S.F. model agency looks to the future


In some families, fashion’s in the blood.

For 30 years, French-born Marie-Christine Kollock has been at the helm of Look Model Agency in San Francisco — with genes inherited from her mother, the director of a couture house in Paris who wore Lanvin and Boucheron and worked with Christian Dior, and with whom Kollock recalls meeting Karl Lagerfeld when he was “an assistant, I think, in his 30s.”

In her formative years in the 1960s, Kollock worked at Paris’ hotter-than-hot Catherine Harlé agency, which propelled Anita Pallenberg, Nico, Veruschka and others to fame. After meeting an American ship-repair executive in Ibiza and falling in love, she wed him. The couple settled in the Bay Area and established Look, which discovered Carré Otis; Rebecca Romijn; Larry Scott of Armani’s Aqua di Gio ads; Kimora Lee Simmons in St. Louis; and others.

But after three decades in the business, Kollock, whose husband, George, died in 2005, is ready to let someone else usher talent into the spotlight: her son, Cyril Kollock, 42. The former graphic designer, DJ and record-label founder is aiming to steer Look into the digital age with his own twist.

“I love what I do; make no mistake — it’s my passion,” Marie-Christine Kollock said in her light-filled 14th-floor office at 166 Geary St. “I’m excited always about every new face that walks in the door. None of the passion is gone, but I just feel that I’ve done my best.”

Her daughter, Emilie Kollock, 40, who lives in Sonoma County and works in retail, said by phone that she is “very proud” of her mother, and noted the new role for her brother is “an incredible opportunity, and he has really stepped into continuing something that was created for the love of fashion.”

Carrying on the family tradition may be easier said than done.

Years ago, half of Look’s business was print newspapers, magazines and catalogs; the rest was split between fashion shows and the burgeoning category of male modeling for clothing, underwear and fragrance.

Companies like Levi’s, Gap and Banana Republic still need fit models, but runway shows are drying up. The Internet is where it’s at for models now; they’re seen in photos modeling designer clothing on department store websites and other e-commerce sites.

Cyril Kollock, who has updated Look’s computer systems and is well-versed in social media, is testing ideas like short ad campaigns structured in miniseries format — with models or others who have large followings — that will be displayed on Instagram, for example.

“That’s what I see as the future — incorporating these tools and figuring out how to use models in them and engage clients with the audience in there,” he said. “It’s not going away. It’s not going to stop. You might as well use it to your advantage.”

It’s light-years away from Paris of the 1960s. Kollock, born Marie-Christine Mirabaud into a prominent banking family, went to boarding school in England and studied journalism in college. At 19, Elle magazine hired her to interview Hollywood icons working in Paris including Billy Wilder and Arthur Miller. When a friend (the secretary to playwright Tennessee Williams) suggested she work as a booker at the Catherine Harlé model agency, her career took a different turn.

The agency provided models for haute couture, before the days of ready-to-wear. No one knew who might walk in the door at any time — celebrities like Marianne Faithfull and the Rolling Stones — and unknown photographers like Gilles Bensimon, who went on to photograph supermodels and become international creative director at Elle.

Such unexpected opportunities thrill Kollock, who loves meeting new people. “I always say to my staff, ‘You never know who walks in, so don’t ignore them, instead of always thinking you know everything, because they might be somebody who might become very famous,” she said.

After a few years at Harlé, where they worked all day and drank Champagne every night (“It was wild; it was fun,” she said), she needed a break, and headed for Ibiza, which was not the party island it has become today. “There was nobody there in 1970,” she recalled.

Nobody, except her future husband, whom she met while visiting a mutual friend. They eventually wed and settled in Mill Valley, where they raised their children. Kollock’s Paris pals — including Harlé’s nephew, Jerome Bonnouvrier, who with his wife, Gisele, had started his own agency, Glamour — encouraged her to scout for talent from California. She did one better: When her kids were 9 and 10, she and her husband formed their own agency. There were several others in San Francisco at the time, including the famed Grimme Agency and Sabina, which merged with Look.

Among Kollock’s proudest achievements was the runway show for the opening of Nordstrom in San Francisco in 1988, which featured a dozen top models brought over from Paris, including Mounia and Katoucha Niane, muses to Yves Saint Laurent.

Today, Look’s stable of 300 or so models includes Dharma Stuart, a 17-year-old Bay Area girl who stands 5 feet, 11½ inches and walked into Look three years ago and was sent last year to Paris couture week.

At a recent model training session, she recalled her nerves as she faced the runway: “My first Paris show, I’m thinking, ‘I’m going to walk this show and do a great job and Marie-Christine is going to be proud of me.’”

Kollock molds her models’ careers and teaches them about managing money, but has also been a tough negotiator on their behalves, traveled the world with them and taken late-night phone calls in times of distress.

She helped Carré Otis, now Carré Sutton, a married mother of two, in the 1990s, when Sutton was a Guess model, suffered from anorexia, was sexually abused by her agents and developed a heroin addiction while married to tempestuous actor Mickey Rourke. (He persuaded her to reject a $1 million deal from Helena Rubenstein cosmetics.)

“Marie-Christine has balls,” Sutton said by email. “Hands down, she is tough and brave. On the other side of that, she gives a s— and has a moral compass that is really steeped in goodness. She is a stand-up human being and cares for her girls and boys.”

Mill Valley’s Tatiana Sorokko, discovered as a teen in Moscow by Marilyn Gauthier of the Marilyn agency in Paris, walked the runways of Paris and modeled for fashion magazine covers in Europe. She can’t imagine how different her life might have been without Gauthier, or Kollock, with whom she has worked since the early ’90s when she moved to the Bay Area, and calls their work “the business of miracles.”

That’s something Cyril Kollock is looking forward to.

“I’m making art,” he said, “from the human experience.”

Carolyne Zinko is a San Francisco Chronicle staff writer. Email: czinko@sfchronicle.com

Look’s famous faces over the years

Models typically have a “mother agency,” where they first begin their careers, but it’s common to have representation in other cities as well. For example, Sacramentan Larry Scott, best known as the face of Armani’s Aqua di Gio from 1997-2007, was discovered in San Francisco by Look and modeled for many fashion houses worldwide before turning to photography. Here are a few others who have been represented by Look at some point.

Carré Otis: Marin County native famous in the 1980s and ’90s as a Guess and Calvin Klein model and actress. Once married to Mickey Rourke, now married to Matthew Sutton, has two children, is an activist for models’ rights.

Rebecca Romijn: Berkeley native famous as a Sports Illustrated cover model in 1994, was the face of Christian Dior in Europe in the ’90s, became an actress. Previously wed to John Stamos, now married to Jerry O’Connell.

Tony Ward: San Jose native who rose to fame as a Calvin Klein underwear model (and onetime boyfriend of Madonna).

Anna Nicole Smith: Houston native and model who met the ex-boyfriend of a Look model in the Caribbean and moved to San Francisco for a time, modeled for Look.

Claudia Schiffer: Represented by Look for a special Macy’s Passport appearance.

Tatiana Sorokko: Russian-born model who walked the Paris runways and has worked with Look since moving to the Bay Area in the early 1990s. (Pictured with friend Gianfranco Ferré.)

Maye Musk: South African model living in Canada asked Look to sponsor her for work in the U.S., to be closer to sons Kimbal and Elon Musk, startup entrepreneurs.