Can this 26-year-old change the shape of the fashion industry?

Harvard student, model agent, hero to real women everywhere

Ben Barry and his models rehearsing for a runway show on March 16, 2009 in Toronto Ben Barry and his models rehearsing for a runway show on March 16, 2009 in Toronto (Kathryn Gaitens/Getty Images for The Boston Globe)
By Christopher Muther
Globe Staff / April 30, 2009
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It started as a favor for a high school friend - and has since grown into a career and a crusade.

Ben Barry, a 26-year-old PhD candidate currently a visiting student at Harvard Business School, didn't understand why a fellow freshman at his Ottawa high school was having difficulty finding a modeling job. Barry's friend was pretty, photogenic, and had recently completed a course at a local modeling academy.

She was also a size eight.

"She was told that she needed to go down to a size two or at least a four," Barry recently recalled over coffee at a South End bakery. "I looked at her portfolio, and it was fantastic. So I took her pictures and sent them to a local magazine. I sent them a letter that said I thought she would be perfect for them."

Barry, then 14 years old and a walking definition of precocious, received a call from the editor of the magazine a few weeks later. His model would be ideal for their back-to-school fashion shoot. And naturally he was her agent, yes?

He took up the challenge, creating the Ben Barry Agency, Inc. in his family's basement. Today, the company, headquartered in Toronto, represents hundreds of women of all sizes, colors, and ages to companies and fashion designers. Dove soap came to Barry when it sought some of the models for its blockbuster ad concept, "Campaign for Real Beauty," which featured women of all body types and ages, photographed in all their curvy glory. He's written a best-selling book, "Fashioning Reality: A New Generation of Entrepreneurship," collected numerous awards, even appeared on "Oprah."

Now, Barry's conducting research at Harvard he thinks could reshape the modeling industry and the way that companies market products to female consumers around the world.

"What Ben is doing is crucial," says British psychoanalyst and celebrated author Susie Orbach, one of the architects of the Dove campaign. "He's trying to reflect a wider picture of what people actually look like. Normally the fashion and beauty industry shows us images of women who are coat hangers. Ben is truly concerned with bringing ordinary, lovely women into the public view."

Raised by his mother and his grandmother - Barry's father passed away when he was just 5 - he said his motivation for starting Ben Barry Agency Inc. came from the strong female role models in his life.

"I think that made a big difference in allowing me to see the beauty and power of women," Barry says. "It really seemed ridiculous that all these girls I went to school with, that my mom and my grandmother - all of these women who I thought were beautiful - were excluded from this industry."

Strangely, Barry was never particularly interested in fashion, but he did enjoy creating things, building entire cities out of cardboard boxes in his basement as a small child. A few years later, as his agency grew, it became clear to him that other modeling agencies were not interested in representing women who were larger than a size four. Most agencies represent a handful of women who are not angular and willowy. But the majority of models at major modeling houses are young and astonishingly thin.

After a year running his agency, he was representing 25 models and was asked to judge a national model search. Sitting alongside the vice president of Elite Model Management and Elle Canada, the teen quickly learned the strict guidelines of beauty.

"I learned that there was this narrow criteria of who was considered pretty," says the loquacious Barry. "I was pointing out models who I thought were phenomenal and had great personality and energy. But everyone would just shake their head and smile. They'd say their hips are too wide, or they weren't tall enough."

At this point, Barry's models were landing gigs modeling in mall fashion shows and in advertising for Canadian department stores. For a short time, Barry changed the focus of his agency to represent only young and thin models, but after showing friends fashion spreads that featured his thin models, he ended up once again broadening his scope.

"My friends were comparing themselves to the models and putting themselves down as a result," he says. "It was a bit a dilemma for me in some ways. On the one hand I had worked really hard to start this business and I had made these incredible contacts. But on the other hand I didn't want to hurt the self esteem of my friends and other women like them. Ultimately, I couldn't perpetuate what was going on."

Barry, who focused on Women's Studies as an undergraduate, is now a visiting PhD student at Harvard Business School. He is studying at Cambridge University in England, but followed an adviser to Boston to continue his research. He arrived here in February and lives in Back Bay.

For his PhD, Barry's researching how women in eight different cultures react to fashion and beauty advertising. Based on the success of the Dove's advertising campaign - sales of Dove products grew 600 percent in the first two months of the campaign's 2004 launch and the company's global sales surpassed $1 billion that year - he's creating in-depth research to show the corporate and fashion worlds that they can reach more consumers, and sell more product, by showing a wider variety of body sizes, ages, and skin colors.

For his research, Barry created mock fashion advertisements - professional looking ads that were shot with thin, young women, and then reshot in precisely the same way with models of different sizes and ages from his agency.

"The idea is to see how women react to models who represent their size, age, and cultural background versus models who represent an ideal of Western beauty in these ads," he says." When I looked in the journals of marketing there was really nothing that addressed this. Right now it's just an argument that you can reach a wider audience. I'm trying to prove that with hard numbers."

Barry showed his mock ads to focus groups in England, Canada, China, the United States, Jordan, Kenya, and Brazil and is now compiling reactions.

Meanwhile, he's still working with his modeling agency and breaking barriers on the runway. Last month, he supplied Vancouver-based designer Cheri Milaney with models for her Toronto Fashion Week show. It was the first time a designer showed three sizes on the runway at a major fashion show - four, eight, and 14.

"The result was just outstanding," says Milaney. "These women were so gracious and beautiful. They brought the clothes to life."

Lisa Kovack, who modeled during Milaney's show, said she never expected to be setting foot on the runway at the age of 54, and praised Barry and his efforts to expand the strict definition of beauty in the fashion industry. Like many of the 300 models in Barry's agency, Kovack responded to a post on Craigslist, auditioned, and landed a gig. For Barry's models, runway work is less common than fashion shoots, but Kovack's optimistic shows like Milaney's will help to change that.

"If by doing this, we help girls with their self-esteem and also help change the industry, it will leave me with a great feeling," says Kovack, who is based in Toronto. "Obviously, there's a lot of interest in making sure that we keep young girls from falling into anorexia."

The problem, says Barry, is that fashion designers typically only create clothes for the runway in a size two. By putting different sizes in the runway, Barry contends that consumers will have an easier time picturing themselves in the clothes. It's an argument that will be hard to make in an industry that adores ultra-thin, waifish models. But he thinks attitudes are slowly changing.

"I'm a big talker," he says with a grin. "But obviously I love this. If it wasn't fun, I wouldn't do it. This industry has so much potential and there are changes that need to be made. But fashion's whole philosophy is about change and reinvention. It's a perfect fit for me."