How one casting director is pushing brands to embrace diversity at NYFW

Last February, a parade of women in designer dresses and hijabs strutted down the runway for Indonesian designer Anniesa Hasibuan’s New York Fashion Week presentation. Hasibuan had already made headlines in 2016 for being the first designer to show hijabs on the runway, but this time, she was hitting another milestone: Her models were all immigrants.

Watching on the sidelines was Nicole Doswell, who came up with the idea to cast an all-immigrant show with help from LDJ Productions, in response to President Donald Trump’s executive order in early 2017 that prohibited individuals from Muslim countries to come to the United States. Doswell’s efforts became one of several last NYFW that made pointed political statements to support diversity initiatives.

As a diversity casting specialist at The Riviere Agency, Doswell’s job is to encourage fashion brands, from progressive designer labels like Hasibuan’s to more traditional fashion houses, to include people of color on their runways. She is part of a growing movement of casting directors and agencies focused on increasing the visibility of diverse models across race, size, gender and sexuality, both within major stalwarts like IMG and emerging niche agencies like Zand Wagon, which specializes in casting LGBTQ models.

Doswell said what sets her apart from the others is a focus on having deeper conversations with brands and their staffs to identify blind spots and find ways to fix them. Her role is essentially part consultant, part casting agent, but the primary goal is to foster a dialogue within companies to prompt diversity efforts.

While there’s been significant progress toward increasing the visibility of models of color — The Fashion Spot reported that NYFW in September was the most diverse fashion week to date, featuring a combined 30 percent models of color — Doswell said there are still many brands that have failed to recognize diversity as a priority. One brand, for example, recently told her they were looking to cast only “very, very pale models.”

“They didn’t say they only wanted Caucasian models, but you can read between the lines that it’s what they were asking for. I had to express the importance of having a diverse runway and the possibility of backlash for not casting diverse models,” she said.

While the aforementioned client was from an Asian market, which Doswell said places cultural stock in lighter skin, her role is to take a sensitive approach in encouraging other ways of operating.

“It’s about having a conversation and helping them understand the U.S. market,” she said. “In many parts of the world, fair skin is idealized as a standard of beauty. It reads high fashion, editorial and luxury. I start the conversation to say, ‘Whatever model type you’re looking for, I can find that for you, in every color of the rainbow,’ and I know how to.”

Ultimately, by failing to include people of color, Doswell said brands ignore entire groups of consumers (and thus revenue streams) that would otherwise purchase clothing from a brand. The key, she said, is for brands to find ways to showcase a representative slice of the American population and avoid doing so in a way that feels like a brand is just “looking at what’s buzzy right now and going, ‘Here are some black models with natural hair.’”

“What it will take is people standing back and really, truly asking themselves, ‘Am I being representative of people in general?” she said. “It takes a long time to change people’s mindsets. [Brands] have been casting this way for years. They think they’re making huge strides by putting five black models on the stage out of 50. That’s great, and it’s progress, but it’s still a minority, and it’s not representative. What about Indian models? Asian models? Hispanic models?”

As a result of failing to prioritize inclusivity efforts, brands are increasingly finding themselves in hot water, like in the case of H&M’s recent racist marketing gaffe. Though the brand responded to outcry over controversial imagery by hiring a diversity manager designed to prevent future incidents, it points to a lack of internal oversight in areas involving diversity. While positions like Doswell’s can help prevent such mishaps, limited access to the brand can serve as a barrier.

“It’s unlikely that someone in [a diversity manager role] will have real power in the organization,” Keenan Beasley, co-founder of creative agency BLKBOX, told Glossy last week. “I want to see some of these top leaders — CEOs, C-suite members, the executive board — take a stand on how they want to address it and set a tone for what they want in the company to make it a priority.”

Moving into NYFW this year, Doswell said she anticipates similar demonstrations to last year’s highly politicized runways and a continued push toward more diversity. She also said it’s likely there will be a particular focus on women’s rights in the wake of the #MeToo movement and the fight against sexual assault, following demonstrations at the Golden Globes.

“Fashion is one piece of the puzzle, but it’s representation that’s going to change the way brands cast or run their campaigns,” she said.

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