Modelling trailblazer Sarah Doukas on discovering Kate Moss and life in the New Forest
SARAH DOUKAS, founder of global modelling agency Storm, is utterly relaxed as we sit down to talk at the kitchen table of her picture postcard cottage.
It’s a beautiful summer’s day and she seems just as content here with her three dogs running around her feet as she clearly is in the glamorous hubbub of the London fashion scene.
Famous as the entrepreneur who set up her own business and discovered some of the world’s hottest modelling talents, her route into the industry is a surprising one.
The daughter of a consultant doctor, she was educated at a variety of boarding schools. A career opportunity for Sarah’s father led to the family upping sticks and moving to Doncaster, where Sarah says she never felt at home.
Instead she would spend school holidays at her grandmother’s farm in the New Forest where her family have had connections since 1800.
She had the opportunity to buy it following her grandmother’s death in 1995, and it is fair to say that the set-up is utterly idyllic, from the beautiful farmhouse to the hillside field with a spectacular view for miles around.
Sarah is one of three siblings. Her older brother Simon works with her at Storm, while her sister is the late actress Emma Chambers, famous for her film and TV roles in Notting Hill and The Vicar of Dibley.
Sarah describes herself as someone “who didn’t really enjoy school all that much.” After moving around a lot in her early education, she ended up at Brooke House in Market Harborough, a mixed further education school with a progressive agenda.
“I turned round to my dad and said I wasn’t staying in a single-sex school anymore. Brooke House was great fun,” she remembers. “There were five girls and 40 boys, and I did my A-levels there.”
She admits she was “pushed” by her parents who were both career-minded and had high ambitions for her.
However, she rebelled against this and moved to London, taking on a variety of jobs to earn a living, including a spell as a cleaner.
She sold clothes in Kensington Market – opposite the shop where rock group Queen’s lead singer Freddie Mercury worked, she tells me – and revealed a flare for entrepreneurship at a young age.
'I just sort of fell into it'
A chance opportunity from a flatmate who was a fashion photographer kickstarted Sarah’s own modelling career in the seventies and eighties.
She remembers: “I did loads of commercials – cars in particular, as my short height apparently made cars look bigger!
“I just sort of fell into it. I did quite well really, but absolutely hated it.”
She followed her French boyfriend to Paris and ended up modelling there, while selling antiques on Clignancourt flea market, everything from porcelain – “a nightmare, we used to break everything” – to English snuff boxes.
“We must have made enough to live on,” she muses. “Paris was just amazing, all these cafés in the Latin Quarter and the crazy people. You’d see fire-eaters in the street, that sort of thing. Very different to how it is now, but a lot of fun.”
After moving back to the UK, Sarah met her first husband John Doukas, who helped set up Beserkley Records – the world’s first independent record label – in 1973.
The couple married and lived in Berkeley, California, where their daughter Noelle was born.
During this time, Sarah did a variety of jobs, including managing punk band The Criminals, running a stall in Oakland flea market and setting up her own clothing company, Abracadabra, which sold “crazy tie-dyed things”.
A move back to the UK left Sarah temporarily jobless – “a nightmare” – until a friend suggested she’d be a good modelling agent.
She joined IMG / Lorraine Ashton in 1983 as a junior agent: “I said I’d do it for a bit and see, but I ended up really enjoying it.
“I’d always been good at marketing things and I understood the industry having been a model myself.
“I am fascinated by people and I loved the client/model interaction of the job and also developing a model’s career. Seeing her grow and achieve her potential has always been something that drives me, even more so today.”
'He thought I’d lost my marbles'
After four years, Sarah realised there was nowhere to go in her role and quit with no idea what she would do next.
“My husband was furious,” she admits. “We had a daughter at private school, finances were a bit tight – he thought I’d lost my marbles.”
Far from it. This period would prove the springboard for her career success.
A long-term friendship with Sir Richard Branson – she had been at school with his sister Lindy – led to him investing in the fledgling Storm Model Management in a rare 50/50 deal with an interest-free loan of £200,000.
She explains: “I was originally going with someone else, but then Richard rang up and asked, ‘Why are you doing this without me?’
“It was an amazing deal, but they did make me jump through hoops. I had to go and see the powers-that-be with the accounts every six weeks or so.
“But I think Richard knew I’d done well as an agent, had faith that I knew what I was doing and my track record spoke for itself.”
Sarah’s desire to create something completely different resulted in an unusual decision not to take any of her clients from her previous job with her.
Starting the business in 1987, she focused on finding models on the street, utilising contacts in New York, Paris and Milan to source talent.
She brought in her brother Simon to help manage the business side of the agency, a winning partnership that has endured to this day.
'It was an amazing deal, but they did make me jump through hoops'
Storm mainly represented foreign models at first because they were “an interesting type of girl, and I have always liked to represent a diverse range of people,” Sarah explains, recalling how she once picked a model she spotted on a CND protest march.
As the first new agency for a long time, Storm garnered media attention and was regularly featured on BBC One fashion programme The Clothes Show.
Asked what she looks for in a model, Sarah is adamant that it’s not a “chocolate-box pretty girl”.
She continues: “Noses can be long but not flat, you need cheekbones… and you can’t have someone who is not toned and fit.”
That leads us straight into one of the topics I’d set aside for our interview – the prevalence of thin models in the fashion industry and the controversy this has sometimes stirred up.
Sarah emphasises that she gets her models to “eat well” but claims that she has never made anyone diet.
She says: “Something you have to understand about the very thin models is that virtually none of them are English.
“In Eastern Europe there is a culture of managers pushing the girls to be too thin, but here our ethos is that you are managing a person, not a product.
“You have to also remember that the girls themselves are very competitive, and we live in a world where every mother or housewife is eating-obsessed.
“It’s parents who are setting the example by always being in the gym or on a diet.”
When I quote Kate Moss’s classic “nothing tastes as good as skinny feels” line to Sarah, she laughs and remarks how ironic it is, given that “Kate has never dieted in her life”.
Our conversation inevitably turns to Sarah’s most famous find – a fairy tale story that almost doesn’t seem real.
Sarah remembers: “It was 1988 and I was at JFK airport after a trip to see friends in California. I saw this girl sitting on her suitcase near the check-in desk.
“It turned out the family were on stand-by – her father worked for Pan-Am. They had been on holiday in the Bahamas, but had to get back to the UK for her grandmother’s wedding.”
Sarah did not immediately approach her, but soon after told her brother Simon that she had seen this “amazing girl”.
“She had such a beautiful face, amazing cheekbones – sometimes you just see someone and know instantly,” she continues.
“Luckily they made it onto the flight. I can’t stand flying so I went for a walk and talked to her.
“She recognised me from The Clothes Show and said she’d think about it. She came with her mum to see me the next day and the rest is history.”
Since then Storm has discovered and developed dozens of models who have become household names, including Cara Delevingne, Kitty Spencer, Jourdan Dunn and Lily Cole.
Sarah breaks off to take a call from her youngest daughter Poppy (20) who is stranded in Italy after missing a flight. She switches into full-on mum mode, troubleshooting and reassuring in equal measure.
Coming back to the conversation, Sarah is up-front about the seismic shift the fashion industry has undergone in recent years.
'Brexit will be tough on business'
“The high street is disappearing,” she says. “So we’ve had to reshape our business model. Retailers are under pressure, so it’s an exciting, frightening time to be involved in fashion.
“There’s more e-commerce than ever – everything is focused online, and you rarely see TV fashion adverts anymore. Brands want to do more with models and pay less for it.
“Brexit will be tough on business, especially if we end up needing working papers for models.”
She is pleased, however, about the increased diversity in the modern modelling industry.
She says: “We live in a wonderful world. We’ve got a 70-year-old model on the books, for example.”
Asked what the future looks like, she talks of “exciting” plans, highlighting the importance of constantly developing and pushing forward.
Storm now has a branding and licensing arm and a YouTube channel – Storm Vision.
Sarah says she is still working to innovate and drive the business forward, even after more than 30 years at its helm.
She employs 40 people, half of whom are agents, and describes it as a “stressful, full-on job”.
As we wind up and take some photos, Sarah shows me around the farm. She clearly loves being among her ponies, donkeys and dogs, and says she has to keep “pinching herself” that she was able to purchase the property.
We wander up to the fields to meet her three horses, including two New Forest ponies, and two Baudet du Poitou donkeys – cuddly giants with massive ears who clearly adore Sarah.
Her middle daughter Genevieve (26) is staying for the week and emerges on a mini-tractor. Sarah winces as she edges the tractor past the parked cars before heading out to the field, clearly equally at home on the farm as her mother.
Although her work is in London, she and her husband of 25 years Tim Garner – creative director of Next homeware – spend as much time as possible in Minstead.
“The New Forest is the most extraordinary place,” she says. “It’s like a secret world – there’s just nowhere like it, and the longer you live here, the more you find out.
“I really hope the traditions of the Forest are kept going because it would be tragic if they were lost.”