On a recent Thursday afternoon, Aaron Bakalar was sitting at the Smile, sipping an iced tea and receiving greetings from a parade of fashionably disheveled acquaintances. "I never see you during the day!" exclaimed Johnny Misheff, a D.J., as he wrapped him in a bro hug. Lyz Olko, founder of fashion label Obesity & Speed, said hello. A third guy, in green-and-black plaid, seemed particularly excited to see the 23-year-old. "I don't really know what he does," Bakalar admitted, after exchanging greetings with him. "Just one of those Nolita wanderers."
In other words, exactly the type of kid Bakalar plans on putting to work. Two weeks ago he launched a new business venture, The Collaborative Agency, whose goal is to take sociable, good-looking youths — "individuals directly engaged in the fields of fashion, music, film and art whose inside perspectives grant them the unique ability to appear as true images of their generation" — out of the cafés and bars and into the boardroom with companies who will pay for their New York cool. Until now, talent agencies like ICM or modeling houses like Elite have handled such clients in nebulous "celebrity" departments, which represent uptown socialites, former models, scandal survivors, and reality stars. Bakalar is focused on something much more narrow yet elusive, an attribute that only a few select young people possess.
So far, he has six clients. Half are the children of coastal household names: Francis Ford Coppola's granddaughter Gia, Keith McNally's daughter Isabelle, Annabelle Dexter-Jones of the Ronson family clan. The rest are downtown hipsters: artist Lucien Marc Smith, photographer and Ryan McGinley "muse" Tracy Antonopoulos, and Alex Olson, a bi-coastal professional skateboarder with, Bakalar says, a "James Dean–like quality" who briefly dated Chloë Sevigny. "They have this huge potential," Bakalar says of his cabal. "Like giant marketing headquarters who would love to consult with them or work with them."
It might sound a little pie-in-the-sky coming from a 23-year-old, five-foot-five kid from Michigan who looks admittedly like"a 14-year-old." But Bakalar has drive. Since he first arrived in the city to study design and management at Parsons in 2006, he's been ingratiating himself into the young New York social scene, first at Socialista, where he worked the door and promoted parties, and currently at the Jane Hotel, where he consults on "image" (i.e., deciding who gets in). "I well-connected myself within the five and a half years I've been here," he says.
The idea for Collaborative came about when Bakalar was doing what he does best: hanging out. "I was in the Bowery Hotel lobby having a drank with one [of the kids in the agency] — I'm not going to say which — and a photographer just like handed them cash for a shoot they did and said, 'So good to see you!'" he says. "I was like, 'What?' So I asked, 'What were the usage fees? Were you compensated fairly? Did you negotiate the price? Do you know where it's appearing? Do you know how long it's appearing for?' She kind of drew a blank and was like, 'You're right.' They are handling these things themselves, but if they want more money, it's awkward. It's this business medium. So the need was there."
In the meantime, some particularly hip brands have begun distancing themselves from celebrity ambassadors. "A celebrity is a very obvious endorsement now. It's commercial," says Faran Krentcil, online editor for Nylon, which chronicles the junior jet set. Chrissie Miller, founder of Sophomore, concurred: "Charlize Theron versus Annabelle Dexter-Jones. You'd think the actor would definitely get more attention, but that isn't the case. The fashion world has different rules, and they're not interested in another ad with Charlize. There's a different fashion family, a cast of characters."
"Isabelle McNally," adds Krentcil. "You've seen her a million times in Louis Vuitton sunglasses. Now she'd just be getting paid for it. It's intrinsic. These people already exist in the world of the brand."
Not to mention the fact that they're cheaper. "Companies are heading toward these collaborations because it's lower budget," Bakalar says. "In this economy, it's not Jennifer Aniston holding a Smartwater bottle." Bakalar declines to say what percentage of his clients' earnings he's taking in, other than to say this is a full-time job for him. There's certainly not a lot of overhead. "My iPhone is my office," he says. As for the kids he employs, well, for them, it's not really about the money.
"I like Aaron a lot, and I trust him a lot, and I thought it sounded really cool," said Annabelle Dexter-Jones over the phone from Paris, where she was visiting her boyfriend, Le Baron owner Andre Saraiva. "I know all the kids in it," said Gia Coppolla, 23. "I know Alex, he was my neighbor in Los Angeles. And Annabelle, we went to Bard together. Lucien hangs around the same sort of kids that I do. So it just kind of happened naturally, organically." Dexter-Jones, who wants to be an actress, hopes working with the agency will get her more exposure. In the meantime, she's game to work as a model or brand ambassador for brands "that I care about."
Others hope working with the agency might give them direction. "I'm sort of figuring it all out right now," says Gia, a dreamy-voiced former photography student. "I've been trying out all different sorts of art. I've been doing little films. Little videos for clothing companies, and for my cousin [Jason Schwartzman's] band. I know I'd like to make a short film. And I enjoy writing. I'm taking a playwriting class. I took a bartending class, and I wasn't very successful. I'm trying everything. I just take it day by day and try not to think about it too much."
Bakalar insists his clients are not dilettantes. "They're not flakes ... they're adults and they're creative and they want to work. They are authentically genius, and it's hard to transition out of that 'It Kid' label. So hopefully I can help them with that."
For Alex Olsen, a second-generation, bi-coastal skateboarding pro and high-school dropout who met Bakalar "at one of those like eight places that are around," it could be the key to his future. "After skateboarding I'll need a career or something," says Olsen. "Maybe I'll make a music video or something. Ha, I really don't know! I have some ideas. I'm up for stuff."
Good thing. After all, as Bakalar points out, "None of us are going to be on Guest of a Guest forever."
But for now, getting by on youth and good looks is fine. "If they wanna call it the Cool Kids Agency, that's fine," he says. "At the end of the day, they're the coolest and most creative kids I know. I'm not afraid of them being known as that."