Customer Stories

Meet the modeling agency making runways more diverse


Published on December 18, 2023

Rare Select Models gets models of color in the right rooms (and protects them once they’re there) with the help of Dropbox and Dropbox Sign.

Back in 2016, budding British-Nigerian portrait photographer Romany Francesca bootstrapped her way to Paris and London Fashion Weeks. It was the best place, she reasoned, to pitch her work to magazine editors. Instead, she found herself taking photos of—and making friends with—aspiring Black and brown models who weren’t walking the runway or appearing in campaigns.

“My friends, I thought, were rare. I didn’t get why they weren’t being signed,” says Francesca. “They were stunning.”

And her Instagram followers agreed. The more likes the photos of her friends got, the more Francesca realized that she’d low-key built a roster of talent. Soon small businesses and universities were reaching out, asking if she could take photos for their lookbooks and campaigns—and to bring along the rare faces seen in her work. A new career was born.

Today you’ll find Francesca’s London-based agency Rare Select Models placing its talent in high-fashion campaigns with major brands like Burberry, Gucci, Paul Smith, and Stella McCartney. Rare Select’s models are from a range of ethnic backgrounds, gender identities, and body sizes. The fashion world, it seems, has caught up to Francesca’s viewfinder.

“When brands are sending out briefs on what jobs they're [hiring for], they like to see our models—who's available and how well-suited they are,” she explains. “We usually use Dropbox to share individual talent and their portfolio. Clients can also give feedback through Dropbox.”

As her business has expanded, Francesca has relied on Dropbox to streamline her workflow, so she can do she loves most: capturing rare beauty.

Victor, a Rare Select model. Photo credit: Romany Francesca

Sharpening her focus

For Francesca, working with models came naturally: Photography has always been her lens to understanding the world. As an only child in a single-parent household, Francesca relished family gatherings and big parties in her Nigerian community. What she loved most was seeing the people she loved interact. (Capturing those moments on her Nokia flip phone was a close second.)

“My mom eventually gave me her digital camera to take pictures at events,” Francesca says.

Years later, her mother would encourage her to pursue photography in college. (Francesca’s mom was a creative at heart, going to fashion school before becoming a lawyer.) While studying at the University of the Arts London, Francesca started doing paid shoots around the city alongside her coursework. But early on Francesca felt misunderstood. Clients were hiring her, but not seeing her, she says.

“I felt like the only way I could break into the industry was taking pictures of music artists who were specifically Black, who were in grime rap,” she explains. “I’m really quite drawn to the artistic side of photography, and I felt like I was boxed in to just being an events photographer of urban culture.”

“They didn’t see my art for what it is and who I am as a Black photographer,” she says now.

On set, she was frequently the only person of color, which she quickly learned to use to her advantage. Francesca developed her creative director voice, becoming a go-to when clients wanted to integrate references to cultures and communities they weren’t a part of.

“When people in higher positions start to trust you, you have the opportunity to bring other people in, and create space for other creatives like yourself,” says Francesca.

Rare Select Models Ayo and Jada. Photo credit: Romany Francesca

Gaining a foothold

And that’s just what Francesca did, integrating her diverse network of friends into her professional work. As Francesca’s photography business grew, her clients began asking if she knew any models of color. Francesca immediately began referring the friends she made during her Fashion Week adventures.

“I’d tell my mom: ‘I’ve just put my friends onto this shoot, so they can build their portfolio.’ My mom’s like ‘Great,’ [and then] her lawyer instincts kicked in: ‘But are they being paid? [You have] some responsibility to make sure they’re okay, especially because they’re queer or Black. They need to be protected.’”

With that, Rare Select Models was born. Francesca’s mom used her legal background to draft a contract. While her peers were focused on graduating, Francesca was building her new modeling business.

Initially, the idea of Rare Select Models was dismissed. “People were like, ‘Wow, this is great. But we don’t need it,’” Francesca recalled. “It wasn’t taken seriously, like it was a passion project.” Higher-ups in the fashion industry and casting directors of color were scared, says Francesca. “They needed to follow what was wanted, which was white, westernized beauty standards.”

But the events of 2020 changed the status quo. As the world came to a standstill due to COVID, Francesca decided to focus on making her modeling business more professional and sustainable. Then that summer, the George Floyd protests broke out across the globe, starting a worldwide conversation about racial equity. Francesca found it an opportune moment to promote Rare Select Models as a Black-owned business trying to build a world where more ethnicities, sexualities, and body types have representation in the fashion world.

This time, people took notice. Casting directors from New York and Paris began reaching out. Major fashion brands wanted Francesca’s models.

“I never thought that I would reach America at all,” she says. “I thought that would be in 10, 20 years time that I would like make foundations there.”

Charlie and Diana for Rare Select Models. Photo credit: Romany Francesca.

Building a better runway

Rare continues to outpace Franscesca’s expectations. The agency currently represents up to 80 models across the world, and receives dozens of applications from prospective talent every day—and even more who want to intern with the company.

And the agency has evolved beyond mere representation to actually protecting the models that they work with. Despite talking the talk that representation matters, companies are still loath to walk the walk when it comes to pay equity.

“There was a brief today that came in where they were looking for one Caucasian female, and the fee was like, 10 to 15k euros, shooting in Spain. Second brief looking for a new face? Couple hundred.” (“New face” often is an industry euphemism for someone of color.)

"I just always [want to make] sure that people are protected so that we don't have things like women crying online or, people from minority backgrounds feeling ostracized, or marginalized in such a massive industry that has so much money and so much power,” she says. “And just giving a bit of that power back to the models and have a bit more autonomy in how they present themselves and how they connect with audiences.”

Dropbox is a critical tool in that mission. Francesca uses it to keep all of Rare’s assets organized (and confidential information secure), and she’s used Dropbox Sign to sign contracts with clients that are in everyone’s best interest.

“I want all these top models that you see today, who are specifically of color, queer, transgender, curvy, to be signed to me. I want to protect them, to make sure that they feel safe, that they don’t feel compromised, that they don’t feel like they’re just a mannequin,” says Francesca. “I want people to specifically know Rare for that. I also don’t want Rare to be the only company that does that.”

Kami for Rare Select Models. Photo credit: Romany Francesca