Models Inc.

After the lights went down on their runway careers, these former fashionistas stepped into the role of business owner

Johnson. I wanted to be like Mr. Johnson and own my own business — call the shots and the buck stops with me,” Smaltz says. “He was my inspiration.”

With $60,000 in savings, Smaltz moved back to New York and bought a penthouse apartment that also serves as her office. She established her company, A. Smaltz Inc., in November 1977. Initially, Smaltz wasn’t generating much revenue but was blowing through her startup cash at an alarming rate. “It went in two months,” she says. With no job to fall back on, Smaltz did what she had to do to keep a positive cash flow. “I hocked all of my diamonds. I was determined to stay in business. And I never borrowed any money. I just hocked all of my hockables.”

Meanwhile, Smaltz continued to coordinate fashion shows for organizations such as the Congressional Black Caucus. Her service, the Ground Crew — the name was inspired by a Martin Luther King Jr. speech — provides dressers, pressers, tailors, stylists, and movers (www.groundcrew.net). “Nobody else was doing it. I created something that wasn’t even there,” Smaltz says, “because the people who had been doing it were friends and family, [and they were providing their services] for free.”

But it would take five years for her fledgling service to get its foot in the door of the Seventh Avenue fashion establishment. “Nobody was waiting for me to be in business. First of all, nobody wants to know about you being in business,” she says. “They want to see if you can be in business and stay in business before they give you business.” Smaltz’s breakthrough came when she helped coordinate a special Calvin Klein show for Bergdorf Goodman in 1986. She began dressing Klein’s fall and spring shows, and other well-known clients followed.

In addition to fashion week shows, the Ground Crew works runway shows for retailers such as Nordstrom and Saks Fifth Avenue plus music video and catalog photo shoots. Today, the company has two full-time employees, two part-time employees, and a freelance staff that numbers more than 125 during market weeks. The Ground Crew earns $750,000 in revenues and handles 250 events a year for a client list that includes Donna Karan, Michael Kors, Giorgio Armani, and Oscar de la Renta. During fashion week last September, the Ground Crew had some 60 jobs in eight days, 35 of which were shows and the rest were pre-show jobs, such as fittings and stand-ins for the models.

After almost 30 years of running her own company, Smaltz is starting to look toward the next chapter in her life. She’s working on her memoir, due out next year. And she’s training others to carry on the business without her. “I’m looking to ease on out,” she says, while also working to expand her business nationwide. “It’ll be happening soon.”

VIDEO: Audrey Smaltz is profiled on the Black Enteprise Business Report as a recipient of the Women of Power Summit Legacy Award

Norma Jean Darden: The Accidental Chef. Spoonbread Inc. Darden, 65, was exposed to modeling through her

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