High above a quiet block in New York’s SoHo, an industrial door in a nondescript building opens to a massive, black-floored loft humming with activity. An army of tall blonds answer constantly ringing telephones at desks grouped in clusters. A sleek vizsla bounds in, dragging his dog walker behind him. “Rudy!” cries his owner, Alana Varel. From this office and three others—in Los Angeles, London and Milan—Varel, 35, and her British husband, James Grant, 31, the founders of a company called Starworks, connect clients including Miu Miu, Burberry and Bally with Hollywood celebrities.
The scene is a far cry from the agency’s 2001 beginnings: a single desk in a shared 14th Street space, where the couple founded its casting firm on a handful of contacts from Varel’s days as a model agent. Since then Starworks has grown exponentially, and Varel and Grant push their agenda even further via a secret network of tastemakers whom they call “family.” Beyond simply casting stars in ads—Kirsten Dunst for Miu Miu, Angelina Jolie for St. John, Rachel Weisz for Burberry’s fragrance and Tom Brady for Stetson cologne—Starworks sells the promise of a fast track to Tinseltown to fashion and editorial clients desperate for celebrity access.
In today’s fiercely competitive marketplace, dressing the “right” star on and off the red carpet can translate into massive sales. As a result, Starworks orchestrates a great deal of clandestine “outreach” on its clients’ behalf, delivering products into the hands of much-photographed actresses, getting them to attend events and even dressing them—and their children—in the labels the agency represents.
But for luxury firms, especially those based in Europe, navigating the twisty roads of Celebrityville can seem tricky—and it’s even more difficult to do the deals without sullying a company’s pristine image. “I think the brands want it to look like the designer has a genuine relationship with a celebrity, with no behind-the-scenes help,” says Varel, Starworks’ COO.
Besides offering discretion to clients, the duo looks the part of fashion insiders: The baby-faced Grant, the company’s CEO, has perfectly mussed hair and spouts corporate lingo in a de rigueur “mockney” accent, while Varel, who has a penchant for drapey dresses, peers out from underneath thick black bangs. They augment their own mystique by refusing to discuss exactly how deals are negotiated or how much they cost. “We are very quiet about what we do. Do we need to go into how it happened? Not really,” says Grant.
The process, however, usually follows a specific format. Take, for instance, Miu Miu, which in 2004 first tapped Starworks to hire a celebrity for its women’s wear campaign. Miuccia Prada’s in-house advertising team asked the firm to recommend several actresses who would fit the ads’ direction. “We came back with a list of names, and at the time, Maggie [Gyllenhaal] was a fresh face,” explains Varel. Once Prada gave approval, Starworks handled all negotiations with Gyllenhaal’s agent, publicist and manager up to the point of signature, when legal teams are typically called in. Starworks has since continued its relationship with Miu Miu, casting Selma Blair, Lindsay Lohan, Camilla Belle, Kim Basinger and Kirsten Dunst, its current star.