by Katherine Hafner
Midafternoon light filters through the open front door of an Ocean View home on a chilly winter’s day. It catches the cheekbones of a young woman clad in a tight, sleeveless black top and spandex shorts. She strikes a series of poses, tilting her face slightly this way and that, adjusting her arms and hair.
George Kartis, on the front porch, captures the looks on his iPhone for “digitals” – simple photos and videos that he’ll send to modeling agencies for consideration. He compliments 23-year-old Chloe Kleppe on her smile.
“Now try a little more, ‘What the hell!’ ” he says.
Kartis, 58, is what’s known in fashion circles as a “mother agent,” taking photos of potential models and connecting them with larger agencies. He has been in the fashion business for decades, photographing models all across Europe for elegant spreads in luxury magazines. But after moving back to Hampton Roads around 2000, Kartis decided to step back from his photography career to focus on finding and promoting models he thinks have what it takes to make it in the fashion industry.
It’s a move that seems to be working for him. Kartis has recently helped launch or jumpstart the careers of an impressive number of models – including several of color – who are now shooting around the globe for brands such as Vera Wang, Sephora and Nike.
Kleppe was scouted when she was 16 at the East Coast Surfing Championships in Virginia Beach and modeled for a few years. Now she’s trying again and likes the close nature of working with Kartis as opposed to larger agencies.
Kartis was born in New York to a Greek Orthodox family. They lived in Greece and Italy before settling in Virginia Beach when he was about 7. He graduated from Kempsville High School.
His artistic streak started early. He made masks and puppets, painted theatrical backgrounds and helped with local department store displays. He eventually taught himself how to wield a camera and “started taking pictures of pretty people.”
Kartis moved to Brooklyn “on a leap and a prayer” around 1984 and began photographing up-and-coming models – and spending lots of time at Studio 54.
“There was no clear path,” he says. “It was just, things were coming. I always found beautiful people. I always helped them become models. And they started doing really well.”
When the owner of the rent-controlled apartment building where Kartis lived had to buy out its residents, Kartis suddenly had a few thousand dollars in his pocket. He bought a new Nikon camera and moved to Paris.
Soon, he was shooting for modeling agencies and living the fashion life at full speed, spending time with famous designers like John Galliano and Christian Lacroix. He was based in Paris but traveled to different markets in different seasons. His photographs appeared in Elle International and French Vogue, for brands like Dior and Chanel.
Eventually he tired of the high-intensity life and moved back to Hampton Roads to be near family. At one point a decade ago – as America’s Next Top Model was peaking – he says the Discovery Channel approached him about starring in a reality show, but the pilot fell through.
Still, Kartis has never stopped looking for local talent.
Kartis’ Ocean View home is bright and overflowing with color, on rugs and in vivid paintings hanging on or propped against the walls.
He’s a huge thrifter and as a fan of old Hollywood glamour, avidly collects 1940s garb. Drawers and closets are full of dresses, leopard coats, World War II jackets, brooches and more. “Joan Crawford, baby,” Kartis says, pulling out an alligator handbag. Some of the pieces will be used in a 1940s-themed charity fashion show he’s running in Virginia Beach.
“He’s obsessed,” laughs Roxanne Aichinger, a close friend and sidekick who’s worked with Kartis for years. She has helped Kartis iron out model contracts and communicate with agencies in places like New York, Europe and China.
“We can call IMG and be like, ‘It’s George Kartis,’ and they’ll say, ‘What’s up, George!’” she says. “They still trust his name, and still trust his eye.”
Agencies will often ask for additional “testing” shots featuring a different approach — more conservative or more bohemian, for example. “That’s really George’s forte,” Aichinger says. “He really knows how to characterize models.” It’s the difference between creating an image that lands a modeling gig versus just another pretty picture, she says. He also has a knack for pinpointing a model’s greatest feature.
Some of Kartis’ most successful recent finds include Joshua Smoot, who’s been shooting in Italy and booked jobs with Gucci, Vera Wang and Nordstrom. Then there’s Anita Pathammavong, who has done campaigns for H&M, Sephora, Nike, Milk Cosmetics, Thirdlove and more. The 24-year-old was recently a Playboy Playmate.
Fresh off a shoot in Morocco earlier this year, Pathammavong says she and Kartis are in near-constant contact. She calls him “my fairy godmother-agent.”
“He’s been a really good emotional support system for me,” she says. “We built a relationship beyond just my career.”
Pathammavong, who’s from Northern Virginia, modeled in New York in her teens, but it was tough going so she moved back home. Returning to modeling “was never really in the cards until I met George,” she says. “I just felt very comfortable with George. He really made me feel confident and helped me express myself in a genuine and honest way.”