Exploring the limits of platformisation: can the fashion modeling industry be platformised?

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By Abigail Harrington
PhD Management, Birmingham Business School

Why is there not an Uber for modeling? Drawing from research on the live music industry, researchers offer three identifiable characteristics to explain why some industries may prove difficult to platformise:

    1. Complex qualitative evaluations to determine value
    2. Complex transactions that are intertwined and require ongoing negotiation
    3. A fragmented organizational field.

Scholars state we should develop an in-depth and analogous understanding of the gig economy, it follows that to understand how platformisation is developing, we should not only understand when platformisation succeeds, but also where platformisation fails to take hold. Despite a plethora of research into platforms themselves, the limits of platformisation remain underexplored.

At first glance, the modeling industry appears perfect for platformisation, being emblematic of the gig economy with last minute (often one-off) jobs, and insecure working contracts. Networks are important and it is a flooded labour market with many struggling to make it to the top. An app, which tends to lower entry barriers, may appeal to those trying to make it. However, despite attempts to platformise fashion modeling, traditional agencies remain dominant.

But why is this the case? Apps require valuation to be quantifiable, e.g with scores and rankings. Yet, a model’s value is irreducibly qualitative. Mears and Entwistle illustrate how the industry is a ‘cultural economy’; something seemingly cultural and subjective, such as a model’s ‘look’, has to be transformed into having economic value. A model’s career is carefully calculated; agents take into account high-fashion jobs which hold symbolic value and can lead to long-term economic value, and commercial work which holds more economic value but is less prestigious.

Networking is important to a model’s success. Models rely on the opinions of other actors in the field to create and reproduce their value. Models’ agents serve as gatekeepers to the field, yielding significant power over a model’s career. Agencies are also subject to valuation, with some considered more prestigious than others, and having access to higher sectors of the market. The complex valuation which takes place is likely difficult to quantify on an app.

The counter argument may be that platformisation’s aim is to disrupt a market and usurp traditional gatekeepers and regulations. Yet, subjective (human) evaluation is crucial to the modeling industry; cultural value is a cultural markets’ central feature. Thus disruption may prove more difficult than in other markets where valuation is more obvious and quantifiable.

Modeling entails complex transactions, with on-going negotiations taking place over working hours, travel fees, usage of images, and buy-out agreements. Further buyout fees may be negotiated years later if brands intend to use images for longer than the initial agreement. These transactions entail on-going negotiation, requiring in-depth industry knowledge, so may not easily be simplified or calculated by algorithmic technology often implemented on apps.

In the fashion industry, there is a division between commercial and high fashion work, these entail different types of work, clients and values. There are also hierarchies across the agencies which attempt to navigate the market. The fashion industry is perhaps too fragmented for all sectors of the market to be unified on one platform. Apps routinely disrupting reputation is further evidence that platformisation would struggle to take hold in the industry, since reputation is key to understanding and navigating these fragmented markets.

Despite these factors making it difficult for the modeling industry to be ‘uberised’, digitisation is having an impact. Digitisation alters working conditions in the modeling industry: Automated scheduling sold to agencies by tech companies affords models’ last-minute scheduling and some companies even offer A.I model scouting which works with digital platforms e.g Instagram. There is also hybrid digitalisation emerging, meaning that platforms may work with existing gatekeepers and regulators. Ubookers invites agents to advertise models on their books through the platform.

It would be interesting to explore these findings in relation to fields which are less similar to the already insecure cultural industries, where more may be at stake in terms of employment relationship if platformisation were to occur. PurpleBricks emerged in the property industry, but traditional estate agents still occupy a huge sector of the market.

To understand and predict the development of platformisation, it is essential we learn about its limits by studying and comparing the markets which continue to resist platformisation’s hold.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the University of Birmingham.

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