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Modeling takes off in Alexandria: Shops turn to local models to grow customer base

Bailee Atchison-DeVaan, an employee of Kindred People in downtown Alexandria, models their clothing as part of her job. (Karen Tolkkinen / Echo Press)1 / 3
Bailee Atchison-DeVaan models her sister's "Tin Woman" creation on the runway at a 2016 Construction Couture show in Alexandria. The pair won the Showstopper and People' Choice awards. (Contributed)2 / 3
Hannah Blake of the Fargo-Moorhead area, who worked as The Face of Ann Manning, has since signed with a Spanish modeling agency. Though she is nearly 6 feet tall and wears a size 7-8, she is considered a "curve" model and finds she doesn't land as many jobs as skinnier models. (Contributed)3 / 3

If you're downtown much, you might notice young women posing for photos on sidewalks, wooden stairs, near electrical boxes, against brick walls.

They're wearing ripped jeans with lace tops, or sweaters and leggings or flirty flowery tops, as someone aims a smart phone their way.

While some are students experimenting with photography, others are models working with local stores. Modeling is big in Alexandria now. Downtown boutiques are increasingly turning to social media to boost sales, opening up opportunities for young women to get a taste of the modeling world.

"It wasn't work at all. It was just fun," said Sarah Engebretson, 27, who got into modeling by chance when she sold some of her clothes over Facebook to Patty Dusing, owner of Trend and Couture by Ann Manning on Broadway. Dusing recruited her to model for her store, which fit in with Engebretson's passion for fashion.

Engebretson has since opened up her own downtown shop, Flourish Boutique, on Seventh Avenue.

'Creative Touch girl'

Each Tuesday and Thursday, Katie Brown heads to the basement of Creative Touch Boutique, where she models the new clothes about to hit the racks upstairs. Behind the camera is Amy Lesnar, whose parents, Pam and Dan Botker, own Creative Touch.

When Lesnar begin getting involved in the store, she wanted to redesign it and devote a section to women's clothing. She found Brown, 26, through Instagram, liked what she saw, and asked if she would be interested in modeling.

"I actually chuckled because I have never modeled and I'm 5-4, but I thought it was really cool that someone liked my page and what I stand for and my beliefs," Brown said. "I'm a real person and I have real things going on in my life. I don't pretend everything is perfect. I'm honest and transparent and hopefully that will help other people be the same."

She began modeling in February. On Tuesdays they take photos, and on Thursdays they share the spotlight for videos that run on the store's Facebook page. In the videos, they kibitz about the outfits they wear, discussing materials, fit and details like pockets or elbow patches.

"Does this not scream fall?" Brown inquired during a recent video shoot, gesturing to a burgundy long-sleeve shirt she wore under a black-and-white sweater vest. "I am obsessed, you guys."

Brown is studying to become a special education teacher and plans to graduate in the spring. She also works in the tasting room at Carlos Creek Winery.

When she's out in the community, she sometimes gets recognized.

"People say, 'Oh, you're the Creative Touch girl.'"

Modeling on the job

Kindred People employee Bailey Atchison-DeVaan, 21, is all over its website, modeling jumpsuits, trousers and pullovers. She grew up with a photographer sister, who is also a cosmetologist, so she is completely at ease before a camera. For her, modeling is just part of her job.

Walking the runway during a fashion show at Carlos Creek Winery, however, was another story.

"People said it looked like I knew what I was doing," she said. But "walking in front of a big group of people, yeah, I was nervous."

She was also "Tin Woman" at a Construction Couture show for students at Arrowwood. She was painted and dressed all in silver, with silver hair that shot skyward.

"I wasn't nervous for that because I felt so cool," she said. "It took up the whole stage, and it rattled."

Working for Kindred People and as a model has opened doors. She has modeled for a local jewelry maker, and she and her sister formed Two Lions, a business that makes and sells scrunchies. She'd also like her own fashion blog, to get paid for wearing clothes.

After all, it has worked before.

Alexandria natives Hailey (formerly Kneprath) and Bryce Miller, a young married couple from Alexandria, have 88,000 followers on their YouTube Channel, while Hailey Miller's Instagram account, dreaming_outloud, claims 312,000 followers, about triple what it was in 2017.

Looking for a face

Several years ago, Dusing began recruiting models as the face of Ann Manning. Each took on the spot for one year and were paid with photo shoots, clothes and jewelry.

Engebretson became one of them.

"My self image went from low self-esteem to more confident," she said. "It was super fun."

She enjoyed working with Dusing, whose goal is to create a safe and positive environment for local girls to model, as some can run into unsavory experiences in the industry.

"That's why I love this industry, to empower ladies and make them feel confident no matter what size and shape they are," Engebretson said.

An early face of Ann Manning, Hannah Blake of Fargo, did photo shoots with Dusing to promote jewelry and clothing, and afterward got to keep what she wore. That included a very formal dress created by BYuri, an aspiring designer who had responded to one of Dusing's ads.

"It was great experience for modeling," Blake said. "It showed me how to pose in photo shoots."

She has since signed with a modeling agency in Barcelona, Spain, and worked for them for a while in Spain answering casting calls. Blake landed a job there walking the runway for a private event in a store, she said, and may head back to Spain next year. She has also modeled in Fargo, where she works at Microsoft and Subway and attends college.

For her last job, she modeled for a Fargo business that sells T-shirts.

"You have photographers and small businesses reaching out to you to see if you want to collaborate," Blake said. "It's not like they're paying you, but they're giving you product to help promote their business. I'm OK with a T-shirt here and there. ... I feel like small businesses are just looking for girls to help them grow."

Her modeling career has not been without its challenges. Though she is just about 6 feet tall and wears a size 7-8, she has days where she feels fat.

"It's kind of difficult for me," she said. "I am a curve model. I'm not skinny enough to be considered a fashion runway model. I've kind of come to accept that but it took me quite some time. ... I'm the only curve model in my agency in the U.S."

When Blake was 13, she visited a different agency that was willing to sign her if she lost weight.

"At that time my parents were there with me being a minor," she said. "My dad, he didn't want any more words coming out of her mouth when I was already a skinny teenager. ... It was very discouraging, especially because she wasn't willing to sign me then."

Still, curvy and plus-sized models are getting more attention in magazines, and she sees things changing in the fashion industry in a positive way.

"I would just say if you really really want to model, if that is your passion and desire, don't let anybody stand in your way," Blake said. "If you have one designer say that wasn't what they're looking for, it doesn't mean another designer wouldn't look for you."