Thought No. 10: Sunday / by Jennifer Wisniewski

"R-E-S-P-E-C-T"

Once upon a time, I used to model for a living. The modeling business and the restaurant business are similar in many ways. One similarity is that the fashion business fosters its own carnival of eccentrics, much like the world of hospitality. There is one lady, in particular, that taught me so many survival skills. Her name was Nena Ivon – and she was the fashion director of Saks Fifth Avenue. Ms. Ivon also had rules:

  • You couldn’t be early and you couldn’t be late. Arrival was/is exactly five minutes before call time.
  • You always had to have a makeup hood – which is a piece of fabric that you put over your head to protect the clothes, when you are trying them on. I’ve seen models have complete meltdowns, when they didn’t bring theirs.
  • You couldn’t touch the clothes. At all.
  • You couldn’t speak.
  • If you were chewing gum: you were fucked.
  • Oh, and you had to call her “Ms. Ivon”. Sometimes models would get uppity and called her “Nena”. Not smart.

For a fitting (when one tries on clothes, before the runway show), there are probably about 20 girls in the room. You're totally naked, very thin, and standing in silence, while you wait to be yelled at for doing something wrong. I don’t remember those five seconds I was on stage. I do, however, remember being scared to death of her. But, I liked her – I liked and respected her. Now I completely understand why she was the way she was. Experience carves a person – and she simply realized that if she didn’t run the models – they would run her.  

I loved to watch her. She would walk in a room and people would stand at attention. The thing about modeling that no one ever talks about, is that it takes real discipline to do it everyday – and she taught me that. It’s an art, but it’s also like being an athlete. There is a conditioning and a competitiveness to it. 

She liked me, for some reason. (Well, I know the reason I think.) I showed that I respected her, I listened to her rules, and I followed them. Currently, I’m not as tough as Ms. Ivon was, but I have my moments. There is a place you arrive at, when you’ve completed the transition into adulthood and start demanding respect from young people, for who you are and what you’ve accomplished. Out of the blue, a server will greet me with some slang – and my inner Nena comes out. “Excuse me? What did you say? (I do it with my daughter too.)

Nonetheless, Nena gave me my first break. She was the reason I worked every day. I remember when Oscar de la Renta was in town and he booked me for his show. After I got off the runway, I went to a payphone (yep!) and called my booker to tell her it went well. On the other line with her, was Ms. Ivon. She said – and I quote, because I’ll never forget it: “You can’t take your eyes off Jenny, when she’s on the runway. I want to hire her for everything.” After that phone call, I began working for her (and everyone else) for the next ten years.

My story’s not as grand as other globe-trotting models. But, at that moment, I had to stop and say to myself: “Well, if this fashion icon believes in me – maybe I should, too. Maybe I can do this.” One day I'd like to be able to do that for someone. To help them find inspiration – while being screamed at and told they are worthless.

Best,

Jen