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Gidget gone global

With surfer girls and guys recruited as models, Cindy Kauanui sold the world on the sun-kissed beach look.

August 27, 2006|Booth Moore | Times Staff Writer

La Jolla — 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.


'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.

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