At just about the point where Harley Viera-Newton comes rumbling through the door of The Establishment Casting agency, a fabulous mass of brunette hair and vintage Robert Lee Morris jewelry, tottering on those high wire high heels only the really stylish girls can pull off, I start to wonder if it was all a set-up. Is it possible for any company to be so entrenched in all that is new and now and New York and still live?
In the two hours I had been chilling at the office, dozens of cool new New York androgynes had come running in and out. There had been a beautiful girl who looked a beautiful boy who happened to be the door person of the legendary Sugarland parties in Williamsburg. Then there was Shayne from Hood By Air peeking in shyly through the door. They were there for a casting for Love Issue # 2, a job Establishment’s proprietress, Anita Bitton was handling with great composure and a compelling brand of charisma. Midway through all that Ryan Korban, erstwhile interior designer and Edon Manor co-owner pops in to say hello.
Which leads me to conclude that it is not a set-up but rather the daily Downtown dealings of the life of Miss Bitton. Later, over a very long and languorous lunch at Cafe Select (a lunch so languorous that we ended up ordering dinner) we talked about Anita’s past, her passion, her casting aesthetic and her long time collaboration with the newly blue chip Alexander Wang. From young London model to an enviable position as one of New York’s most vital casting directors, it certainly was a captivating odyssey. Here’s Anita’s perspective on that journey
Cover photo: Backstage at Alexander Wang FW09 / Casting by Establishment | photo: Betty Sze for MDC
Photo: Marc Pilaro
WS: OK Anita, from London girl about town to woman-in-the eye-of-the Downtown NY storm. How’d it all start?
AB: You have to realize this always felt like a dream world to me ..When I was 10 I had started modeling for a store called Mini Rock by Barbara Hulanicki on King’s Road and there was this girl called Lara Bobroff…We did these pictures and there was all this horror that young girls were made up. That’s how I started modeling. My parents would take me to the store and Saturday and I’d give out hats…I became incredibly inspired by the whole atmosphere..the store… Barbara…but I wasn’t good at being a model. I just didn’t feel comfortable with being looked at… but I loved the lights and the creativity… I liked being around it and I knew it was something I wanted to continue with in the future. For years I went on and off with modeling…I did catalogues… knitting patterns… but I went to drama school …and got kicked out of a number of schools … for a few years. I grew up in South London where we were just obsessed with magazines… music.. style.. movies. When I went to University and I got the opportunity to get some work experience I went straight to i-D magazine. I went in there on an internship and got to work with Edward Enninful. He had just arrived there as fashion editor and that was really my introduction to that world. I just loved it. He was incredible. We worked with a number of photographers…people like Craig Mcdean and Jeny Howarth among others. It was a really great time to be there but as a kid you don’t really know that. I was also interning at a PR company and then at night I’d go work at TGIF. So everyday I’d work in fashion and then at night, go to make some money. I was really, really driven because I didn’t come from a privileged background. While at University I’d write Club and band reviews for the north of England for i-D magazine. I really was one of those kids… I was just very ambitious. I didn’t know exactly what I wanted to do but I knew I wanted more… it was an adverse circumstance and I really didn’t want to be there. So when I got the job in New York it was like…. ah escape… I emailed a friend in New York. She worked at DNA Models . I had met her at a London agency called So Damn Tuff. So I said to her “I really want to move to New York. Do you know of anything” She happened to be leaving DNA to go work at Next at the Men’s division. She said well I think Next is looking for an assistant on the women’s board. Next flew me out here. I interviewed. I moved to New York two weeks later.
I was an assistant on the women’s board at Next. I worked with Faith (Kates) and Alexis (Borges). It was the time of Filippa (Hamilton), Tasha (Tilberg), Carolyn Park, Jan Dunning…. It was so fun. I would go to Milan and Paris and hang out with the girls. Georgina Grenville got her American Vogue cover. I LOVED it. I was there for a few years. Then I got a phone call from Ford. They were looking for someone to go and do their editorial and marketing stuff. I met with them.. I wasn’t really planning on leaving …but they made me such a great offer I couldn’t refuse. So I went to work on their editorial board. Katie Ford was such a good boss. I really loved working with her. Neal Hamil… Katie Ford… that was really a great job. It was one of my favorite life experiences ever. This is like in 1999. It was the time of Erin O Connor, Vivian Solari, Maggie Rizer, An Oost, Fanny, Delphine. It was that kind of Belgian cool from Ford… I loved it but it came to the point where I didn’t really didn’t want to be an agent anymore. I loved what I did. I loved working with people. I always likened my family situation to the Royal Tennenbaum’s. It was eclectic… and amazing… multi-cultural.. It still makes me giggle when I think about it. I went to work with Kevin Krier after I left Ford. I worked for him for while . We traveled to Milan and Paris, we worked on Gucci and YSL and Tommy Hilfiger and Hugo Boss in New York. I had a lot of difficulties… Kevin was very good to me… but I had to take a break. I had to get my act together. I think you get to a point where you have to make a decision. I had all these opportunities and all these angels around me and then I started working with Miles Aldridge. He was doing the Neiman Marcus advertising. …Then I got another opportunity to work on DKNY with Peter Lindbergh. I felt so lucky. I kept getting opportunity after opportunity. I didn’t imagine ever being given those opportunities. Things like working with Irving Penn. That to me was unimaginable. That was the catalyst for my wanting to cast full time. I had a desk. I worked on 30th Street. I shared a space with Greg Kadel. He gave me the space. I always had angels. Then it became two desks. My friend Anna had a production company called AZ Productions then she was like… “Come and work here”… but clients don’t stick around if you don’t work for them. Then I got the opportunity to work with DKNY on the fold-out newspaper project.
WS: I am amazed at the level of enthusiasm you still have for your work. You’re not the least bit jaded.
AB: Every job makes me gasp still. I get excited still. There’s now a staff and an office …but… it’s still very exciting.
WS: Is there such a thing in your mind as a star casting director ?
AB: I see myself as a facilitator. I’m not a star casting person. I think it’s a tough position to put yourself in. I think casting is very subjective and it’s a very tough thing to do… Take three different designers… any three… there’s going to be three sets of different requirements.. styling… hair and make-up is going to be very different things to the girls. Natasha Poly can give you those three different things that new girls can’t. So it’s sort of difficult to cast only new girls…So there’s no such thing as a star casting director… making stars… I like to base things on fact… I’ve been interviewed about my opinions on girls but I feel like.. does it matter what I think? It’s important what the designer thinks.. It’s important what the stylist thinks. My job is as the gatekeeper. We’re there to be a facilitator, an organizer of your fit models… your looks models.. We’ll bring you the five best girls for your needs… and if those don’t work… we go back and find another five. We get them there on time. We communicate with the agencies so you don’t have to deal with that stress… We can help guide you to making the best decision for your project but we don’t dictate.
iD Magazine June 09 | Photo: Amy Troost
WS: How do you feel about the homogenized ideal of casting that pretty much defined this decade? From the eclecticism of the 90’s with CK 1 using diverse looks like Lois… Stella… Kate… somewhere along the line it went to one ideal…
AB: With this recession… we’re being fed these images through advertising… Sadly that’s been proven that this is where ideas are set. My ethos in casting is that each client needs a separate approach. I am model-centric, I love dealing with models. There are girls I meet and become totally affectionate towards and there’s a look that I tend to move toward but is it right for all my clients? Different clients have different requirements. The same girls for different clients? I think it delivers the wrong message. It becomes homogeneous and I think that’s what’s happening in society. I think that undermines the ability to create excitement. We saw this last season with what Giles Deacon did. You saw that with what Givenchy did. They were looking to think outside of the box. It’s what Alex (Wang) does since I started working with Alex. He’s very model-centric… he loves models… they’ve always been his inspiration when he was in school. He picks girls that he desires and it may not be what everybody else desires and there’s always a trend but it tends not to match the status quo. We’ll have popular girls but not to create a run-of-the-mill feeling. He was passionate about Tasha Tilberg… she was in the look book. It was an emotional connection. When I looked at the Giles Deacon show.. there was a girl like Alice Temple who is an icon. Rachel Williams.. who is an icon. The girls who are less conventional. Not necessarily tall and skinny. The line-up is not homogeneous where everybody looks the same. My feeling about casting is you identify what the client wants and then you provide a service to each individual client. You work with them so it’s team work. You work with them to achieve what they need.
WS: Humility seems a big requirement for the job..
AB: Yes, humility is a big word… there was a time in my life before we made changes that I would turn up thinking… I knew what they need. But now I understand what makes my job beautiful is that we go through the process of doing it together. It’s work and I love it. Essentially the designer needs to achieve some kind of individuality.
WS: Do feel like another part of your evolution is still pending…
AB: You know what I do with Alex; we do everything from his look books to the show… the most important thing for me is not about ego but that it be about service… the minute that anyone’s ego gets involved and you’re no longer providing that service then you get frustrated. If there’s something I want to do or there’s a disagreement …there’s got to be a vision for the client.
WS: What if a publisher approached you about a book project of your casting digitals?
AB: We’ve been approached about that a few times and the thing about that is it’s very personal. That’s where it becomes challenging because there suddenly becomes a lot of questions. You get into a very involved thought process of what to include, why you’re including it… how we should frame it. So I always end up putting that stuff on hold. Now when I’m working for someone else it is clearer for me. The more objective space is very easy for me… the more personal space is trickier.
WS: Is it hard switching between clients who are more catalog conservative vs the editorially edgy?
AB: No, because it goes right back to our daily meetings where we outline the guidelines… There are no gray areas… It’s very structured… It’s very direct… We’re very clear from the beginning. We have four girls in the office and then the boys come in as video operators or camera guys if you will. The creativity comes with those projects where we have to find new people. We get to hang out with them… we get to know them as people. Yet you have the discipline never to get attached to the outcome. Working on shows you have incidents when X model gets on the board because a stylist or a designer has always had the dream to work with her. I was mortified and then I realized that was my ego getting the better of me. Essentially it’s not going to ruin my life and I had to realize it was not my ultimate decision. That is a big part of my service.
WS: What about the reverse when an amazing girl..say Jac for instance walks in…
AB: She’s one of those girls….
WS: How do you survive in New York which is such a commercial, conservative market?
AB: I think clients here advertising wise.. you have to give people options. I’m very lucky that my clients are open to options. Right now the market is such that clients tend to play safe. I have younger clients.. I have beauty clients.. It’s very across the board and they want to see choices. I have clients who shoot for Japan… for Europe… for America. Japan and Europe are usually more comfortable with less conservative girls. America by nature wants something big…. Japan wants to feel cool…. Europe…. quirky. Editorially we are driven by US Vogue in America, for European magazines… the girls in the i-D’s and Purple are more unique looking. In that market the art world is definitely crossing over as an idea into the photography world. Everything’s bending inwards right now. You’ve only got to look at Ryan McGinley…. Brice Marden had a great quote in New York “The art is not suffering. The art world is suffering”. You see more art photographers re-branding and recreating the platform…the goal posts are changing.
WS: True… the fashion photographers all want to be in art galleries.
AB: It’s a really exciting time as everything is becoming a bit more unexpected. In casting there’s really no right or wrong, good or bad, it all comes down to a point of view.
WS: Modelwatchers tend to be obsessed with the issue of “good casting/bad casting”
AB: Well I do look at shows and I do have a reaction to them. I do look for a point of view. I looked at the Givenchy and was blown away. It was an amazing casting. I came out of it a fan. Meanwhile there are other shows you look at and you become extremely confused because there was not a focus or a point of view.
WS: Can a bad casting destroy a show?
AB: I don’t think so, I really don’t think so.
WS: Vice versa?
AB: I think you get a great girl in a bad dress you can still sell the dress. She’s going to get the picture in the magazine. You get a Vogue girl she’s getting column inches somewhere.
WS: And now the sweepstakes start all over again in a few days. Are you ready for it?
AB: I love it…. the challenge…. the excitement. I absolutely love it.