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Utopia Agency hopes to broaden standard of beauty

Thursday, July 18, 2002

By LaMont Jones, Post-Gazette Fashion Editor

Utopia was the name used by Sir Thomas More in the early 1500s in his book about an imaginary island with a perfect political and social system.

Utopia Model Agency, a Pittsburgh concern that emphasizes diversity, produced Fashion Africana at last weekend's E-Fest in East Liberty. From left, designer Mary Margaret Stewart; volunteer Anne Blose; WAMO host Anji; Demeatria Gibson, Utopia co-founder; and model Tim. (Franka Bruns, Post-Gazette)

Since then, the word has been used to describe any idealized place, state or situation of perfection.

Now, Demeatria Gibson of Squirrel Hill and Darnell McLaurin of Mount Washington are using the name -- and principle -- in a venture that's partly business and partly an experiment in social change. They created Utopia Model Agency Inc. in December 1999 to groom a roster of racially and ethnically diverse men and women and to help emerging and aspiring fashion designers.

At the E-Fest street festival in East Liberty on Sunday, Utopia presented the second annual Fashion Africana show. A crowd of about 400 cheered as the agency's models joined others in working the runway in custom Africa-inspired fashions by six Pittsburgh designers and boutiques.

Among the agency's current roster of five men and five women are six black models, two whites, an Asian and an American Indian, ranging in age from 16 to 28. Gibson and McLaurin found the models, most of them inexperienced, through friends, at churches or simply walking down Pittsburgh streets.

"We don't want to be locked in as only a black agency," said McLaurin, an Erie native with a degree in fashion merchandising from the ICM School of Business. "We want people to see that we represent diversity and that we broaden the standard of beauty. You could be 5-2, and if we feel you have what it takes to work the runway -- that's not traditional, but we're not a traditional agency."

Utopia joins three other modeling agencies in the area: The Talent Group in the Strip District; Docherty Model and Talent Agency, Downtown; and Kane Modeling Agency of Butler.

Gibson and McLaurin, both 32, are funding and building Utopia themselves while working full-time jobs. Gibson is a program associate for the Multicultural Arts Initiative and McLaurin is a youth coordinator for Operation Nehemiah.

Outward beauty is a must for models, but Gibson and McLaurin also focus on inner qualities. For example, every model signed by the agency must project a positive attitude, said Gibson.

Although bookings are few because the pair is still developing models' skills, Utopia's Leke has moved to Brooklyn and modeled for such clients as Ford Motor Co., Jean Paul Gaultier and Echo.

McLaurin discovered the Nigerian-born man four years ago while working at Saks Fifth Avenue, Downtown.

"I had gone in there to ask about a pair of jeans," recalled Leke, 26. "He said they didn't have them, but just before I walked away he pulled me aside and asked if I had ever thought about going into modeling. I said, 'No.' "

Wearing a dress by David Viccaro, Mietta strolls down the runway in the fashion show, which showcased local designers, as well as Utopia's models and others. (Franka Bruns, Post-Gazette)

Leke, who was studying criminal justice administration at Community College of Allegheny County, weighed more than 240 pounds and had a 40-inch waist at the time. McLaurin took him under his wing and began teaching him about the mental and physical aspects of modeling and how to achieve longevity in the industry.

Now Leke weighs 175 pounds, has a 31-inch waist and sports a killer six-pack of abs. The transformation took just over a year. Then McLaurin sent Leke to New York, believing he had what it took to succeed in the city's extremely competitive modeling industry.

Mary Margaret Stewart, a Shadyside boutique owner (Iman B) who designed clothes for Sunday's show, appreciates Utopia's approach.

"A lot of the girls that we measured for garments said that other agencies told them they had to lose weight in certain parts, or start some sort of regime," she said. "But obviously that didn't deter Utopia from using them. In fact, I think they choose diversity rather than the 'perfect norm' that most agencies strive for."

Leke plans to attend law school, but first he wants to try to make the modeling industry a better one in much the same way as Gibson and McLaurin.

"I'm not interested in just walking down a runway, but taking over the business from the modeling side and pioneering in a way to benefit anyone trying to get into the business the right way. I want to help make a new generation of new models and agencies and just make it more honest and more what it's really supposed to be so it can be respected by people."

Utopia is as much a spiritual odyssey for McLaurin and Gibson as it is a business venture.

"It was very important for us that the name reflect the image of the agency," said Gibson. "It's important that the models not only reflect the image of the agency, but the name as well. We prayed about it and asked for some guidance, and one day I was reading the New York Times and they described a concert as this 'utopia' because it was so diverse. I was inspired when I read that. Our ideal world is a world that's inclusive."

Darnell McLaurin, co-founder of Utopia, takes a last-minute phone call before Fashion Africana. Volunteer Ta-Lisa brings water while models Alex, Matt and Christian wait in the background. (Franka Bruns, Post-Gazette)

Gibson has 10 years of experience in fashion show production, event planning and project management. Both have worked behind the scenes of shows for New York's 7th on Sixth Fashion Week and African Mosaique show of Africa-inspired fashion. The opportunities have come as the pair has sought out mentors, made connections and nurtured relationships with industry insiders.

"As a kid, I was introduced to fashion at an early age," said McLaurin. "My mom was an interior decorator. I would take things of hers, fabric, and make things for my brothers. My dad was a really sharp dresser. While my brothers were outside playing basketball, I was inside cutting fabric."

Gibson wanted to be a fashion model when she was a little girl growing up in Hazelwood. But she never believed she could, she said, "because I never saw anyone with my features" doing it.

The dimpled, curvaceous beauty with super-short hair and a rich brown complexion began to love her variety of beauty after perusing Essence, a popular fashion and lifestyle magazine for black women that launched the month she was born.

"Except for Essence, I grew up not seeing anyone that even resembled me in magazines," she said.

In 1997, Gibson and McLaurin worked as stylists in a New York photo cover shoot for the magazine. It was a result of a relationship they had begun two years earlier with Monique Greenwood, at the time an editor at the magazine. In two weeks, they will return to Manhattan to work on an Essence cover shoot.

The journey has awed McLaurin.

"It's really humbling," he said. "I'm just a country boy from Erie. It's the grace of God. And my bishop, Donald Clay, has been a great mentor and pushed me."

With encouragement and support from mentors, including Greenwood and fashion designer Norma Kamali, Gibson and McLaurin decided to start Utopia. Gibson contacted Kamali last year after reading of the designer's rise from obscurity to fame, and hopes to bring her to Pittsburgh for the official kick-off of The Utopia Project's mentoring program. The Utopia Project is a nonprofit arm of the agency that mentors youth on how art and commerce function together, supports and showcases emerging local designers and bridges the two groups for mentoring purposes.

"We stayed in Pittsburgh because we know that there are opportunities here to do what it is we want to do," said Gibson. "The modeling industry is evolving, but it could evolve even more for us in terms of race in Pittsburgh. We see change taking place, and we want to be part of that change. We want to bring other young people and people in the fashion industry here to our city. Our goal is to create the environment in which we want to live."

Aside from developing models, Gibson and McLaurin are focusing right now on publishing a "look book" for clients and finding office space. They've done shows, many of them free, for such agencies as the Urban League of Pittsburgh, the March of Dimes and the Pittsburgh AIDS Task Force.

In September, they will be part of the annual fall fashion show for the Ellsworth Avenue business corridor in Shadyside.

"We know we have a big job ahead of us, but we're doing what we love," said Gibson. "It's our passion."

Their enthusiasm is contagious, says Stewart.

"They both have great passion, which I respect. Working with them is really refreshing because usually the world of fashion is pretentious, and they're so unpretentious."

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