top fashion just by living in New York. I knew early and without doubt that I wanted to be a fashion model and to wear such clothes.''

It has been vastly different, she says, with many of the young women who have sought modeling careers in recent years. ''Many girls came to my attention who had grown up wearing blue jeans and had rarely worn a dress. Their movie idols dressed largely just as they did, and the magazines they read reflected the somewhat chaotic fashion freedom of the period. When they put on 'real' clothes, as opposed to the trendy clothes they were used to, they were like little girls playing dress-up. They had to learn what real fashion felt like as well as what it looked like. In the last year or two, I'm glad to say, girls have begun to relate more quickly to real fashion and to respond to its quality.''

Two other changes, she notes, came almost simultaneously. One was the tumultuous change in fashion shows themselves. The second was the meteoric rise of the exotic black model.

''When I began my career,'' Miss MacGil recalls, ''the ladylike models looked like they belonged to the clothes but stayed discreetly behind them, as if not to upstage them. Then suddenly fashion presentations became show-biz entertainment, with wide runways, raucous rock music, and theatrical lighting effects. And the models themselves became high-stepping, dancing, prancing, strutting, gyrating performers. The black models were the best of all. They were exuberant, natural entertainers, and were quickly sought on both sides of the Atlantic.''

The clothes they modeled, if anyone noticed, were also uninhibited and free-swinging. These innovative fashion shows made headlines everywhere, and top fashion models found their couture circuits expanding to include New York, Milan and Paris. Fashion and modeling became irreversibly international.

Now the beat has changed again. The showmanship has been tempered, presentations are once more approaching a measure of serenity, and fashion itself has become quieter and more formal.

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A third drastic change has come about in models' earnings. ''I began as a house model at Bergdorf Goodman for $28 a week,'' Miss MacGil remembers, ''and then moved to designer Nettie Rosenstein's showroom on Seventh Avenue for $75 a week. Later, I earned $40, and $50, and $75 an hour. But this is all a far cry from today's top models, who command from $200 to $250 an hour. Even beginners start at $100 an hour, and move to $125 and $150 as they gain experience.''

Every year, thousands of young women decide they want to be fashion models. What is Gillis MacGil's advice to them?

''Take a long, clear look at yourself in the mirror,'' she says. ''If you are between 5'8'' and 5'9'' in height, have a beautifully proportioned and slender figure, with broad shoulders, long neck, long legs, small bust, and small waist, then you may have the physical specifications of a model. But other prerequisites are vitally necessary.

''You must be tenacious, ambitious, and a self-starter. You must have a wonderful personality, an indomitable spirit, intelligence, and a good sense of self-identity and of presence. All these qualities are necessary because the field is so competitive and the working conditions sometimes so strenuous and stressful. You must have the fortitude and good humor to withstand rejections, frayed tempers, enlarged egos, and volatile situations.''

If you come equipped with all of that, then, she says, wherever you live, try to get a job at the store that best projects current fashions, whether it is working in the stock room or dressing windows. Read fashion magazines, and if possible, gain experience by modeling in local fashion shows and meeting visiting designers.

Miss MacGil says: ''We do very careful screening on the telephone before we see anyone. We are not interested in young women who have had no experience whatsoever, since we are not in a position to train. If we are interested in an applicant, we ask for a photograph, a brief resume, and a note that includes vital statistics. Not many are chosen.''

Top models, she explains, are concerned with far more than the way they look. They conduct their personal and business lives in the thoroughly professional manner of any young executive, and they view their careers with objectivity.

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