College athletes like Olivia Dunne land modeling contracts

Given her athletic 5ft 7in frame, Harvard hockey player Chloe Ashton has always had an occasional interest in the modeling world. A useful introduction to the industry came from her now-ex-boyfriend, who was under contract to Wilhelmina, and the agency, in turn, had asked him about Ashton.

But as an NCAA Division I athlete, she couldn’t work with brands at the time.

“He basically told them, ‘If NIL [Name, Image and Likeness] she would be interested,'” Ashton, 22, told the Post, referring to a newly introduced regulation that allows collegiate athletes to capitalize on their personal brand.

“Of course, when the rules changed, that was on my mind,” she continued.

And so, at the end of Ashton’s season — during which her team won the Ivy League title and finished in the top 10 in the nation — she officially signed with the modeling agency’s sports and fitness division.

“I think companies now want to see authentic body types,” said Ashton, who hopes to land gigs with active brands like Nike or Lululemon and break into the high fashion space.

Harvard women's hockey team forward Chloe Ashton recently signed with Wilhelmina Models.
Chloe Ashton, a forward on the Women’s Harvard Hockey Team, recently signed with Wilhelmina Models.
Stephen Yang
Chloe Ashton in a game against Brown.
Chloe Ashton in a game against Brown.
Gil Talbot/Harvard Athletic Comm

“I train six days a week anyway. It’s the nature of a collegiate athlete at any level. I don’t alter my body to have a specific aesthetic,” she added.

After the rules on name, likeness and likeness were changed last July, the floodgates opened up for both brands and talent, turning a handful of athletes like the University of Miami basketball players to the Cavinder twins into millionaires in a matter of months.

There have been notable deals in supplements, protein bars, finance companies, apps, and gyms — not to mention the many collaborations with local restaurants, dentists, and car dealerships. So far, the fashion world hasn’t fully embraced the newly available college talent pool for endorsements or ads — although that’s starting to change.

“Initially, fashion brands were unfamiliar with NIL, but they are beginning to recognize the power and influence of these athletes,” Estabrook Group’s Keith Estabrook told The Post. He has worked with athletes such as LeBron James and Andre Iguodala and was an early force in merging the worlds of sport and haute couture. The New York-based branding expert works with a couple of college clients, many of whom are clamoring to broker deals in the fashion world.

One of them is Khristian Lander, a point guard who transferred from Indiana to western Kentucky — although it was his dyed blond hair that caught Estabrook’s eye.

“I was really excited when the rule changed and I personally wanted to do something with fashion,” Lander, 19, told The Post. “I am very proud of my personal image.”

From a stylistic standpoint, he looks up to Odell Beckham Jr. and follows the now infamous NBA and NFL aisles, which have become the de facto catwalks where pro ballers morph into fashion billboards.

Western Kentucky Point Guard Khristian Lander is hoping to work with fashion brands in the NILE era.
Western Kentucky Point Guard Khristian Lander is hoping to work with fashion brands in the NILE era.
WKU photography

Last season, Lander began mimicking tunneling. His signature look is wearing his sneakers over his shoulder like the main characters in his favorite movie, White Men Can’t Jump. He connected with a photographer who would capture him at home games – something he hopes to continue in western Kentucky.

“A couple [my teammates] talked about how we will put together our best outfits for the tunnel walks. Everyone loves it,” said Lander, who has had smaller partnerships with a jewelry company, food stamps and homeless organization Help USA. He said he’s close to closing a few deals in the lifestyle and apparel worlds.

One of the first fashion brands to jump on the Nile train was American Eagle, whose largest audience is Gen Z. Last July, the company launched #AEAthletic Dept, promoting social collaborations with the likes of Pittsburgh quarterback Kedon Slovis and Ohio State cornerback Sevyn Banks and Auburn running back Tank Bigsby.

“We were two or three steps ahead of the competition in that regard,” American Eagle CMO Craig Brommers told The Post.

While snagging football players, they found resounding success with an athlete in a niche sport: LSU gymnast Olivia Dunne. With 1.9 million followers on Instagram and 5.6 million on TikTok, the slim blonde has become one of the top earners of the NIL era, surpassing the million dollar mark last year.

“We’re still learning as we move forward, but a couple of these kids have had really big successes and that moves the needle in terms of community involvement,” said Brommers, who declined to elaborate on the financial details of their partnerships.

LSU gymnast Olivia Dunne for American Eagle.
LSU gymnast Olivia Dunne for American Eagle.
Courtesy of American Eagle
Olivia Dunne performs a ground routine during the meet against Alabama.
Olivia Dunne performs a floor exercise during a meet against Alabama.
Jonathan Mailhes/CSM/Shutterstoc

“There’s Olivia Dunne, and she was number one in the first quarter, period. She’s an outstanding SEC school gymnast, but she has an authentic, upbeat personality on social media. And she looks great in American Eagle jeans. To me, this is the magic we’ve been looking for as we explore this brave new world of NIL,” he added.

Last month, Dunne posted an Instagram ad for Forever21 and in September signed a deal with activewear company Vuori, which Forbes said was worth “mid-six figures.”

“Fashion has always been a huge passion of mine,” Dunne told the publication. “Before college, my coach and I designed my own custom jerseys for all of my big competitions. I love expressing myself through my style.”

Meanwhile, Ashton hopes her foray into modeling brings more meaning to the world of women’s hockey, which isn’t heavily represented in the lifestyle space.

“That’s the beauty of this NIL deal coming about. That this is truly a showcase that showcases many different versions of strong, athletic, confident women and men.”

Harvard hockey player Chloe Ashton is expanding her model portfolio.
Harvard hockey player Chloe Ashton is expanding her model portfolio.
Stephen Yang

As American Eagle can attest, their athletes have been good ambassadors when it comes to Gen Z consumers, but Estabrook said NIL deals pay off well beyond the brand’s target audience.

“They have the post-college demographic that is always loyal and pays attention to their school’s athletes. That’s the sweet spot for brands,” Estabrook said. “[Using athletes] is cost effective, builds loyalty and is authentic,” he said, adding that higher-end brands like Tory Sport, Tommy Hilfiger, Ralph Lauren, Kate Spade and Coach would be wise to do business with athletes.

Such partnerships can also generate huge buzz, according to Brendan Kaminsky, founder of Bknown, a branding and social media firm that has worked on NIL deals with Giants first-round player Kayvon Thibodeaux.

“It gets them all that deserved media,” Kaminsky said, referring to headlines announcing “the first fashion brand to do this or that.”

And the benefit to the brand could be huge over time.

“There will always be a Steph Curry from Davidson [College]’ Estabrook said. “When he was there, he wasn’t on a lot of people’s radar. Look where he is now.” College athletes like Olivia Dunne land modeling contracts

Emma Bowman

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