Kate Moss, Cara Delevingne, Cindy Crawford… Sarah Doukas has a talent for making people famous. Lucie Horton discovers why the founder of Storm Modelling agency is so successful.
Coming into Storm modelling agency, I’m half expecting to have to dodge a flying mobile phone from a Naomi Campbell-esque diva tantrum. Perhaps Kate Moss will be arguing about why she’s not in the next Vogue, or Cara Delevingne will be refusing to take down her provocative Instagram photo. But in reality, the office, although abuzz with chatter and excitement, also has a distinctly chilled-out feel. The receptionist, wearing jeans, Converse and no makeup, introduces me to Sarah, whose obvious confidence puts me at ease.
Sarah Doukas, the founder of Storm, has a talent for finding the most photogenic faces in the world. “I love finding the raw diamond and then polishing, polishing, polishing,” she says. One of her most famous ‘diamonds’ was discovered in 1988, a year after Sarah founded Storm. She spotted a slight fourteen-year-old girl at JFK airport waiting in the check-in queue. That girl was Kate Moss, an icon that is still on the Storm books. Storm is now one of the world’s biggest, and most renowned, agencies in the world, representing Jourdan Dunn, Lily Cole and Eva Herzigova to name a few.
Sarah understands the importance of the rapport between a photographer and a model; “I think if a photographer and a model don’t have some form of chemistry, they don’t get the result of the picture,” she says, adding; “you are drawn to that magazine cover because the girl has got a feeling and that feeling comes from a photographer who’s engaging with her.”
The business is grounded on a family foundation. Sarah works closely with her brother, Simon Chambers, and sits next to her daughter, Noelle Doukas, on the same curved desk as most of her 37 employees. “I want to manage a happy camp in here and I try and employ people who have my kind of philosophy so that they really nurture the models and look after them,” Sarah says.
Sarah, who has been in the industry for over thirty years, clearly still has the ambition of someone just starting out; “I want an incredibly successful business and I want to be the best.” She describes her average day as “crazy. There’s hardly a day when something extraordinary doesn’t happen and that’s why everyone in here’s addicted.” Sarah admits she’s also addicted to the job, and cannot imagine herself doing anything else. Keith Valentine, a close friend of Sarah’s and former fashion photographer says; “She’s always been very good at getting the people you needed. I remember, I was doing this shoot for some American catalogue, and it was at the time when catalogues were still considered to be sort of naff, and she got me five supermodels from around the world. I’ve always found her very nurturing, but at the same time, very business-minded. She’s successful because she has a passion for it after all these years. To still be excited and pushing hard at it, you have to be very tenacious and single-minded.”
Her success is also undoubtedly down to Sarah’s ability to stay with the times, and the modelling industry has dramatically changed with the advent of social media. Cara Delevingne has 1.53 million twitter followers and 4.5 million people tracking her every model move on Instagram. “This is like the music industry, where they no longer sold records and there were illegal downloads and a lot of companies went to the wall,” she says. “And you have to change your business strategy and how it all works. It’s incredibly exciting, but it has its pitfalls.” Like? “So they’re doing a show for Dior, and they start twittering it out, but that contravenes the fact that that campaign is not going to come out for four months. And so people have seen the clothes and they can go and rip them off in Primark. You have to tell them, be very careful about what you’re doing.”
Sarah describes the industry as a “tough old world”, and a model’s life as “difficult”. “They’ve got to be the sort of people that are very happy to jump on a plane at the drop of a hat, to move countries and live in Paris, New York, those are the ones that are successful. You know, it’s your best friend’s birthday – you can’t do it. You cannot let clients down,” she says frankly.
The fashion industry is continually condemned for not showing enough diversity, but Sarah believes these criticisms are not fully justified. “I think it’s daft. I for one have taken on people like Sophie Dahl who was size 16 when she joined us. Lots of my girls are short when they shouldn’t be. But at the end of the day, you cannot get away from the fact that clothes look better on tall people, and they photograph better, ” she says. She seems passionate about promoting ethnic diversity and puts down the lack of ethnic minorities seen in the magazines to the UK market. “You are still governed by the UK market and the population dictates that,” she says. “It’s slightly the token thing, so it’s infuriating for us but we still push against it. If we see gorgeous black girls we’ll take them in an instant.”
One gorgeous black girl she’s particularly proud of is Alek Wek who Lupita Nyong’o recently sited as a role model in an emotional speech at the Black Women in Hollywood awards; “You realise how inspirational people can be and you’re not aware of it. Alek was so inspiring walking on all the catwalks, really embracing her colour and herself, and Lupita said she gave her the confidence, which Alek was very happy about.”
It would be difficult to flick through a fashion magazine without coming across at least one of the faces that Sarah ‘nurtures’ into fame. And her influence within the industry and beyond has been recognised. In 2010, the London Standard voted her in the top 50 most influential people in fashion, from which she was granted the opportunity to meet the Queen. Despite Sarah’s powerful position, she’s fervent about treating people normally, no matter what their background; “I don’t care who comes in here, it could be anybody; you must never treat people differently. Be charming, be personable, be professional, but just be normal.”