Confessions of a casting director: ‘Designers hoard models with no intention of booking them’

When The Fashion Spot posted its seasonal diversity report after the fall 2017 shows in March, industry headlines were quick to celebrate a banner season. Across New York, London, Milan and Paris, more women of color had walked the runways than ever before: 72 percent of models were white, while 28 percent were women of color. But some shows had no models of color.

For our latest installment of confessions, in which we grant anonymity for honesty, we spoke to a veteran casting director who has worked with brands from Lanvin to J. Crew about the industry’s continued lack of diversity and how some top-tier designers are contributing to the problem.

Would you say you’re hesitant to speak openly about diversity in the industry?
I have a personal view on the politics of it all, but I tend not comment on touchy subjects because I have corporate clients and can’t afford to lose work at this point. Recently, I have seen people lose jobs due to their commenting on different issues, and work is slow enough as it is, so I try to stay neutral on the outside. I don’t want to alienate any clients by making any comment that could be misconstrued or thought of as insensitive.

Is there a greater sense of urgency today to cast diverse shows?
I wouldn’t say there is a sense of urgency, but I do think that people are more conscious of it. I’ve spoken to other casting directors who say their clients are more aware of it lately. I have to say that I have been lucky; I have amazing clients who are, and always have been, inclusive — without even trying to be. But that’s a rarity.

What are some of the systemic problems that make it harder to diversify?
There are obstacles that come up and cause a sad domino effect for all involved: the designers, models, agents, casting directors, etc. For example, some modeling agencies have only a few ethnicities on their boards to begin with, and their fashion week show packages may have even less. Show packages refer to the selection of models a particular modeling agency will be offering for that show season. They usually consist of, like, two to three African-American girls, one Asian and 20 or more Caucasian models.

How are designers contributing to the problem?
There are high profile designers whose casting people see all the models at the fashion week castings and then place the majority of those models on “option,” which implies they’re considering him or her for an exclusive in one of their client’s shows [an honor that often puts models on the map]. Although those models might continue with their castings for the week, they’re not permitted to be a first option for any other clients. Even if a lesser designer says they are ready to confirm the model’s place in their show at a casting, their agent will tell them the model is being held by the top-tier designer.

These top designers hoard the models — often with no intention of booking them — and then refuse to release them early enough so they can book other shows. It’s like playing rummy: They won’t throw down a queen because they know the opponent might need it.

These models tend to include the few ethnic girls that are out there [because of their rarity]. So, when there are designers who really want to showcase diversity and book multiple ethnicities, they won’t be able to — or at least not as much as they’d hoped. Those models will miss out on any shows that had come before the major designers’ shows because they are holding out for their promise of an exclusive, so they are basically cut off from making money. Scoring that exclusive would be great, but it’s a huge gamble.

What’s the best way to start solving for fashion week’s lack of diversity?
Casting directors and major designers should release any models on hold early enough so that they can get other work. There should essentially be a limit on how long you can hold them. And the agencies should make a better point to fill their show packages with more diverse options in the first place. It would have a trickle-down effect.

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