Millennial Models Like Gigi Hadid, Fueled by Social, Are Hitting the Fashion Stratosphere

Fans favor bold personalities, not just beauty

Headshot of Emma Bazilian

It’s about 6 p.m. on a chilly Tuesday in late March, and model Gigi Hadid, equipped with a jar of charcoal pencils, is gleefully scrawling enormous hashtags on the stark white walls of a photography studio in lower Manhattan.

“I could do this all day!” effuses the 19-year-old Los Angeles native, who has, in fact, spent the better part of the day here, posing in sky-high stilettos. The following day, she posts a photo from the shoot on her personal Instagram account, with a caption thanking the makeup artist for her “on fleek” eyebrows. Some 24 hours later, the image has garnered more than 185,000 likes and 1,400 comments from her 2.5 million followers on the app. (Hadid’s total social following, including Twitter, has grown to more than 2.8 million.)

Photo: Alexei HayPhoto: Alexei Hay

It’s that social media clout—not to mention the stunning face, killer body and irresistible personality—that has helped propel Hadid, seemingly overnight, from up-and-coming model to global fashion celebrity. And brands have taken notice. Over the past year, Hadid has scored big contracts with the likes of Tom Ford, Victoria’s Secret Pink and Maybelline.

Along with contemporaries like Kendall Jenner, Karlie Kloss and Cara Delevingne, Hadid is part of a new wave of digitally savvy models taking the fashion industry by storm. Dubbed “the Instagirls” by Vogue, these millennial models have achieved success both in the realm of high fashion and the commercial world—a rarity since the supermodel era of the ’90s. These days, some models are just as likely to be found on the Paris runways as in the pages of a celebrity weekly or Taylor Swift’s latest Instagram post—or in Kloss’ case, on the cover of Vogue with her good friend Swift.

“Social media has allowed these girls to have a voice and a platform and not just be some random, anonymous model,” says Teen Vogue editor in chief Amy Astley, who recently chose Hadid to appear on the March cover alongside fellow newcomer Binx Walton. “Young people today are totally open to a self-invented person who uses technology to launch their career and put their message out there,” the editor adds.

Hadid was just 14 when Instagram first launched, and she recalls having had an innate sense of social media long before she began consciously using it to further her career. “I think it’s always come naturally to just be genuine on social media and to put things into words that people can relate to, rather than putting things in a way that makes them feel that they can’t be a part of it,” she explains.

In high school, having gained a bit of notoriety from appearing in two Guess campaigns and a few episodes of The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills (on which her mother, former model Yolanda Foster, is a cast member), Hadid began hosting her own Q&A sessions on Twitter, dubbed “Ask Gigi”—something she continues to do when time allows. “I answer random things like, ‘What was your favorite class in high school?’ ‘What’s your favorite ice cream?’ Stuff like that,” she relates.

Photo: Alexei Hay

After graduating high school two years ago, Hadid relocated to New York to pursue a degree in criminal psychology at The New School. By the end of her freshman year, she had made her New York Fashion Week debut and was the newest face of Tom Ford. By the following September, she was booking runway shows for Marc Jacobs, Jean Paul Gaultier and Chanel.

All the while, she continued promoting herself via social media, posting a mix of captivating selfies, behind-the-scenes shots from her modeling projects and inside looks at her life as a teenager hanging out with family and friends (including Cody Simpson, her indie-musician boyfriend, and friends like Kendall Jenner). By the beginning of 2015, Hadid had amassed nearly 1.5 million followers on Instagram alone.

When it comes to landing major beauty and fashion contracts, having a built-in social following can be a priceless advantage.

“If a model happens to come with a few thousand or a few million followers, that’s amazing for brands,” notes Harper’s Bazaar executive editor Laura Brown. “Especially if you’re a brand that wants to target a new, younger demographic, you’d have to consider [hiring] those girls in a second.”

“There are tons of examples of successful working models who don’t have a big Instagram following and aren’t interested in social media,” adds Teen Vogue’s Astley, “but it’s becoming something more and more that the ad clients are looking for—and all the girls know it. The game is definitely changing.”

Photo: Alexei Hay

In January, the game changed for Hadid when she revealed (via Instagram, naturally) that she had scored her biggest contract yet with beauty brand Maybelline—a deal that has the potential to make her into a household name.

According to Leonardo Chavez, Maybelline’s global brand president, the model’s social following played a key role in the decision to hire her. “Gigi is extremely connected, and beyond being connected, she is fantastically engaged with women around the world,” he says. “She is extremely relevant for the millennial consumer, not only because of who she is externally—her beauty, her fashion, her style, her sexiness—but also because she is a girl that has amazing confidence, has amazing drive and is willing to share that with women through social channels.”

Just before Hadid’s Maybelline announcement, Estée Lauder made headlines by hiring its own Instagirl: Kendall Jenner, the 19-year-old Kardashian sister who, with a social media audience of nearly 40 million (including 22 million on Instagram), is by far the most-followed model in existence.

While it has taken big sister Kim Kardashian years to become accepted by the fashion industry—which is notoriously wary of “lowbrow” celebrity (consider the backlash over Kardashian’s Vogue cover last year)—the statuesque Kendall has been widely embraced since she signed with Elite Model division The Society Management in 2013. On top of dozens of runway appearances, she has appeared in ads for Marc Jacobs, Givenchy and Karl Lagerfeld—and just last week signed with Calvin Klein Jeans.

Jenner’s Estée Lauder deal represents a significant step for the cosmetics giant in reaching out to a younger audience. By signing her, the brand gets instant access to millions of women in its target demographic. “Whether you like it or not, people are fascinated by her life and the world in which she lives,” says Estée Lauder global creative director Richard Ferretti. “The fact that she is now behind the scenes at runway shows and going to these great parties, there’s great interest in that.”

Ferretti notes that Jenner also happens to have a resumé worthy of an Estée Lauder model. “The fashion designers love her, and her fashion credibility and her personal style is pretty outstanding,” he says. “So that, as a representation for our brand, is pretty incredible.”

Of course, much of Jenner’s huge following (and, to a lesser extent, Hadid’s) is owing to her family’s notoriety. But as everyone from fashion editors to brand executives are quick to point out, Jenner’s success as a model is very much her own. “If you don’t know the walk or you can’t carry yourself or you don’t have presence, it doesn’t matter how many Instagram followers you have or who your mom is,” Brown says. “If you can’t make a good picture, especially in high fashion, we’re not going to work with you.”

“Both Kendall and Gigi are very professional, really hardworking and grateful for where they are,” adds Astley. “They don’t ask for any special favors. They’re physically great specimens. And the fact that they’re known to the public and have a big social following is extra, and it’s great.”

Hadid and Jenner’s social media success is empowering other models. Hailey Baldwin, a close friend of Hadid’s and daughter of actor Stephen Baldwin, already has 1.1 million Instagram followers and a Topshop campaign, while Hadid’s younger sister, Bella, is following in her footsteps with an IMG contract, spreads in CR Fashion Book and Teen Vogue, and a runway gig for Tom Ford.

Photo: Alexei Hay

It’s not just the newcomers who have benefitted from this social media revolution. “Girls who have already had success in modeling have been clever about leveraging social media to make themselves known outside the small world of high fashion and expanding their careers, because the high-fashion career can be a short one,” says Astley.

Karlie Kloss, a fashion industry darling who first appeared on the scene at 15, started using Twitter, Facebook and Instagram years ago to tap a wider audience. (Her total social following is now 3.6 million.) Fans took to the St. Louis native’s sophisticated yet wholesome persona (not to mention her friendship with Swift), as did brands like Victoria’s Secret, Nike and L’Oréal.

Likewise, British model Cara Delevingne, another fashion favorite who had already fronted campaigns for Burberry and Chanel, employed social media to establish her reputation as party-loving class clown. (She now boasts 12.9 million followers across all social media.) With a steady stream of Instagram posts that have her goofing off backstage at Fashion Week or hanging out with A-list friends in a Bart Simpson sweatshirt, Cara has become an Internet sensation, the subject of countless BuzzFeed lists with headlines like “23 Times Cara Delevingne Gave Zero F*cks.”

“Cara’s a gorgeous girl, but her personality and her social media, that’s what made her, whereas I think Karlie’s just the sort of emblem of good health and girlfriendship,” says Harper’s Bazaar’s Brown. “They have their own little currencies on social media, and I think that they’ve become, at least to us, the sort of archetype.”

Photo: Alexei Hay

For the Instagirls, building a personal brand online isn’t just about boosting their modeling pursuits. It’s also a form of insurance against the inevitable aging out that happens in fashion where someone in her late 20s is considered ancient.

While the previous generation of supermodels—Tyra Banks, Heidi Klum, Cindy Crawford—managed to launch successful sidelines after their peak modeling days, savvy models now are preparing for the transition while still in their teens.

“What people want to know is, OK, what’s after modeling? And that’s forcing us to think about those things [even earlier],” Hadid reveals. “It’s not just OK anymore to model until you’re 25 and then stop and be a housewife.”

Kloss—at 22, an industry veteran—has been actively building that foundation for years now. In her spare time, she has launched her own line of cookies with New York bakery Momofuku Milk Bar, taken classes at Harvard Business School, learned how to code and participated in a panel on social media at SXSW. Earlier this year, she announced she was ending her run as a Victoria’s Secret Angel so she could attend New York University’s Gallatin School of Individualized Study.

Meanwhile, Delevingne, also 22, is taking the model-slash-actress route. Having landed small parts in films including Anna Karenina and The Face of an Angel, she will appear in another five releases this year, including Paper Towns, in which she has a starring role. In December, it was revealed she landed the role of Enchantress in DC Comics’ Suicide Squad, starring Will Smith and Jared Leto.

As for Hadid’s plans? Eventually, she would like to go back and graduate college. (She took a leave of absence this year to focus on modeling full-time.) But in the long run, she’ll most likely stay in the spotlight. Hadid suggests she might someday host her own cooking program (she’s an avid gourmand) or a talk show. “I’m an entertainer, and I think that I’ll always be in that business,” she says.

And if for some reason she chooses not to remain in front of the camera, her criminal psychology degree could still come in handy in the entertainment world. “Who knows?” she wonders. “I could always be a fact checker on CSI.”

Photo: Alexei Hay

Photo: Alexei Hay

Photo: Alexei Hay

Photo: Alexei Hay

Photo: Alexei Hay

Photo: Alexei Hay

Photo: Alexei Hay

Photo: Alexei Hay

Photo: Alexei Hay

@adweekemma Emma Bazilian is Adweek's features editor.