It's no secret that brands are increasingly aware of criticism surrounding narrow representation in casting, and a subculture of casting directors are making strides in championing diversity. Fall 2017's women's ready-to-wear shows in New York, London, Milan and Paris, for example, made up the most racially diverse season in recent years, with women of color representing nearly 28 percent of the models walking in the 241 on-schedule shows. It's a meager 3.2 percent increase from Fall 2016, but it's progress nonetheless.
In New York, body diversity had an unsurpassed season, too, with 26 plus-size model castings. Likewise, middle-aged women and transgender models made more appearances on the runways than ever before. While we are witnessing a period of change — an indisputably positive development — creatives know well that the media is inclined to cover campaigns that feature unconventional models. Whether their commitment runs any deeper, however, is surely open to conjecture — and when they merely tick boxes, inclusivity becomes tokenism.
"Sometimes we see diversity, and it's a contrived kind of publicity stunt, and then we have people who just genuinely want to see something different than traditional models," says Gilleon Smith, casting director for Chromat, an architectural swim and athletic wear brand acclaimed for having the most inclusive runway show for Fall 2017, with 77 percent models of color, five transgender women and five plus-size models. "Brands like Chromat are not doing this for any sort of press; they're doing this because that's who they see on the streets of New York City, and that's who they want in their shows. These real people are representative of the brands and what they stand for."
Smith is a casting veteran who's worked with clients ranging from Dove and Marc Jacobs to Harper's Bazaar and truTV. She says that while the conversation surrounding diversity has shifted over the past 15 years that she's worked in the industry, diversity is progressively getting trendier. "But it shouldn't be a trend," she says. "It should just be the norm."
Becca McCharen-Tran, founder of Chromat, adds that she still sees diversity used as a press headline for shock value. "I hope that one day it will be the designers who choose to cast all skinny, cis white women who are the outliers. There needs to be more inclusive representation in fashion, period. By any means necessary."
But those means require consistency, Smith adds. Chromat features new faces every season in every show; the label's Fall 2017 show wasn't just a one-off. "It's all in the walk and the way that you carry yourself that we're attracted to — how you make people feel rather than how you look," Smith says. "You can look good in a bathing suit even if you're a curvy girl, a short girl, a tall girl; as long as you're selling that bathing suit right, it really doesn't matter who you are but, rather, it's more so about how people are going to feel when they see that show on the runway and how all the women are representative of that empowerment."
A confident walk and strong, direct eye contact is what McCharen-Tran says she looks for in a model — "femme, gender non-conforming and creatives of all types" who inspire her every day. And that determines how the casting process works, too. "We want to utilize the platform we have at New York Fashion Week to elevate those around us," she explains. "We work with all different types of agencies and non-agencies because, for us, it doesn't matter what agency a model is with; it's more what the model is bringing to the table."
Alternative and unconventional modeling agencies like Anti-Agency, STATE, No Agency or The Ugly Modeling Agency, to name a few, sign those who don't fit the traditional runway-model mold, and provide casting directors like Smith more outlets from which they can choose. "It's making it accessible for casting directors to hone in on diversity, since obviously they cater to a certain specific group of people," Smith explains. "If a brand wants to celebrate diversity in their show, how do you do that if you're just working with traditional agencies?"
Ugly Modeling Agency, for one, has been stemming the tides since 1969. Chairman Marc French says they saw a niche in the market and had decided to work with individuals who boast a level of comfort in their own skin. "The way forward is diversity, and the world is full of beautiful people, so we need to use them more," he says. "The best thing for me is someone who is comfortable in their own skin and whether they've got character to their face."
French says that, for agencies like his, it's not about following trends. In fact, he argues that agencies of all kinds have always had different looks on their books. "I think it's the advertisers who need to open their eyes a bit more and be more daring," not the agencies, he states. "Most agencies have models with longer hair, shorter hair, not the most perfect teeth, interesting faces. Advertisers need to get out there more… And you can see right through token diversity. They need to dig a bit deeper and look for the real stuff."
Androgynous model Rain Dove is one of those "different looks" signed with a traditional agency (Major); yet she was always told she was a "niche" model who wouldn't get a lot of work. But Dove is more than a clothing rack; she's at the forefront of the revolution and, because of it, has loads of work under her belt, including an upcoming Sisley campaign in collaboration with Vogue Italia.
"I think, by being part of a very conservative agency and working my ass off to prove people wrong, I can open up doors for other people to come into those agencies," Dove says. "[Alternative models] who go into a conservative agency probably will experience disappointment because the agents will tell them things that sound oppressive and rude. But they're honest… You won't, unless you're a typical model, get some jobs unless you're of a certain standard."
While Dove admits that she doesn't get as much work with a conservative agency, she feels that she makes more of a difference because the brands and advertisers with whom she works wouldn't normally hire diversely. And there's something special about being cast "where people are really taking a chance and sprinkle you in."
That said, alternative agencies are indeed creating an opportunity for models and artists to have a safe space and be offered more opportunities, she says. "When you hear the term alternative, it can sound really dangerous — you might feel like, 'OK, I'm part of the freak agency,' but you're not," she goes on. "We don't need to have an all-weirdo versus and an all-conservative society, and we don’t need to be separate but equal; we just need to be equal. But it's hard. Let's be real about what models do: They're marketing. The thing is that the majority of human beings are strange and weird. We're all unique… But, realistically, a lot of the products that are being sold are being marketed to what are considered safe demographics. If a model is too much out of the box and they don't represent the people who are purchasing the products, [brands] risk driving away that base market."
In a word, it's complicated. Perhaps that's why some niche agencies aren't thriving as well as anticipated. Take, for example, former fashion designer Nailah Lymus's Muslim modeling agency, Underwraps. Founded in 2012, the agency garnered impressive international media coverage, from The New Yorker to Elle Brazil. To date, however, it represents only 10 models and has just over 800 Instagram followers of its own. Since its onset, the agency has expanded outside of the Muslim subset to include other more modest models, but its little traction suggests that there might not be much of an industry demand for such a specific demographic — despite predictions that the Muslim population will grow from 1.6 billion today to nearly 3 billion by 2050, which is faster than any other religious group. Muslim consumers also have a ton of purchasing power and are on track to spend around $484 billion on clothes by 2019.
"We would like to say you should do what's right and hire diverse models, but it’s unfair to ask people to put models in clothing who don't represent their target demographic," Dove explains. "They have the right to create an image of their product that they see fits… And when they feel like they need one of everyone like a crayon box, that becomes even stranger."
That's why, alternative agencies aside, Dove thinks that change relies on something else entirely. "I think we're going to witness something bigger than just modeling agencies," she says. "I think we're going to find that social media is going to play a huge role in procuring models and actors because that’s an automatic marketing space. People can market products without having to risk losing their target audience. You can have me post something on my Instagram and my followers probably aren't the conservative base that that product would lose, and they don't have to risk putting me on their billboards and in their stores where they get those conservative consumers."
Instead of paying one model $20,000 to be on a billboard, brands can pay four models with 100,000 plus followers $5,000 to market their products to a more targeted group. Suddenly, they're reaching half a million diverse people without consequence. Dove herself has done social media campaigns with brands like Rosebuds Earbuds, Dove, Kenneth Cole, H&M and more. Other influencers, like Singapore native Nadia Kishlan, are also proving how powerful social networking platforms can be. Kishlan, who modeled for Marc Jacobs back in 2015 after she was scouted on social media, is of Malay, Arab and Indian ethnicities. She says the market in Singapore prefers fair-skinned and Eurasian- or Caucasian-looking models and, because of that, she's experienced difficulty landing jobs.
"The most obvious impact [Instagram] has made on me would have to be the Marc Jacobs job," she explains. "Social media connects you to everyone in the world with an internet connection, so it's much easier to get noticed now than ever before. Tons of what we've seen coming out of fashion today can be credited to social media."
While Kishlan doesn't work with too many brands to promote products, she has had them approach her not because of her following, she says, but because they believe in her eclectic style and want to see it on the runways and in their campaigns. In fact, Smith says that many brands are essentially casting their shows on social media, oftentimes based on how many followers individuals have or who is following them.
"It does kind of take the tradition out of it, which is meeting someone in person and getting a feel for them in the garment to see if they're right for the show," Smith says. "But because social media has such a vast reach, it does also allow people to weigh in and hold brands accountable for not casting diverse shows… It's worldwide exposure, so it holds people accountable and gets a global discussion going."
Homepage/main photo: @chromat/Instagram