John Casablancas, the modeling agent whose shrewd and sometimes scandalous packaging of beautiful women ushered in the era of supermodels, died on Saturday in Rio de Janeiro. He was 70.
The cause was cancer, said Lorraine Caggiano, his executive assistant. Mr. Casablancas, who lived in Miami, was being treated in Brazil.
Head-turningly handsome, Mr. Casablancas courted scandal in his own life as well, accused of having sexual relations with teenage models and pursuing a playboy’s life of excess.
For 30 years, through the Elite Model Management agency he founded in Paris in 1972, he shaped the careers of models who became household names, among them Cindy Crawford, Naomi Campbell, Carol Alt, Linda Evangelista, Claudia Schiffer, Andie MacDowell, Kim Alexis, Paulina Porizkova, Iman, Heidi Klum and Gisele Bündchen.
By the end of its first decade, Elite had become a serious and brash competitor to the well-established New York agencies, like Ford and Wilhelmina, triggering a series of raids, defections and gossipy lawsuits that forever changed the modeling industry and were voraciously covered in the tabloids as the “Model Wars.”
Mr. Casablancas was at the center of it all, unabashedly mixing business with his pleasure. Where Jerry and Eileen Ford, who founded Ford Models in 1946, had brought an almost puritanical sense of ethics to the modeling business, introducing modern accounting practices and standardized pay and working hours, Mr. Casablancas planted the flag of a provocateur, encouraging his young charges to enjoy a lifestyle of Champagne and wild parties, and sometimes more. He also made the most successful ones very rich.
“I had the understanding of a guy who loved beautiful women, and above all who liked the sensuality of it all,” Mr. Casablancas said in a 2010 video interview with the blog Modelinia. “All of the other agents were either women or gay guys. They had their own approach, which in certain instances was probably superior to mine, but I had something I thought was unique. I looked at my models as women.”
He was largely responsible for glamorizing the business and turning models into idols, their egos expanding in direct proportion to their earnings potential. In 1990, at the height of the supermodel moment, Ms. Evangelista, then married to Gérald Marie, the president of Elite in Paris, made a comment to Vogue that came to define the vainglorious world of modeling that Mr. Casablancas had created: “We don’t wake up for less than $10,000 a day.”
Mr. Casablancas demanded top dollar for his models, developing them as celebrities and media personalities, the stars of music videos and presenters on MTV. In 1988, to make Ms. Crawford a recognizable face beyond fashion, he encouraged her to pose for Playboy magazine. The ensuing publicity led to a job as host of “House of Style,” and then a Pepsi commercial. In 1995, she topped the Forbes list of highest paid models, earning $6.5 million.
The success of Elite, with more than $100 million in annual model bookings during the years it was run by Mr. Casablancas, represented a turning point in modeling, for better and worse. As Wilhelmina Cooper, one of his rivals, said of the typical top model in 1978: “She is now picking or choosing who she wants to work for, instead of just taking what her agency tells her to.”
Mr. Ford, who accused Elite of poaching models and sued the company in the late 1970s, described Mr. Casablancas’s methods at the time as “sleazy.”
Beyond his feuds with other agencies, Mr. Casablancas was frequently criticized for having sexual relationships with young models. His public affair with Stephanie Seymour in 1983, when he was 41 and she was 16, ended his second marriage, to Jeanette Christjansen, a former model and the 1965 Miss Denmark.
Mr. Casablancas scoffed at the criticism, but his reputation was severely tarnished in 1999 as a result of a BBC One undercover exposé that showed Elite’s agents in Europe, including Mr. Marie, boasting of drug use and sexual conquests with young models. Though he was not implicated in the scandal, Mr. Casablancas resigned from the agency the following year.
John Casablancas was born on Dec. 12, 1942, in Manhattan, the third of three children of Fernando and Antonia Casablancas, a Spanish couple who, after fleeing the country’s civil war, grew wealthy from operating a family textile-machinery business with factories around the world. At 8, he was sent to the Le Rosey boarding school in Switzerland, along with many children of the international jet set, and began a somewhat wayward life for the next two decades.
After attending several European universities without graduating, and taking jobs in finance, public relations and real estate, he accepted a position offered by a family friend to become the marketing manager of a Coca-Cola factory in Brazil. Still in his early 20s, he invited his French girlfriend, Marie-Christine, to join him, and married her at her father’s insistence.
When the couple returned to Paris a few years later, he took a job with her brother in public relations for an architecture firm, but their marriage was soon on the rocks. Mr. Casablancas was living in a tiny hotel in 1967 when he met Ms. Christjansen, who was 19 and on a modeling assignment for the photographer Gunnar Larsen.
“I thought he was the best-looking man I’d ever laid eyes on,” Ms. Christjansen told New York magazine in 1988.
After the affair began, Mr. Casablancas had a daughter, Cecile, with his wife.
Ms. Christjansen’s unhappiness with her agency inspired him to start a business, Elysée 3, representing photographers and models. After a rough start, he created a new company with Alain Kittler, a classmate at Le Rosey, to focus only on those they regarded as the best models. They named it Elite.
Mr. Casablancas said he had seen an opportunity for models with personality and sex appeal to command wider attention in magazines and on runways.
“I introduced women with shape, short hair, brunettes, brown eyes,” he said in the Modelinia interview. “Fashion is not about a Disney-like type of catalogish model. Fashion is about really exciting girls that have something to say, that express something.”
Shortly after opening a New York office in 1977, Elite was sued for $10 million by Ford and Wilhelmina, but the cases were unsuccessful and resulted only in more publicity for Mr. Casablancas. In 1978, he married Ms. Christjansen and had a son, Julian, with her while the agency continued to thrive.
Elite was the dominant name in global modeling well into the 1990s, until a series of problems, including the BBC One documentary and a class-action lawsuit that accused several agencies of price fixing, led it to seek bankruptcy protection in 2004.
Its assets were most recently acquired by Pacific Global Management Group in 2011.
In 2000, Mr. Casablancas announced that he was selling his Manhattan home and moving to Rio de Janeiro, where he had married Aline Wermelinger in 1993. His marriage to Ms. Christjansen had ended in the late 1970s after their son’s birth. Ms. Wermelinger was then 17, having met Mr. Casablancas the previous year when she participated in Elite’s Look of the Year contest. She and their three children — John Jr., Fernando Augusto and Nina — survive him, as do his children with his previous wives. Cecile Casablancas is a jewelry designer, and Julian Casablancas is the lead singer of the rock band the Strokes. He is also survived by a brother, Fernando.
After leaving Elite, Mr. Casablancas created a modeling school, a model-scouting organization called Star System, and what he called a “cybermodel agency,” named Illusion 2K, which briefly promoted a computer-animated model named Webbie Tookay. Her greatest attribute, Mr. Casablancas said, was that she would never complain.
“One of my biggest regrets is that I created the supermodel,” he said in the London newspaper The Telegraph in 2000. “They can be impossible. Elite single-handedly brought modeling rates to a peak no one could have imagined, but the girls never thanked me for it. I’ve had enough.”
Correction: July 20, 2013
An earlier version of a photo caption accompanying this article misspelled the surname of one of the models pictured with John Casablancas. She is Joan Severance, not Severence.