LOS ANGELES -- PICK UP A SLICK fashion magazine, watch a world-class runway show and what do you see? Models so famous their names are household words. But hidden behind the scenes is another breed of model -- men, women and children whose "ideal" measurements help shape the clothes in the magazines and on the runways.
"Fit models," dressmakers' forms come to life, are the unsung heroes of the industry. Designers and pattern makers could not function without them, but few consumers realize that these live bodies have influenced every aspect of every garment they buy -- including underwear and uniforms.
Top fit models can earn $100,000 a year in Los Angeles and twice that much in New York, but there is no formal training, and virtually everyone falls into the field by chance.
The essential equipment -- specific measurements and a well-proportioned torso -- is handed out at birth. If they don't lose or gain an inch, fit models can ply the profession for years.
But the right body is not enough. Successful fit models must also resemble a manufacturer's ideal customer, have a keen sense of style and an uncanny eye for detail. They must quickly become experts who can diplomatically tell designers and pattern makers what is right and wrong with every inch of a garment.
While a small number of manufacturers will hire a secretary or production assistant to double as a fit model, most companies prefer a professional. Explains Francine Browner, president of Los Angeles-based Rue de Reves: "I want a fit model who is a fit model, not one who answers phones. Many times we've had a person working here who could substitute, but she couldn't give us the feedback we need."
The company's "star," as Browner calls her, is Sigute Lownds, a 33-year-old actress and former dancer who has what many manufacturers consider an ideal figure: 5 feet, 6 1/2 inches arranged in a 36-27-38 1/2 configuration.
"We never get complaints about the fit of our garments. That is what makes her a success for us," says Browner. "She epitomizes our customer. A fit model has to be a combination of the best figure in the world and also be able to accommodate the flaws an average person might have."
Lownds -- a fit model for seven years, five of them with Rue de Reves -- free-lances her services to 10 accounts, including Componix, Judy Knapp and various divisions of Jonathan Martin. For Browner, Lownds' free-lance status is a plus: "The fact that she doesn't have just our point of view makes her more valuable to us. It gives her knowledge of what is going on in the industry."
A fit model's knowledge is as important as her measurements. Lownds, who works a five-day week, cramming in five to eight accounts and 100 to 150 garments a day, explains:
"This is a profession and you have to act like a professional. It means busting your butt to do as many garments as the pattern maker gives you, and then on to your next account. You're constantly moving and you constantly have to be aware of what you feel and what you see in the mirror. People start to trust you and your opinions -- you can change the style of a garment. The responsibility is immense."
Her list of job-related necessities includes a reliable car, a car phone and a dependable answering machine, which she checks every hour.
"People underrate the power of a fit model," says 15-year veteran Dran May, whose accounts include Enchante and a maternity line -- where she fits with a special pillow she helped develop.
"A manufacturer has to have a consistent fit the consumer can identify with," May explains. "There is nothing worse than going into a store, buying a pair of pants and returning a month later [for an identical pair] and finding the fit is off -- because the manufacturer is fitting on his wife or his secretary."
After years of experience, models such as May are savvy. "We know about threads, about patterns, about placement and proportions. In my case, there are companies that will not pass a garment until I come in and say it's OK, because over the years their garments have sold."
For Jennifer Joanou, a young Los Angeles designer, fit was once a problem. "I thought maybe it was me or my pattern maker," she recalls. It turned out to be her model. "There was something off, but it wasn't visible to the eye."
Joanou laughs at the misconception held by some customers that she is her own fit model. "I'm a teeny-weeny Size 2 with a body that isn't in proportion to my legs." Instead, she relies on Mayra Fornos, whom she describes as average size with a really great figure.
A former Los Angeles Rams cheerleader, Fornos fell into the profession when a friend, a cheerleader cum fit model, asked her to substitute while she was on vacation. "It was a transformation for me," says Fornos, who has helped shape Guess jeans.
Two years ago, when she had more jobs than she could handle while attending law school, Fornos started Models! Models! in Culver City, Calif.