Gidget gone global

Times Staff Writer

IT was October 2002 in Paris, a Chanel runway show like any other with $3,000 boucle suits and $1,000 quilted handbags -- until the finale, when a model tottered out in spectator stilettos and a knit swim dress, carrying a logo surfboard under one arm.

At that moment, high fashion officially caught the wave of surfer style, and it hasn't let go since.

You'd think the person who identified this look and exported it to the world would have a corner office on Madison Avenue. But Cindy Kauanui works above a surf shop in La Jolla, where her modeling agency has grown from a West Coast pipsqueak into a national trendsetter.

Jet Set is the source for the clean-faced, sun-kissed and surf-toned ocean goddesses who work with elite photographers such as Bruce Weber and Dewey Nicks, appear in ad campaigns for high fashion designers such as Roberto Cavalli and Versace, and popular brands including Roxy and Guess. Jet Set is about as far away from the New York fashion establishment as it gets, and so are its models. No chain-smoking waifs from powerhouse agencies such as Ford, Elite and IMG. Jet Set's models are muscled and weathered by sun and sea.

Kauanui knows the look when she sees it -- at the beach, the mall, even the local Denny's. When she finds it, she signs the person on the spot. There was the blond tornado running circles around her mother at Pottery Barn who became the cotton-top toddler in a straw hat in the Ralph Lauren Kids ads. The unknown blond surfer girl with bow lips who followed in the footsteps of Anna Nicole Smith and Paris Hilton, becoming the sultry Guess model. And the surfer from Kauai with an unusual combination of Hawaiian, Japanese and English heritage, who went on to star in the film "Blue Crush."

For 13 years Kauanui's vision of Southern California beauty has been smiling back from billboards, glossy magazine pages, TV and movie screens, selling everything from bikinis to Barbie dolls around the world.

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'A great eye for people'

WITH big wave murals and a surfboard for a conference table, Jet Set feels more like a beach clubhouse than an international player in the image-making game. Sure, there are hundreds of toothy head shots on the walls, but there are also plenty of surf stickers. There's a waiting room where Kauanui takes Polaroids of prospective models, but it's designed to look like the hull of a ship, with a life preserver.

Not that Kauanui has ever needed one in this business where women are still referred to as girls.

"She was the first one to connect beach culture to the fashion world," says photographer Bruce Weber, who has been working with Jet Set models from the beginning.

"She's found me wonderful girls and guys, people other agencies wouldn't have taken because they were too far out, a guy who had an Afro bleached out from the sun, or a girl who's a surfer, not a model. She has a great eye for people."

Kauanui made her first big discovery, Lelani Bishop, in 1989 before she even had an agency. She wasn't even in the fashion business at the time, just out surfing on the North Shore of Kauai.

"There were two girls on their towels on the shoreline and a big wave got them," she says. "They had to get up and shake their towels off and I noticed her." Kauanui took Polaroids, sent them to Weber, and next thing she knew, Bishop had nabbed Banana Republic and Tommy Hilfiger campaigns.

She noticed Guess model Tori Praver in an Outside magazine photo spread of local Hawaiian surfers last year.

"I saw pictures of her with wet hair, and she was so Jet Set. So I flew to Maui, met her family and took a lot of Polaroids," she says. "I drove them up to Paul Marciano in L.A., and that was it. She's not Twiggy. But for me, she was perfect. And she brought a new look to Guess."

Then there is Filly Gaines, the 5-foot 10-inch, athletic-looking blond she signed two years ago. "I found her at a hair salon," Kauanui says. "I had to ask the stylist to run after her because I had foil in my hair. Her name is perfect because she's just like a thoroughbred."

Jet Set represents more than 300 adults and 300 kids, including teenagers, children and infants as young as 2 weeks old, who help bring the illusion of the beach lifestyle to magazines and high-profile advertising campaigns. At Top 10 agencies in New York, such as IMG and Ford, annual revenue can exceed $50 million. Kauanui expects Jet Set's 2006 revenue to be in the $5-million range. But her models earn as much as their New York counterparts -- $2,500 and up per day for catalog work and $5,000 to $10,000 a day for advertising. And her athlete clients can make as much as $25,000 for personal appearances, she says.

"In an era when many fashion models are thin, edgy and a bit removed from the reality of the average reader, Cindy has been a major player in bringing back natural beauty," says Sara Foley-Anderson, model bookings director at Self magazine.

"If you go to agencies in L.A. or New York, more fashion-centered agencies, they tend to have glamorous types," says Tom Adler, an art director who has worked with Quiksilver, Ralph Lauren and other brands. But at Jet Set, "the girls are all down to earth and sweet but hip. They all have that same quality, which is something Cindy picks out."

And that could used to describe Kauanui herself. Her style is the antithesis of the hard-charging head of a successful agency. Easygoing and casual, in that Hawaiian kind of way, she hugs after the first meeting and is so friendly with employees and models, she feels more like a cool mom than a boss. But don't let that fool you. She's also aggressive, analytical and competitive, and will do things like call producer Brian Grazer directly and insist he meet one of her models (which is how Sanoe Lake got cast in "Blue Crush").

The Jet Set girl is often hapa, the Hawaiian word used to mean half or part Asian. "None of my girls look alike," Kauanui says. "It's easy for clients to shop here because we have all colors. The world is a melting pot of color, and we like to show that. We are not making clones who all have the same haircut."

The only thing she is a tyrant about is weight, but not in the way most agency heads are.

"She will drop a girl if she loses too much weight, or put her on hold," says model Lake. "If a girl has no muscle, she may photograph well, but she doesn't look good."

Kauanui has brought athletes into the equation too, such as world-class surfer Matt Beacham and triathlete Lokelani McMichael, helping to convert their look into magazine, advertising and movie careers. And the agency is on the verge of becoming a brand in itself. Last year, Kauanui launched a surf-oriented teen clothing line in Japan, called Jetty, which she hopes to bring to the U.S. ("In Japan, Jet Set models are larger than life," she said.) There have been talks about a TV series and model search. And then there's the Wiki Wacky juice bar opening on Kauai next year, the first of what Kauanui hopes will become a chain.

But mostly, it's about finding new faces.

Right now, she's pinning her hopes on Donna Feldman, an Israeli with "an Angelina Jolie-like quality," hypnotic eyes and a long mane of brown hair who signed with Jet Set last year. The 24-year-old model-actress who lives in Calabasas is spending the summer filming the upcoming TV show "Fashion House Secrets" with Bo Derek.

"Jet Set has a very laid-back and relaxed style so they're not into models trying too hard or dressing up too much," Feldman said in an e-mail. "Personally, they have not given me any other tip than to always be myself and people will love me."

"I don't see them telling a model she needs to be a size 2 to make it in the industry," said Feldman, who was previously represented by an agency in Los Angeles where she felt she didn't get enough personal attention.

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Island beginnings

KAUANUI'S first experience in the modeling industry was in the early 1980s at age 19, when she worked as a desk clerk at an agency in Honolulu. Before long, she was modeling herself, in advertising campaigns for Coca-Cola (with Bill Cosby), Florida Orange Juice and Rainbow Jeans of Canada.

In 1985, she and a friend opened a production company, Showlites Unlimited, on Kauai. They helped fashion photographers such as Weber and Gilles Bensimmon when they came to shoot on the island, and coordinated permits for film crews.

They had just wrapped "Jurassic Park" when Hurricane Iniki struck. The storm wiped out everything. Afterward, Hawaiian Airlines offered free flights for residents to evacuate, and Kauanui left with one suitcase and three young sons, headed for San Diego.

Although she has a sister in the area, it wasn't easy. "I was living off credit cards, paying one with another."

So she applied for one of the low-interest loans the Small Business Administration was offering to hurricane victims, submitting a proposal for a modeling agency. She called it Jet Set because, she said, "I thought of myself more as a scout than an agent. I thought I would find great people and send them to New York."

She began scouting for the industry's preferred waif look. She found runway talent and traveled with her models to fashion weeks around the world. At the same time, she was discovering something very different in San Diego -- what she calls "the PCH look." She found an Argentine named Axel Alstad at the local Denny's and sent pictures of him to Weber. "He booked him for a Versace ad. So this guy's first job was with Christy Turlington."

Then, in 1995, while backstage at a Roberto Cavalli show in Milan, Kauanui had a vision.

"All the girls were so thin, over 50% were struggling with eating disorders. I decided I didn't want to go to work and promote this anymore," she said. "I wanted to create the surfermodel instead of the supermodel."

The concept was a new one. "I was made fun of by everyone in the industry. Nobody had any idea that surfing was going to be so big." But her timing couldn't have been better. Just as she was walking the floor at the Action Sports Retail trade show to find clients, surf wear labels such as Quiksilver and Billabong began exploding beyond their niche to become some of the biggest sportswear brands in the world. And Kauanui became the go-to person to match beauty to the brands.

"It still gives me a kick. Here's a lifestyle I have loved since I was a little girl, and never once did I think it could go mainstream," she said. "We created something and now you see models on the runways in Paris carrying surfboards."

On a typical day, Jet Set's booking agents field dozens of calls from casting and art directors. It's still not uncommon for Kauanui to wield the Polaroid herself. On a recent afternoon, model Sydney Wheeler, 22, stops by to pose for quick photos for a Japanese client, stripping to her bikini in the middle of the office. At the moment, Wheeler is just a gorgeous student at the Art Institute of San Diego.

Next month, who knows?

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