CEDAR RAPIDS — Twenty years ago, Mary Brown sat in her office watching her dreams dissolve through her tears.
Her prospects were as dreary as that February day. Her marriage was ending and her attempts to nurture models and stage local fashion shows couldn’t support her life as a single mother of three young children.
“It was horrible,” she said. “It was one of those Iowa days that was gray on gray on gray, and very cold. I remember I just stared out the window, and (thought) I just I can’t keep doing this — I have to stop.”
She prayed: “God, if I’m supposed to do this, you have to show me.”
The next week, she spotted Ashton Kutcher working at the Airliner in Iowa City and struck up a conversation that would change their lives.
“It was unbelievable,” she said of that meeting. “I knew that there was lightning in a bottle. There was something really great about him.”
Under the auspices of the Image Group, which she founded from her home in Bowman Woods in 1991, she took the handsome University of Iowa biomedical engineering student to New York City. According to her website, Kutcher attended a Calvin Klein show dressed in thrift store duds they dubbed “Salvation Armani.” And his new modeling career soon caught the eye of casting agents, launching him on a Hollywood superstar trajectory.
Brown’s life became a whirlwind as well.
Shortly before meeting Kutcher, she spotted model material in Jeff Clarke, who was managing a clothing store in St. Louis. He also was at a crossroads in his life, seeking a change she could make happen. He came to Cedar Rapids, shifted his energy from modeling to management and in 1999, the couple married. They rebranded and reinvented themselves as Genesis Model Management in Cedar Rapids, which later morphed into Mother Model Management in St. Louis.
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Within a decade, they were major players in the fashion industry. They now have more than 35 models walking the top runways in New York, London, Paris and Milan, as well as gracing the covers of Vogue, Elle and other top-flight magazines. This past Nov. 30, Cedar Rapids native Alanna Arrington walked the Victoria’s Secret show in Paris, which aired Dec. 5 on CBS. Karlie Kloss, whom they discovered in 2005 at a model search in St. Louis, has reached supermodel status.
“For me, Ashton Kutcher was the tipping point where it opened my eyes to this world that I didn’t even know existed,” Mary Clarke said. “And then what continues to unfold, is we just kept finding guys and girls that would get the attention of these high-level, top casting directors.”
The Clarkes moved to St. Louis in 2001 to be closer to his family. While still being based in the Midwest, they’re making inroads in the South, too. They continue their formula of looking for talent in unlikely places, from the Gulf shores to a gas station in Hannibal, Mo., and a Target in Cedar Rapids.
“I know this sounds crazy, but have you ever thought about being a model?” That icebreaker has served them well, and catapulted Alijah Harrison from walking into that Hannibal gas station to becoming the face of Versace jeans.
Harrison will be among the high-fashion faces walking the runway Saturday, July 29, when the Clarkes bring their show back where their odyssey began. They decided to celebrate the 20th anniversary of the year that changed their lives in the city that changed their lives.
“I never want to forget where I came from, and how hard it was to not give up — because it was hard,” Mary Clarke said.
In this year’s anniversary, “we have four or five models from Iowa that are coming back to walk in this show. And for a lot of them, it will be the only time their family members will ever see them walk on the runway live.”
The Tribute Anniversary show will bring a theatrical experience filled with lights, music and video screens.
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“It’s like a concert meets a fashion show,” she said, with a mix of top models and 20 fresh faces from 10 states, scouted from a three-month stint the Clarkes called “Mother Discovers America the Beautiful.”
“It’s a really rare thing to be having it anywhere,” Mary Clarke said, “but to be doing it back home just makes it really special.”
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If you go
- What: Tribute Anniversary Show: Celebrating 20 Years of Fashion & Discovery
- Where: Veterans Memorial Building, 50 Second Ave. Bridge, Cedar Rapids
- When: 8 p.m. Saturday, July 29
- Tickets: $30 general admission, $50 to $100 VIP seating; Mothermodelmanagement.com/tribute