Celebrating Mens Board 5 Year Anniversary | Open Letter with Charlotte Griffiths

In continued celebration of the BRIDGE models Men's 5 Year Anniversary - we caught up with Charlotte Griffiths, Owner and Managing Director, and found out about the origin story of the Men's board


“So what about men”… what about men?  

We launched the Men's board two years into running BRIDGE, myself and my business partner had paid ourselves a grand total of £7,000. Two years with an average of twelve hour days and long weekends working on the kitchen table with our washing drying around us and the washing machine whirling like a jumbo jet in the background whilst trying to conduct conference calls.  

A couple of dreadful attempts at some home-made promotional cupcakes with our company logo on, a wright of passage I believe for any new business owner who is trying to keep up with jones of the corporate gifting world. DIY promotional baked goods that wouldn’t even make it to a school bake sale let alone good enough for corporate gifting, all led to me naturally questioning what it was all for, I had wanted to set up my own business to be able to action projects in my own timeline, to not have to run through the corporate red tape that can so often stifle passion and innovation. 

If the buck stops with me then I better make sure I give it 110%. 

Managing Director of Bridge Model Charlotte Griffiths standing against the model board wall at the BRIDGE office
Charlotte Griffiths Managing Director of Bridge Models. Image shot by Emily Lavarello.

We were in our first year of business and every event or campaign at this point was completely self funded and managed. Breakthrough breast cancer, as it was called then, now Breast Cancer Now, had amazingly agreed to allow us to support their Fashion Targets Breast Cancer campaign in the Spring of 2015 with their first inclusive plus size shoot.


" BRIDGE hadn’t a penny to its name, 7 months in and I was selling old beanie babies on eBay from the attic just to afford petrol to get back and forth to my business partners for our meetings. "


This was huge for us. No brand/company at this point had thought twice about associating with BRIDGE on a campaign. As an agency we were specialising in such a niche market that had still not found its footing. Ashley Graham would not grace the covers of Sports Illustrated as the “first plus size model” for another year, the number of high street retailers that would stock clothing in size 16+, I could count on one hand and the concept of an agency representing curvier women was still being viewed as novice even though the industry had been around for over 20 years. 

Natalie Legg is the Campaign Manager from Breakthrough Breast cancer. She was everything I could of wanted her to be, warm, engaging, supportive and passionate. I didn’t know what to expect walking into their appropriately branded and fabulous pink offices to meet and discuss our proposal. 

At this point in time I’ll admit I didn’t even know what I was proposing, not many companies had gotten back to me when I reached out to introduce myself let alone enquire about the possibility of collaborating together. I knew that a lot of the brands partnered with Fashion Targets Breast Cancer had a loyal and targeted customer base that was between size 12-16, Marks and Spencer’s, Debenhams and Laura Ashley as prime examples. 

Fashion Targets Breast Cancer, the charity founded by Ralph Lauren cast plus-size curve models in its new campaign
Fashion Targets Breast Cancer, the charity founded by Ralph Lauren in 1994, cast curve models in their new campaign

The other thing I knew, is that I was passionate that this is the charity that I wanted to support. My mother had breast cancer when I was 14, she managed to fight it and we had another wonderful ten years with her. Later on she would tell me it was actually the Breast Cancer awareness month in October that spurred her on to check herself, she was in her local Debenhams when she came across promotional collateral that prompted her to go home and check her breasts.  

My mother, like a lot of us, fluctuated in size, she was between a size 14-18 for as long as I knew her. There were not many stores she felt comfortable shopping in but Debenhams was one of them. They stocked brands in a variety of sizes and they were not segregated to different dim lit sections of the store, they were integrated with the current season collections and the experience was more inclusive and welcoming for her to shop in. If she didn’t have this store in our small Warwickshire town where she felt comfortable to browse and feel inspired by the current season, then she would not have seen the material that October month encouraging her to go home and check herself. 

 

For this campaign I wanted to produce a shoot that showed women of all shapes and sizes, promoting these brands, supporting this charity. From my view this wasn’t a campaign that needed super models. Women in the UK needed to see themselves in these campaign shots, encouraging sales for these brand and in turn donations for the research. This wasn’t a place to be exclusive or aspirational, this should be an inclusive and supportive campaign that encouraged engagement and education.  

With Natalie's sign off we got to work, finding a photographer who wanted to donate their time for this campaign. I don’t throw around the word donate lightly, this is a huge ask for anyone in the creative industry, too often creatives time can be taken for granted for “the opportunity” of collaborating with these brands. 

I needed make up artists and videographers to capture behind the scenes footage, I needed lunch, yes we had to negotiate lunch for the whole crew and team from a delivery company because we didn’t have enough money to feed a crew of 15.  

 

Curve model Chloe Lewin for the Fashion Targets Breast Cancer Campaign in collaboration with Bridge Models
Bridge Models Chloe Lewin modelling for the Fashion Targets Breast Cancer Campaign

It was through the process of producing this campaign that the men’s board first crossed our minds. I was pitching/begging these creatives to support this campaign and telling them why I believed this would make a difference and what a diverse fashion focused campaign would mean for the industry and the charity. That buzzword would keep echoing through my mind. How diverse is it, doesn’t breast cancer effect men as well, how diverse is BRIDGE if we are only discussing these issues for women.  


" Breast cancer impacts around 400 men a year in the UK. Yet the marketing material and promotional imagery was solely targeted at women. Those men still need support, the disease does not exclude men so why should we ? "


However, I needed to stick to the brief and produce the deliverables. We chose 5 female models for the campaign showcasing a range of sizes between 10-18 as well as age ranges and ethnicities. 

The campaign received coverage from the major U.K news outlets as well as positive feedback from the retailers... 

What next? 

February 2016, here we are again, after the success of the first plus size campaign for fashion targets breast cancer we get back in touch with Natalie in February that year to discuss collaborating again. At this meeting I was determined to bring something different to the table, show I could continue to raise the bar.  

So…What about men?…I said… 

  

Bridge Models team, Charlotte Griffiths, Dylan Humbert and Vivienne at the London office looking through model cards
Bridge Models Team at the London Office. Image shot by Emily Lavarello.

That corporate red tape strikes and that concept was squashed before I took my first sip of my cappuccino. Natalie understood where I was coming from but the sheer size of the company meant this was not something that could be actioned for this campaign, they had a template, they had rules they had to follow and this could not be accommodated.  

We went on to produce another self funded plus size campaign to run alongside their hero campaign at the time featuring Kate Moss and Naomi Campbell. 

Something to be proud of, of course, however not something that excited me. I couldn’t shake the response I had towards wanting to generate a men's campaign for a fashion focused charity project.  

Men were just not as highly considered when it came to this market and its value.  

Fashion, well it's not something men are really bothered about is it ??? Men don’t suffer with body confidence issues, men don’t have eating disorders. These are just some of the opinions I came across when discussing it with my peers. 

Did we ever ask men ?

January to March that year before confirming the production with Fashion Targets Breast Cancer I had been speaking a lot to my partner Luke about masculinity and fashion. Always considered a man who likes to look after himself, at some points in our relationship his wardrobe had a higher price tag than mine. Luke had completed a Masters in Fine Art at UCL and his final project was focused on masculinity and body image. He studied the changes in the way society perceive masculinity over the last 40 years and what effect this has had on the males psyche, from the evolution of the 80’s action hero bodybuilder to modern marvel super heroes.  


" Unhealthy body goals are leading to an increase in body dysmorphia for young men and much like how the anorexic look of the 90’s runway model had a hugely negative impact on young women in the noughties with a growing number of cases of anorexia and bulimia, there has been a steady increase in young men adopting unhealthy habits to reach their ‘body goals’.  "


 

Charlotte Griffiths and Raul Samuel chatting about the big and tall mens board at the Bridge Models London Office
Charlotte Griffiths and Raul Samuel at the Bridge Models London Office

Luke had struggled with his size his whole life, having a brother who is a professional athlete didn’t help, but he found it harder than his siblings to “compete” in size and shape, wondering what made his body so different. Never mind the fact he had done manual labour most his life and could run circuits around me, this insecurity and lack of understanding of his body and how strong and capable it was had caused him a great deal of stress in his life. Channelled of course through his final piece at UCL where he got to explore what he believed to be its origins and impact. 

 

Over an impromptu picnic on a rare sunny day in London on Wandsworth Common we discussed why were men not being considered when discussing diversity in the fashion industry. Luke went on to highlight to me that if you were to look at the BMI results of the England Rugby team it would list them all as obese, in his view the concept of health and size were too often in conjunction with one another. When actually the human body is much more complex, our bone structures our heritages have much more of a say on our physical health than what a table can tell us. 

Hearing how body confidence issues effected the men in my life was the last push I needed to pursue what I knew was long overdue. 

The search was on...

Where would we find men for this first of its kind division for what the world would consider ‘plus size male models’ in the U.K. What would the parameters of this new sector and industry look like, where we setting these parameters and what would that mean?  

 

We were nervous to be the first to do anything, but one of the positives of being a small SME in its first two years of business is you can and are expected to take risks, and that is exactly what we did. With minimal press contacts in our database we weren’t even sure if anyone would pick it up and cover our launch. 

I spent long nights traversing through the internet to find contact details for relevant publications and journalists who I thought may be interested in covering our little venture. 

The response we got was phenomenal, a mixture of course of positive and negative opinions, we launched with the signing of Ben Whit a gardener and personal trainer from Surrey, very physically fit and broad in stature Ben was not a conventional male model because he did not fit into one of two categories, the slim and lean runway models you see at fashion week or the ripped and defined fitness models you see on the cover of magazines.

 

UK's first Big and Tall Male Model to be signed to a major UK agency Ben Whit features in a guardian interview
Plus-size model Ben Whit: 'The world is ready for larger men'. Image featured in The Guardian.

When we met Ben Whit we knew, we knew exactly what this division would mean and represent. Ben was passionate about fitness and new his body was strong and capable, however he did not carry a men’s health front cover worthy six pack and therefore felt insecure and underrepresented. Ben struggled to find clothes that fit well, he, like many men I know, would revert to ordering online for their size and ordering in bulk when they found an item that fit them well as it was such a hard commodity to come by.  

 

Ben was ready to take it all on, the issues around BMI, are we promoting obesity, are you healthy, is there a market for men, why now? Ben was inadvertently thrust into an ambassador position for this movement, one that I am not sure he was aware he would be championing but one he became absolutely enamoured by. 

 

As our board grew and we started to recruit more and more male models to our agency so did the discussions, so did the opportunity for learning and listening to what men wanted to see and needed to hear. 

 

In 2019 we launched by popular demand our New York division, the requests and demand from across the pond was loud and clear and we needed to follow through and invest in that market.  We launched solely with a men’s board in direct contrast to how our London office launched 5 years prior. 

To date we have had the pleasure and privilege to be supported by and work with such amazing brands like Calvin Klein, YSL, Levis, GAP, American Eagle, SavagexFenty, Jack and Jones, Abercrombie and Fitch, NIKE, ADIDAS, ASOS, Boohoo and many more. 


" 5 years, 4000 applications, bookings on 3 continents, 2 offices and 1 industry defining launch later. "


What a sign of the times. What an impact a small company like ours has had. Sometimes you don’t need to wait for the demand, you need to create the solution they never knew they needed.