In our long-running series, "How I'm Making It," we talk to people making a living in the fashion industry about how they broke in and found success.
Some good news came out of this past New York Fashion Week: the diversity scorecard improved a bit; in fact, in a major milestone, every fall 2017 runway featured at least one model of color. And internationally, in Paris, Milan and London, more models of color walked fashion week shows compared to any previous season. (Hey, that's progress considering the step backwards NYFW took for spring 2017.) Some of this progress can be credited to casting director Gilleon Smith, who has been breaking barriers at NYFW for a while now, notably with her inclusive approach to client Becca McCharen-Tran's all-around diverse Chromat runway shows. Fall 2017, for instance, featured Iskra Lawrence and Denise Bidot, founder of There is No Wrong Way to Be a Woman.
Despite being considered a go-to for diverse runway casting, Smith didn't begin her career with a mission to change the industry. Establishing her lane in the business was the result of a bit of a perfect storm of her distinct skill sets and experiences met with really good timing. Smith moved to New York from California about 14 years ago with a BFA in theater. "A young little naive babe," she laughs during our phone interview.
As aspiring actors are wont to do, Smith ended up working behind the scenes as an intern for a casting agency for extras called Extra Mile (which she now owns). From there, she went on to cast in "different mediums" — film, tv, beauty, events and the fashion runway. A few years ago, when Smith was anxious to take the next step in her career, her old boss and mentor at Extra Mile decided to sell the agency, so Smith bought it. Then, former client McCharen-Tran was planning her debut runway show for the fall 2014 collection of her architectural swim and lingerie line.
Along with outfitting Beyoncé's backup dancers for the VMAs, McCharen-Tran has established Chromat as an intellectually (she's one of the first to use 3-D printing and wearable tech) and socially progressive fashion line. "She really wanted to include diversity — and not just ethnic diversity, but all kinds: A to Z diversity," says Smith, referring to ethnic, gender and size inclusivity on the Chromat runway, so she really dove into the project using her experiences and the network of contacts she amassed.
"Basically all the stars aligned," Smith says. She's been working with Chromat for NYFW ever since. This year, she also cast the inclusive and just cool lineups for Ane Amour, Pamplemousse and Berenik.
Having a non-fashion-related vertical as part of her overall casting services helps Smith to "expand her reach" when it comes to ensuring a diverse lineup. Plus, she has this innate sense for spotting potential. "A lot of casting directors used to hire me when I was an assistant because I was so good at scouting and approaching people on the street," she explains. "[I have] an eye for talent in unusual places."
"Becca's so great about having new models come in — models without agencies — and that's great for me because I know so many models who would want that opportunity, so everyone gets seen," Smith explains. "It's my job to bring all the people together for her, whereas other designers may not be so inclusive in the casting process."
Thanks to the industry attention garnered from her work with Chromat, Smith has become a go-to for designers who want to be inclusive, but her job often involves a bit of education for the client. "Sometimes we'll have plus-size models come in — and I hate using the term 'plus size' — or curvy women, and I'm like, 'okay, well, we should try that look on her because you have nobody curvy being represented in your line right now, and that's a big part of your population.' So those are suggestions and things that I try and do with my clients all the time."
Of course, she doesn't hold all the responsibility and does emphasize that the final decision to be inclusive falls on the designer and the brand, even if she doesn't agree. "I've had situations where the client has said, 'okay, the theme of the show is whites and brights' or something and they want all blond haired girls," Smith says. "In my mind, I'm like, 'okay, well I'm a person of color, so this is already kind of insulting.' So I try to make light suggestions. If there's something that's an aesthetic that this designer is really sticking to, it definitely goes against my basic principles; but, at end of day, I'm doing a job and I need to execute the job in [the manner] the designer is going for. So sometimes that means being exclusive."
She also illustrates how a designer's limited budget can sometimes "inadvertently" lead to a diverse cast of runway or presentation models, because, essentially, more money means the capability to hire bigger name models — who tend to be white. "The bigger the budget, the less diversity you're going to have," she says. "But, please do not misconstrue this as me saying, 'diversity equals cheap.' Those novice models or those women who haven't been offered that opportunity are being offered that opportunity. So it's a two-way street."
Especially through her experience with Chromat, Smith believes that opening up the runway to all, be it ethnicity, size, gender or age, can only help a designer. "I think [runway diversity] really grasps audiences, especially when they're at the show," she says. "It makes so many people proud and reaches so many different audiences and hopefully it makes the business more successful all around. So, for me, it comes from a place of genuine passion towards creating more diversity, but I don't know if that's the case for everyone."
Despite being on the forefront of the NYFW diversity movement, Smith remains skeptical about how much real progress the industry has made or what the future holds. "Is [runway diversity] a gimmick or some sort of publicity stunt [by the brand] or is this something that's inherent in the brand and what's happening?" she asks. "So that's where question with me lies." She also wonders if it's just another social media-fueled trend. "Is this a trend or is this something that's really taking shape into societal norms?" she asks.
On the flip side, she does credit social media and its reach with keeping parties in check when it comes to transgressions within the industry, pointing to James Scully's Instagram exposé on alleged model abuse and racist casting practices in Paris. "Now they need to be held accountable for whatever happens," she says. "But 10 years ago, that would have never happened and nobody would have known about it."
"I'm hoping that [diversity] is moving in the direction where it has lasting power," she adds. "As opposed to, two to three years from now, we're not even going to be talking about diversity anymore, but be back to the 'traditional' look." In the meantime, Smith will be out there at NYFW and breaking barriers "one little show at a time."