When Good Model Casting Goes Bad

Just because a girl is buzzy doesn't mean she should walk every show.
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Maura Brannigan
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Just because a girl is buzzy doesn't mean she should walk every show.
Lexi Boling in her natural habitat: opening Alexander Wang's 10-year anniversary show during spring 2016 New York Fashion Week. Photo: Antonio de Moraes Barros Filho/FilmMagic

Lexi Boling in her natural habitat: opening Alexander Wang's 10-year anniversary show during spring 2016 New York Fashion Week. Photo: Antonio de Moraes Barros Filho/FilmMagic

Of the many roles within the fashion industry, casting agents are one I admittedly know very little about. While we at Fashionista have spent a good amount of time delving into the scouting and managing aspects of the modeling business, casting remains somewhat mysterious. Part of me likes to pretend that runways just fill themselves, conjuring up lifelike renderings of super-humans far too perfect to exist off the catwalk. Alas, the casting business may live behind-the-scenes, but it leaves a significant imprint on the industry as a whole. Where would Fashion Week be if gatekeepers didn't exist to curate the cast of a show according to a given brand's personality?

To be sure, there are few aspects of Fashion Week more satisfying and synergistic than a stellar runway cast. Olivier Rousteing has built a small infantry of leggy, sexy beauties — with a substantial amount of Victoria's Secret crossover — who we can count on to show up in bandage dresses for any Balmain engagement. Then there's Marc Jacobs, whose catwalk is populated with a similar array of "It" models, but features a number of quirky, fresh faces, too. And few do casting as well as Alexander Wang, a designer who built an empire on the cigarette-toting, mean-mugging Bad Girls Club image that has attracted and shaped so many of his go-to models. Could Lexi Boling, Binx Walton and Anna Ewers have developed the explosive careers they have without the rowdy direction of Wang, and vice versa?

In theory, a good model lineup is the best sort of branding a designer can engineer. The cast should exemplify the label just as plainly as the clothing, as well as the beauty look, music and set design. At best, the show's models should look as if they could comfortably walk straight off that stage and into the real world, as living examples — or, well, models — of the label. At worst? It has the opposite effect, and sorely so.

We saw this firsthand at Diane von Furstenberg's spring 2016 show. Clad in swingy, pastel dresses, models were dolled up in cerulean eye shadow, their hair set in giant waves and accented with flower pins — just as von Furstenberg herself used to do in her younger days. Blatantly energetic and feminine, the presentation itself was a perfect iteration of the von Furstenberg brand, and there was no shortage of trending supermodels: Karlie Kloss, Kendall Jenner, Lily Aldridge, Jourdan Dunn, Irina Shayk and both Bella and Gigi Hadid were all in attendance.

Molly Bair in Diane von Furstenberg's spring 2016 show during New York Fashion Week. Photo: JP Yim/Getty Images

Molly Bair in Diane von Furstenberg's spring 2016 show during New York Fashion Week. Photo: JP Yim/Getty Images

But then there were the Wang girls, too — Boling, Walton and Molly Bair, above — who, despite being hugely in-demand, looked far from natural in disco makeup and butterfly prints. Von Furstenberg often encourages her models to smile as they prance down the catwalk, a posture women like Kloss and Aldridge assume with ease. But it appeared uncomfortable and insincere on models like Boling, whose personal brand is more Queen of Detention than Girl Next Door. And while von Furstenberg couldn't have found a better girl than Gigi, a bona fide California sun goddess, to close the show, casting Bella — normally styled as the darker, edgier sister — felt forced.

As I see it, much of this can be chalked up to publicity, to reviews being able to rattle off the lengthy roster of models just as we did. For heavy-hitting designers like von Furstenberg, there's a tendency to cast buzzy faces with a Gotta Catch 'Em All mentality — and, frankly, we don't blame them. Is it better to cast 15 all-encompassing "It" models than five better-fitting ones? On paper, it's the former that's far more impressive, but a little selectivity couldn't hurt.

There is a way to strike a balance, though, and if anyone has it mastered it's Piergiorgio Del Moro, a leading casting director who has curated the runways of Versace, Armani Privé and Fendi. For Del Moro, a designer will often send him a mood board loaded with varying types of inspiration; Kate Moss, he mentioned, is a popular source. "I have a very specific aesthetic of beauty — what I like, what I don't like — but I don't work for my own brand," he told me. "The way to be a [good] casting director is to elevate the DNA of the brand and find the best match for them. If I go to work for Versace, it's obviously a completely different approach than working for Theory. You need to understand the DNA of the brand, and then from there, elevate the image." 

This, he said, is his top priority: "I really don't like to pick the same model for all the shows. That doesn't make any sense."

Chanel, above all, is a noteworthy exception, integrating models like Boling, Walton and Bair as seamlessly as Jenner and the Hadids in its model lineups. But as a fashion house that represents many different things to many different people, Karl Lagerfeld need not worry about image-control in the way Del Moro described. There is perhaps no other brand as multifaceted as Chanel, and as far as casting is concerned, that works in its benefit.

But not every designer has the luxury of resting easy in the way Lagerfeld does. Not only does it appear unoriginal to load a runway with as many top models as are in arm's reach, but it won't bode well for the brand in the long run. Casting is a thoughtful process, one intended to heighten the marketing and the product of the company. To disregard this is such an obvious play for exposure that it reflects oddly on the label's artistic vision. 

With Fashion Month now upon us, I hope to see fewer concentrations of Instagirls, though I'm not so sure my wish will be granted just yet. In an industry so centered on what's new, there's no need to rely on the same 20 faces — even if they do bring in the big bucks.