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A Talent for Talent

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PARIS — “I’ve always felt like I had a slick mouth,” Kendall Werts said, sitting in a booth in the lobby bar of the Park Hyatt off Place Vendôme in Paris. “The reason people like me is because of the authenticity, the spontaneity of what actually comes out.”

He likes to tell a story, or more accurately, to create it and spin it. “I can pretty much make lemonade out of oranges,” he said.

Mr. Werts sipped a cup of tea with honey, perhaps to soothe his voice, a bit tired from working overtime as he chaperoned a handful of his clients at the Jeffries, his up-and-comingtalent agency, from one fashion show, photo shoot, dinner and party to the next.

It was the last week in September, and he had arrived in Paris the day before from Milan, where his main task was guiding Evan Mock, a skateboarder/model/influencer/actor/designer, through the phalanx of flashbulbs and hoopla surrounding the most elite ticket of Milan Fashion Week: the Versace and Fendi collaboration called #Fendace.

“Donatella is obsessed with Evan,” Mr. Werts said.

In Paris, Mr. Mock and Mr. Werts were joined by fellow members of the Jeffries family: the actress and artist Julia Fox, known for her roles in “Uncut Gems” and “No Sudden Move”; Kailand Morris, the son of Stevie Wonder, who has interned for Kim Jones at Dior, starred in a Dior Men campaign and recently designed a capsule collection for Iceberg; and Luna Blaise, an actress known for the supernatural series “Manifest.”

Mr. Mock, a lanky 24-year-old with pink hair, is the Jeffries client closest to being a household name. He was cast as Aki, the bisexual, gender-fluid skater in last summer’s reboot of “Gossip Girl” after the show’s executive producer Joshua Safran saw him everywhere. That was thanks in large part to Mr. Werts, who met Mr. Mock when he was a skater kid from Hawaii doing a little modeling.

“Vertical, like straight up,” is how Mr. Mock described his career since signing with the Jeffries. He has amassed hundreds of thousands of Instagram followers, appeared in a television series, been featured in magazine shoots, appeared in ad campaigns for Paco Rabanne, Rimowa, Calvin Klein and Lacoste and has his own label, called Sorry in Advance.

In Milan and Paris, Mr. Mock also attended Balmain, Lanvin and Vivienne Westwood, yet his highlight was having tea with Mr. Werts. “Hearing him go off is hilarious,” Mr. Mock said. “He’s so off the cuff and unscripted. He’s a show himself.”

Mr. Werts at a photo shoot with Evan Mock.Credit…Elliott Verdier for The New York Times

Ms. Fox, 31, was introduced to Mr. Werts through her publicist, who thought she could benefit from his services. She said that initially it was unclear exactly what he was offering. The Jeffries does not fit the mold of traditional agency — Hollywood or modeling, which is where Mr. Werts’s background lies. Rather it straddles the increasingly upside-down and amorphous worlds of celebrity, fashion, luxury, art and social media, where fame, influence and their origins have long since gone through the looking glass.

Mr. Werts, 40, is savvy about the murky cartography of the modern celebrity landscape, where doing one thing really well is far less important than doing as many of the “right” things as one can get away with. He secures ad campaigns, collaborations and capsule collections for his clients, whom he often plucks from niche corners of the internet when they’re young and on the verge of something bigger. Then he finds what that is.

Ms. Fox signed with Mr. Werts after a 30-minute meet-and-greet turned into a four-hour brainstorming session about how to build her image and find creative projects outside film and television. “He’s always 10 steps ahead,” Ms. Fox said. “He can really see the bigger picture. Like, ‘Oh my God, I just got the best idea.’ You, this, that.”

During one wave of the pandemic last year, Ms. Fox expressed interest in writing a column, so Mr. Werts helped arrange an article with GQ in which she gave relationship advice. When it was time to do press for “No Sudden Move,” Mr. Werts made sure she wore nothing but Armani and Tiffany, both chosen to plant a seed for something more. It worked: Ms. Fox will star in Tiffany’s holiday campaign.

A two-and-a-half-hour interview is a window into how Mr. Werts’s brain works. He talks fast, at times struggling to corral the rush of thoughts racing in his mind, yet never failing to punctuate them with a raconteur’s flourish. He’s bombastic and loud, yet warm and self-deprecating.

“He definitely has the gift of gab,” Ms. Fox said.

Julia Fox and Mr. Werts outside the Giambattista Valli show in Paris.Credit…Elliott Verdier for The New York Times

‘That’s it. I’m out of here.’

The Jeffries is named after the housing project in Detroit where Mr. Werts’s mother grew up. She was an addict and sold drugs, he said, and his father was never in his life. Mr. Werts was cared for by his maternal grandmother until she died when he was 10. Eventually his aunt Wilhelmina became his guardian, taking him out of the projects and transferring him to a magnet school.

Though his grandmother and aunt provided positive guidance and stability, trauma was lurking inside and outside of his early childhood home. When the streetlights came on, everyone had to be inside. The sound of gunshots and taking cover on the floor was a regular event, he said.

Mr. Werts remembers being 8 years old and his mother banging on the door, bleeding from a gunshot wound. A rival drug dealer had shot her. “We all wake up and go downstairs to answer the door, and we see this,” he said. “This is normal for my family. This is crazy. Nobody’s a doctor. Why is she coming home? Go to the hospital.”

Television was his great pacifier. “It’s not like I wasn’t allowed to go outside and play,” he said. “Obviously, I was.” But his — and his grandmother’s — preference was to spend hours consuming TV. At one point he was watching nine of the daytime soap operas, recording those that were broadcast during school time.

Then he got into “Beverly Hills 90210” and “Melrose Place” — “the jewels of the 1990s,” as he calls them. He clocked so many hours in front of the television that he developed his own version of the Nielsen ratings system, ranking the various shows for his own amusement until he was 18.

Television opened Mr. Werts’s eyes to life outside the Jeffries and Detroit. “It gave me a sense that somebody else was out there,” he said.

At the Royal Monceau hotel in Paris.Credit…Elliott Verdier for The New York Times

It also gave him a deep knowledge of pop culture references, tracing the careers of stars through various gigs and appearances. “Knowing what Diana Ross was wearing when she was on ‘The Ed Sullivan Show’ and how that was effective for her career helps me in my career now,” he said.

The Style Network and, more specifically, its coverage of Alexander McQueen’s fashion shows in the late 1990s are what spurred Mr. Werts’s interest in fashion. “I was like: ‘What is going on here? How is this happening?’” he recalled. “It was so different from anything I had ever seen in my entire life that I thought I was going to be in fashion show production, or work at an agency, but it was certainly going to be dealing with models.”

First, he had to leave Detroit. Mr. Werts’s mother died from an aneurysm in 2002, he said. “I was like: ‘That’s it. I’m out of here. I’ve got to start running.” In early 2003, he ran to New York with $75 and crashed with a friend in the East Williamsburg section of Brooklyn. On his first night in town, he went dancing at the club Plaid. He did the same thing the next night and was introduced to a sales associate at Patricia Field.

By day, Mr. Werts was “a retail queen,” he said. By night, he was “duke” of the clubs, hanging out with Sophia Lamar, Amanda Lepore, Drew Elliott, the Misshapes during a very specific time in New York nightlife lore.

“I knew all of the kids turning that scene,” Mr. Werts said. He loved holding court, so much so that he would have his taxi drop him off at the end of the line outside Mr. Black just so he could walk by everyone waiting along the velvet rope and give pleasantries. “Like, ‘Hi, hi, hi, oh my God, oh I can’t wait to see you inside,’” he said. “Then we would walk up to Connie Girl, who was this legendary model and door person, a muse of Mugler and a tough cookie at the door, and be let in.”

Mr. Werts eventually realized it would be wise to graduate from the club scene: “Life is not ‘Cabaret,’” he said. “You can’t be Liza forever.” His retail journey took him from Patricia Field to Banana Republic to Ted Baker to Hervé Léger at the height of the bandage dress craze. One day an Upper East Side woman walked in wearing a Juicy Couture tracksuit.

It turned out, she had just lost weight, which inspired her husband to get gastric bypass, which further inspired him to start sleeping with his assistant. The woman was seeking the Hervé Léger dresses as a pick-me-up to the tune of tens of thousands of dollars.

“There was a narrative,” Mr. Werts said. He was able to take her story and “make it bigger,” he said: “When she goes somewhere, she is going to let the whole Upper East Side have it. I would make her envision herself in these dresses, at these parties, and that was how I was able to sell her dresses.” He decided that if he could sell dresses, he could sell people.

Mr. Werts at work in the car with Jenelle Phillip, the director of brand partnerships at the Jeffries.Credit…Elliott Verdier for The New York Times

An Agent Is Minted

Through a friend of a friend, Mr. Werts got an internship at Supreme Management, working on his days off, before taking an assistant role at DNA, a top modeling agency in fashion, which currently represents Kaia Gerber, Freja Beha Erichsen and Adwoa Aboah, among others. In 2011, after a year of assisting, Mr. Werts told Taylor Hendrich, then the director of the agency, that he wanted his own client.

“He said, ‘Go find one,’” Mr. Werts said. He zeroed in on Andreja Pejic, then known as Andrej Pejic, the transgender model who had recently closed Jean Paul Gaultier’s couture show wearing a wedding dress in the tradition of haute couture shows.

New York magazine wanted the model for its fall fashion issue. “I have a big mouth,” said Mr. Werts, who took the story’s writer out for drinks. It became five pages and a cover, under the headline “The Prettiest Boy in the World.”

With that, Mr. Werts was minted an agent. He and Mr. Hendrich soon left for Wilhelmina, a rival agency, leaving all of their clients behind at DNA, as contracts dictated. At Wilhelmina, Mr. Werts started focusing on clients with ambitions beyond modeling, but the agency became mired in internal turmoil. Mr. Werts left in 2017.

Amid the frustration at Wilhelmina, his old nightlife connections came in handy. Mr. Werts maintained a friendship with Patrick Meijer, a telecommunications executive, after meeting him during his early club days. In August 2017, Mr. Werts was serious about starting the Jeffries, and Mr. Meijer, who was looking to move on from the corporate world, offered to bankroll it.

Why? “I’d seen Kendall in a professional surrounding, and I was always impressed with how he would read the room, how he would know everybody that was there, how he was able to have conversations with people about things that are very current in fashion or beauty and be able to pull things from the 1970s or the ’80s,” Mr. Meijer said.

The Jeffries had a single client to start: Cordell Broadus, Snoop Dogg’s son. “He was like, ‘I’m riding with you Jerry Maguire-style,’” said Mr. Werts, who swiftly booked Mr. Broadus, 24, in a Philipp Plein fashion show. Two nights before the show, Mr. Werts met Snoop’s father, Poppa Snoop. “He was so funny — he reminded me of my grandparents and how much I love them,” Mr. Werts said. “I was like: ‘You know what? Poppa Snoop should be in the show!’”

He called The Cut, Page Six, Teen Vogue and Access Hollywood and arranged coverage on Poppa Snoop and grandson. Shortly afterward, Mr. Broadus was booked for campaigns for MCM, Kangol and Kenneth Cole. “Away we go,” Mr. Werts said.

Mr. Werts sits in the front row at the Giambattista Valli show.Credit…Elliott Verdier for The New York Times

‘The culture caught up.’

He and Mr. Meijer haven’t stopped. Their staff has grown to five from two, and the Jeffries’ roster has expanded. On-camera talent intermingles with off-camera. Virgil Abloh cast the skater/actor/rapper Lil Dre in an eyewear campaign for Off-White. Matthew Mazur, a stylist and D.J., works with the transgender pop star Kim Petras.

The photographers Ricardo Gomes and Ray Polanco came to the Jeffries from the entourages of the extremely famous: Madonna and Travis Scott. They’ve gone from shooting their Instagram assets, behind-the-scenes footage and — in Mr. Gomes’s case, Madonna’s new documentary, “Madame X” — to booking ad campaigns and GQ and Rolling Stone fashion shoots.

Diversifying his list allows Mr. Werts to package his clients for the right projects. Last year he scored a hat trick on Ugg’s Fluff You campaign for its fuzzy slide sandal: Mr. Polanco conceptualized, cast and shot the ads; Mr. Mazur styled; and Mr. Mock starred alongside Dennis Rodman, whom Mr. Polanco recruited by direct messaging him on Instagram.

As hard as Mr. Werts worked to get away from Detroit, it remains a huge part of his story and the way he approaches his business. Spotting talent that’s out of the box began in Detroit.

“It’s about flash and ‘look at my gators,’ ‘look at my zoot suit,’” said Mr. Werts, who always felt he drew pity when he told fashion people where he grew up. “I could see the look in their eyes, like, ‘Oh, I feel so bad for him.’ They couldn’t see the beauty in it.”

The culture has recalibrated, caught up.

He remembers a woman named Shawn, who used to come to his grandmother’s house for holiday dinners in mink coats, amazing shoes and loads of jewelry. “I didn’t know she was a stripper,” Mr. Werts said. “I just thought she was one of the most glamorous people that I have ever seen in my entire life.”

“That’s what my company is about,” he said. “The person who you don’t think about, the person who doesn’t have the following sometimes, the person who under all of it is fierce and you didn’t see it.”

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