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Elite Model Management was founded in Paris in 1972 by John Casablancas (1942–2013) and Alain Kittler. Casablancas was inspired by his then-wife Jeanette Christiansen, former model and Miss Universe from Denmark, to open a model agency. Casablancas founded the model agency with his savings.
Elite Model opened with several high-profile models including Ingmari Lamy; Ann Schaufuss, Clive Arrowsmith's girlfriend; Barry Lategna's wife Lynn Kohlman; Paula Brenken; and Paris Plannings Emanuelle Dano.
At the time, boutique agencies in Paris and Milan fell out of favor with models due to payment issues. Models often found Parisian and Milanese model agencies holding their pay to coerce them into returning without work visas and work. British and American based chains gave models the financial security they needed. In 1977, Casablancas opened up Elite Models in New York. During the 1980s, New York endured the model wars. Despite agencies like Wilhelmina Models taking part in these wars, the primary battle was between Elite Models and Ford Models. Models such as Esmé Marshall left Elite for Ford Models. Casablancas alleged that Eileen Ford was out to get him and Ford responded with a $32.5 million suit. Until 1977, Ford was affiliated with Elite until Elite opened up offices in New York and began stealing Ford's models. Due to the death of Wilhelmina Cooper, models were in a panic bouncing from agency to agency. Even the highest paid black model at the time Beverly Johnson left Elite for Ford, only to return to Elite a week later.
Models such as Christie Brinkley and Anna Andersen sued Elite after they exited. In 1981, Elite Models formed a partnership with Models 1 which lasted until 1989. By 1983, Elite established the Elite Model Look, which was called The Look of the Year, Competition to rival its competitors Ford's Supermodel of the World Contest. The following year, the company expanded its offices in the U.S. with the formation of Elite Models Chicago, Elite Models Atlanta, Elite Models Los Angeles, Elite Models San Francisco, and Elite Models Miami. By 1986, Elite Models had twenty offices worldwide. In 1988, Elite opened offices in Milan. In 1994, Elite awarded its Greater China rights to Michel Lu with the opening of Elite Hong Kong & China. In 1996, Lu opened Elite in Singapore, which served as a regional office for South East Asia.
Nicholas Farrae later purchased the agency in 1990. Elite World S.A. is the parent company of Elite Model Management. The expansion of Elite Models furthered as Elite Models formed partnerships with already established agencies. In 1990, Elite Models formed a partnership with Model Management Heidi Gross in Hamburg. In 1992, Munich Models was formed and formed a partnership with Elite Models. In 1994, Elite sought to break into the Asian market and established Elite Hong Kong and China with partner Michel Lu. Lu went on to open Elite Model Management Singapore in 1996 that served as a regional office for South East Asia. Similar to their debut in Paris, Elite swept up top local and regional talents such as Charmaine Harn, Junita Simon, Sonia Couling, and Nadya Hatagalung.
In 1999, a film was broadcast by the BBC showing the President of Elite Model Management, Gerald Marie, offering an undercover reporter sex for money. It was later proven that some images had been manipulated and the BBC admitted that its portrayal was unfair and had to make a substantial payout to the model agency In the wake of this controversy, Casablancas left and formed the John Casablancas Modeling and Career Center in New York.
In 2002 Elite, along with several other New York model agencies, was sued for hundreds of millions of dollars in a class action that accused them of fixing fees for the past 30 years. The following year, Elite opens offices in Asia. At the same time, an employee was awarded $5.2 million in a suit concerning passive smoking in the US office of Elite. Unfortunately, all the bad publicity, the over expansion of Elite, and the loss of talents, Elite Model Management filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy in 2004. Elite Models New York was put up for auction and bought by Florida businessman Eddie Trump for $4.4 billion, who asked Casablancas to come back and advise him. In August 2005, Elite reestablished Elite Models in Singapore using it as the satellite office for their new South East Asia operation. Branches in Indonesia, Malaysia, Thailand, and Philippines were also added in August 2005. In October 2005, the Elite Model Look Competition was added in Singapore.
By 2006, Casablancas' appointment was short-lived and the company went public on the Frankfurt Stock Exchange. In 2009, the president of Elite World (the parent company of Elite Model Management), Bertrand Hennet, was arrested on drug charges. At the same time, Elite Models acquired Elite Models Copenhagen in which was formally a licensee of Elite Models and was founded in 1966 by its former head booker Trice Tomsen. After her disappoint with Elite, she sold the agency out right to Elite Model Management and was appointed Munir Bouylud as the new director. Also in 2009, Elite Model Management London opens nearly 20 years after its first attempt to have offices in London. It was also in 2009 that Elite Models Chicago and Atlanta severed ties with Elite and was renamed Factor Women.
In February 2011, Elite World shareholders elected a new Board of Directors. The new board election follows the acquisition of a controlling stake in Elite World by Pacific Global Management. In 2012, Elite opens Elite China in Shanghai immediately followed by agencies in Beijing, Shenzhen, Guang Zhou and Hong Kong.
In 2012, Elite Models Amsterdam acquired Model Masters in Amsterdam. Model Masters is best known for representing models who win Holland's Next Top Model. With that acquisition, Elite fired Ananda Marchildon for being "too fat". The company lost a breach of contract lawsuit by Ananda Marchildon and had to pay her around €65,000 damages.
Elite today manages over 2000 models from five continents. It offers international coverage with 35 agencies in its network. It holds the annual talent scouting contest, the Elite Model Look, which launched in 1983. With about 400,000 annual contestants in more than 60 countries, Elite Model Look has "discovered" many notable models, including Cindy Crawford, Stephanie Seymour, Tatjana Patitz, Gisele Bündchen, Alessandra Ambrosio, Caitriona Balfe, and Lara Stone.
Elite represents, or has represented, such models as Linda Evangelista, Naomi Campbell, Iman, Paulina Porizkova, Carol Alt, Gin Cooley, Veronica Webb, Jennifer Flavin, Eva Herzigová, Tatiana Sorokko, Angelika Kallio, Tyra Banks, Monica Bellucci, Anna Nicole Smith, Anna Bayle, Adriana Lima, Heidi Klum, Karen Elson, Coco Rocha, Liu Wen, Crystal Renn, Ingrid Schram, Nina Agdal, Kaleb Murray, Chloe Lloyd, Pooja Mor, Bridget Malcolm, Joséphine Le Tutour, Estelle Chen, Pauline Hoarau Vittoria Ceretti, Joanna Krupa, Huggy Ragnarsson, Kelly Gale, Özge Ulusoy, Liya Kibede, Julia Saner, Olga Puchkova, Erika Lucas, Kathryn Edwards, and Marta Piekarz.