'Broken promises': Clients of modelling agency and Shoreditch photo studio say their dreams were crushed
PUBLISHED: 16:35 17 October 2019 | UPDATED: 09:18 18 October 2019
Former clients of a north London modelling agency paid a photography studio in Shoreditch thousands of pounds for portfolios they believed would kickstart their careers. The Gazette hears their allegations of broken promises.
Clients of a modelling agency and a Shoreditch photography studio parted with huge sums of money they could scarcely afford only to have their dreams "crushed".
Fifteen clients of River Models, which listed a Holborn address on its contracts, and Lepel Studios, in City Road, collectively paid £20,000 to £30,000 for photography portfolios which they believed - and allege they were told - would act as a "gateway" into the modelling industry. "We will [...] be marketing you to YUMM (Your Model Management), an upcoming modelling agency that have linked models to the likes of London Fashion Week," one client was told by email.
YUMM subsequently told her it had no record of River Models' existence. River Models has no listing on Companies House and its website and social media channels have been taken down. The Gazette has not been able to contact its previous employees.
Clients say the firm's broken promises, the lack of meaningful service from both it and Lepel Studios, and the way they were treated had crippling personal impacts including debt, depression, anxiety and a suicide attempt.
River Models sent them to Lepel Studios for a "test" photoshoot, before they were asked to pay in some cases thousands of pounds for little more than a folder of unedited digital images. Although the shoots themselves were free, aspiring models were told the images would be deleted if they did not buy them upfront.
None of them received any modelling work or any of the "aftercare" they say they were promised by either Lepel Studios or River Models. In one contract seen by the Gazette, River Models says it will "promote [the model] on River Models' website, social media and other platforms" as well as advising them on career opportunities.
Lepel responded by stressing it is a photography studio, not a modelling agency, and that "photography, as with any creative industry, is very subjective".
But Hackney Council's trading standards department has confirmed it is investigating complaints against the studio and is taking the claims "very seriously".
One client who telephoned a Lepel Studios manager asking for her money back was verbally abused. In a recording heard by the Gazette, the man says: "You think you're a big girl. I want to see what you can do. Keep on barking - don't make me do things to you."
After repeatedly swearing at her, he adds: "I know where you live - I'm going to get people to come and see you."
The client said she believed she had been speaking to the man who had signed her contract "Dean Raja" when she visited Lepel Studios for her photoshoot.
But Lepel Studios claims the client had been racially abusive to a director, and a former member of staff also accused the same client of harassment.
Last October, another client, 18-year-old university student Angel Ntoni from Wembley, went to Lepel Studios with her mum after being told by River Models she had "passed [her] modelling assessment" and that it wanted her to do a test shoot there.
"Once your images and measurements have been received," she was told by email, "you will then be registered onto our database and a profile for you will be created to allow our clients to view you and your modelling talents and when there is an opportunity available for you we will be in touch with you."
Angel said: "It was my dream to become a model."
And she claimed: "After my shoot we were told the manager wanted to see me because he had good news.
"He told me: 'We want to sign you. You're so good and confident in front of a camera.'
"He recommended the gold package for £1,500 but we couldn't afford it and were on the verge of leaving so many times.
"At the same time my mum knew how much of a dream this was for me. In the end she agreed to pay in instalments.
"I was so excited thinking I was going to work for all these top brands."
According to a printed price list seen by the Gazette, for the £1,379 she paid Lepel Studios, Angel was supposed to receive 30 digital images and 10 printed pictures.
Instead, she said she received 67 photos straight from the camera, unedited and uncropped, and no prints. Lepel Studios says the prints were lost in the post and she had never been promised an online portfolio.
With job offers non-existent, her portfolio incomplete and her family more than £1,000 out of pocket, Angel claimed she could not reach Lepel Studios by email or phone. Lepel Studios told us: "We do request clients to leave a voicemail if they are unable to get through to us. We are a small team - our resources are heavily loaded. An email to us would be more ideal."
The firm has claimed its prices are "reflective of the market rate" - a single image costs £65, a "personal modelling website" £800 or a "platinum package" £2,399 including a "full shoot" of 120 unedited images, 50 edited digital images and an A3 portfolio binder.
And it said clients cannot claim a refund after they leave the premises because an order form must be signed declaring they are happy with the final quality of the images.
It added that clients sometimes "take advantage" of the business by asking for a refund once images have been received.
Feeling her modelling dreams had been manipulated, Angel struggled to cope with day-to-day life.
"I thought being a model was going to change everything," she said.
"It's taken a bad toll on my mental health and I already suffer from depression.
"I stopped going to university for a while. I stopped going to my classes. I never left my room. I had to go to counselling.
"I didn't leave my bed and I wouldn't shower."
Angel and other clients also say Lepel Studios referred to their employees by fake names. The studio told the Gazette that it was "common practice" in business to do this. The British Fashion Model Agents Association (BFMA) dismissed this claim as "nonsense".
Aliases of "Cassandra" and "Charleigh" were used by members of staff, one of whom threatened to sue the Gazette if their real identity was revealed.
"It feels like hell. No one cares," Angel continued.
"I feel like I can't trust anyone. I want this experience off my shoulders, to get justice and to be able to breathe again. "They've already crushed my dreams so I just want to focus on university now and live my life as it was before."
River Models is no longer active and the Gazette was unable to contact the former management for comment. Lepel Studios claimed Angel received "everything" and that no online portfolio was promised.
Another client, Fahim Choudhury, who previously worked for a bank in its fraud and disputes team, says he was left with suicidal thoughts after paying Lepel Studios £2,000 for a set of digital photos that, due to having second thoughts, he never actually downloaded.
"In total I paid £2,000 to Lepel Studios," he said, "inclusive of a £50 so-called refundable deposit for the appointment.
"Once the shoot was done I was told if I didn't pay £1,950 the images would not be kept by the company and that it was a good idea to buy them. I was told that I would be emailed a link to download the pictures."
He added: "As I did not open the link, they were deleted on the file sharing site on March 16. Therefore I received no goods or services in return for a large payment."
Lepel Studios told the Gazette that participating in a photo shoot was free and that clients would only be charged if they bought the photographs.
The dad-of-one said: "I'm not in a great financial position so when this happened it tipped me right over the edge. I didn't want to live any more.
"I felt that I'd failed."
In the end, his bank refunded the money he had spent.
Another client told the Gazette they felt "trapped" when presented with their Lepel contract in a small, dark room, the only light provided by a computer monitor.
Fahim gave a similar account. "They sit you down in a dark room," he said, "present a one-sided contract and give you barely any time to think."
Lepel Studios said Fahim received the images he paid for, that his claims were "vastly exaggerated" and said of his experience with the business: "That's consumerism for you."
The portfolio another client Nathaniel Pendle received - as part of his £1,400 package - was composed of photos of a completely different man. Nathaniel is white and over 6ft tall. The man printed in his portfolio was black and 5ft 3in.
Lepel Studios said an "administrative error" led to Nathaniel being sent photos of the wrong person but that other than those incorrect physical prints he received "everything".
Lepel Studios did not respond to questions regarding its relationship with River Models.
BFMA chairman John Horner said cases where clients were left disappointed, out of pocket and without work opportunities were increasingly common in the fashion industry. Approximately 35 per cent of all emails the trade association received over the past year concerned so-called modelling "scams".
He urged the government to crack down on companies manipulating often young, poor and vulnerable people for whom English is sometimes not a first language.
"You can't become a model overnight and professional agencies do not require photography portfolios to decide whether to take on a potential model," John said.
"These people provide a so-called service that is completely irrelevant and their sales techniques are misleading."
Lepel Studios, however, claims on its website that a photography portfolio is "an important marketing tool to launch your career as a model" and that for all agencies, "your photos, comp card or modeling [sic] portfolio will always go in the door before you".
"The short answer is it needs legislation," John continued.
"Recently we had an African girl's aunt who persuaded their uncle to take out a Wonga loan. They were then £2,000 in debt which they couldn't pay back.
"It's not even amoral, it's completely immoral. Self-esteem is hugely shattered by these poor kids and some are self-harming.
"It's dreadful, frightening and horrific."
Lepel Studios told us it had had "over 1,000 clients" but that "unfortunately as with any business there is a small percentage which have resulted to escalated disputes".
It claims on its website, however, that it "inspires and empowers over 5,000 happy customers every year" - a number the BFMA has expressed doubt over as it would involve completing work with 20 customers a day. It was incorporated in March 2018.
In addition, Lepel Studios' website states that "Lepel Studios London is trading under Icon Photo Group Ltd".
According to Companies House, the joint directors of both Lepel Studios and Icon Photo Group Ltd, Waqas Raja and Frankie Akif, were also directors of photography business The Penthouse Studios Limited, which went into liquidation two months before Icon Photo Group was set up by the same men in March.
Icon Photo Group, despite being headquartered in Glasgow, lists the same third-floor City Road address on its website as Lepel Studios, offers the same photography portfolio service, and uses the same photos and messaging across its website as Lepel, including its claim to "inspire and empower over 5,000 happy customers every year" despite being barely seven months old.
Lepel Studios is still actively trading, according to Companies House, but the section of its website directing customers to booking its services has been "under maintenance" since the Gazette began investigating complaints in early May.
Chartered Trading Standards Institute (CTSI) lead officer Sylvia Rook said: "Trading Standards and the Citizens Advice Bureau are aware of a number of businesses that have targeted and pressured models to pay upfront for photographs at highly inflated prices.
"Businesses who charge in this way are not actually modelling agencies, but are modelling 'platforms', or simply photographic studios who cannot guarantee you modelling jobs.
"Often these photos are poor quality, and it has been known for the scammer to disappear with consumers' money without providing any type of service.
"We would advise consumers not to spend large amounts on a portfolio, as you certainly do not need a set of expensive pictures to become a model."
Angel said River Models itself had asked her for a "refundable" £50 fee before she went to Lepel Studios. But CTSI warned modelling and photography clients to avoid businesses that ask for a refundable fee for assessment, claim a portfolio is needed to break into the world of modelling, tell clients before or after a shoot they have "potential", or insist that their photos will be deleted unless they are bought straightaway.
Ms Rook added that businesses in the modelling industry often straddle the line between civil and criminal law - between trading standards and the police - with a lack of specific legislation regulating the field and local councils left to pursue criminal investigations.
"Don't ever feel that you have to make a decision immediately," she warned.
"Scammers will often use pressure selling techniques to get you to part with your money, but reputable businesses will not put you under such pressure.
"Remember that the objective of the business is to make money - so they may well tell everyone that attends a photo session that they have the potential to make it as a model when, in fact, very few people can."
A Hackney Council spokesperson added: "We're taking these claims [about Lepel Studios] very seriously and are investigating them.
"Legitimate modelling agencies will never charge potential clients up front, and we urge people to always seek reviews and recommendations before parting with any cash for services such as photography."
People with complaints or information about modelling and photography companies can contact Citizens Advice on 03454 040506 or Hackney Council on 020 8356 4929.