A Seat at the 

Table With

MICHAEL ROTIMI

michael rotimi of offshore agency for miilkiinaAs a biracial model navigating the industry for nearly a decade, I was genuinely shocked to find a Black man at the other end of this FaceTime interview. I’ve come to assume anyone making decisions in fashion is white, and it’s no secret it’s one of the most appropriative and capitalist industries around. From Gucci’s Dapper Dan swagger-jacking and MJ’s dread-headed runway to Burberry’s “noose hoodies” galore, white fashion gods exploiting black/brown culture is as ubiquitous as a Zara knockoff, with little repercussions beyond a @diet_prada callout. The modeling industry is just as tokenized, and in starting his POC- exclusive talent agency Offshore, Michael Rotimi is melanating a new face of fashion for us by us. Sure the industry is making glacial strides in inclusivity, but while shiny campaigns feature a color board of “checked boxes:” Black, curvy, queer, Muslim, disabled, non-binary, etc., generally everyone directing the narratives from the client to the creative is still white. With Offshore Agency, Michael’s working to level the playing field, championing his talent as “more than a face,” but as personalities, stories and creatives.

This conversation is timely, as our nation “wakes up” to its centuries-long disregard of Black lives. The same deeply-rooted systems of oppression we’re fighting in our streets exist behind the scenes. When #BLM became the leading hashtag on Instagram, brands clamored to post a black box and their most ethnically ambiguous archives to make up for seasons of whitewashed campaigns. As Michael notes, “it’s performative. When I started Offshore Agency {in 2017}, it was tough because I only repped POC. Brands only hit me up when they needed to tick a box. But black models are hot rn.” Michael bootstrapped Offshore from a scribbled idea to a boutique agency. He runs Offshore as a brand itself, so unwavering in company ethos and aesthetic, despite being a small business, he has no qualms turning down big money jobs that don’t align. Landing clients like Fenty, Nike, Pyer Moss, however, he was ahead of his time pioneering a new industry model in an era of bandwagoning brands.

michael rotimi by tanima miilkiina
offshore agency michael rotimi miilkiina

Read our interview with Michael for his take on redefining the mainstream model, challenging brands to do better, and normalizing blackness in fashion.  

So you just woke up and decided you wanted to start your own agency?

Kinda. Before I moved here I was a mailman in Philly. I was an ideator, always jotting down ideas and super creative. I realized I had a talent for scouting, and could always look at someone and see their potential. So I wrote down one day, maybe I should start an agency? Everything else on my list failed so I just tried this. It was also survivalist because I couldn’t keep a job and kept getting fired, so I had to figure out my own thing. I did tons of research and told myself IMMA MOVE TO NEW YORK, SCOUT SOME MODELS AND MAKE IT WORK. I wanted to sign talent in my community, and everyday people that I saw. Even if they weren’t 6 ft tall or super skinny or fit the traditional mold, they have something about them, personality and charisma, I wanted to bring that to the forefront. You can have an everyday neighborhood girl in a huge campaign. 

michael rotimi offshore agency miilkiina

So you’re like the Kehinde Wiley of modeling.

That was my idea, finding personable and relatable talent.

And how was that initially?

 I just cold emailed casting directors and models.com, sending them faces and what I was doing. They liked what I was sending, so I was like ‘damn I can do this.’ It was perfect timing too! The industry was slowly changing and opening to less traditional looks. Offshore and the other unconventional agencies out there, it was this new generation of modeling agency we all kinda started together. Offshore’s all bootstrapped, I’m figuring things out as I go and learning something new every day.

What sets Offshore Agency apart from the rest?

 At Offshore you’ll find talent that is super relatable, diverse. We’re progressive, you can’t find the faces and talent we have anywhere. We’re a small, art-driven, we don’t take ourselves too seriously. A lot of agencies don’t show much personality in their tone. With us, we’re more welcoming. We have more personality from our models to our branding and aesthetic. 

What do you look for in a new talent?

It’s hard to explain and has a lot to do with their energy. But I do look for little details like are the model’s eyes further apart or closer together? Ear shape and size. Little details that make them stand out, passion, and personality. But we represent talent as well. I just signed an amazing vegan chef, Tara Thomas. I genuinely love her personality, she’s incredibly passionate about what she does. Everyone I believe in, like, and am passionate about I wanna get behind. I was with her earlier, she was making a community lunch with Pioneer Works, so we caught some BTS.

How do you keep it real in an industry calibrated by followings and likes?

We don’t try hard. We show more of the model’s personality, not just the latest shoot they did, but their background, their music, and what they’re passionate about. We want you to get to know the person behind the face. You can’t fake it. You like them because of who they are or you don’t. I’m working on a “more than a face” documentary. That’s our tagline. We’ve had models filming themselves during quarantine and open up about who they are and what they do. It’ll be a video collage of all the talent, and since they’re self-documented, they’ll be really unscripted and candid.

Do you vet the clients you work with in terms of authenticity and tokenism?

Yes. Especially now, it’s been crazy seeing all the performative stuff around. A lot of brands are running to Black-focused agencies to course correct. We do our due diligence and check what they’ve posted in the past. As a Black-owned and Black-focused agency our entire roster is POC. We don’t wanna be that check box, if it doesn’t align with the talent, or if the rate isn’t right. We could care less about the money, if the brand isn’t aligned with us we’ll decline. I do feel sometimes they lowball to save a couple of dollars and exploit our talent. I’m not afraid to say no because I know opportunities are around the corner. Walmart reached out to us to cast one of our models in a campaign and we turned it down. I spoke to the model and we decided to pass. They support Trump and prison labor.

And it dilutes the message of the agency and the talent.

I have friends in jail so it hits close to home. I never compromise. I hope its long term. When things quiet down, our generation forgets things super quick. It’s a topic one day and then it never happened the next. So hopefully there will be laws changed, and long term effects from this.  

I like how you’re so selective with the brands you work with, even as a small emerging agency, and how if you don’t like the proposal you’ll decline it.

A lot of agencies don’t see themselves as a brand, they’ll work with anybody for money and not keep an aesthetic. I look at Offshore as a brand, we dropped merch, we have an agency culture. The models I sign like the Offshore aesthetic and the brands we work with. Before I sign a model, I see what brands they like and don’t, make sure they vibe with every opportunity I push for them. If it doesn’t fit the model or Offshore we won’t do it. 

Yeah, a lot of the biggest agencies don’t have their own stories, they’re just selling bodies. How can clients be real allies and not culture-jackers?

Don’t hide behind the email. Focus more on an emotional level and not just visual. This person looks good for this, but how will your audience feel, how do they feel towards the talent? Be more relatable. There’s more than one look of Black or Asian, there’s different ways you can show representation. There needs to be more black casting directors. Everyone on top is a white person, who might not have grown up around POC, They don’t understand all the nuances in the narratives. Street cast in different neighborhoods and get an authentic feel.

How do we normalize the industry’s newfound awareness of BLM, queerness, and other marginalized communities to more than a hashtag?

It should be a long-term agenda. Does the industry have a give back to local communities? Put more POC on their board? Hire casting directors of colors, black producers. Diversify the set, that needs to change. Too many hairstylists don’t get black hair and Makeup Artists don’t have the right shades. There are plenty of talented hairstylists and MUAs of color. 

How do you want Offshore to grow?

Right now I’ve got 16 talents, but I’d like to globalize. Nigeria and Brazil. I want to tell more of the model’s stories and make it more meaningful. Let clients get to know the person behind the face. Offshore TV is an idea to produce more video content and raw, uncurated moments. Everyone’s IG looks like they have a certain type of life, so let’s be more vulnerable and show our real selves.    

offshore agency michael rotimi miilkiina