With the role of the stylist as a strong influencer, in both casting and the creation of concepts, being a trend that simply refuses to go away, we wanted to sit down with a voice of the next generation and discuss his ideas on the subject. Who better than Tom Van Dorpe, whose passion for fashion is matched by his love of models and their unique offerings of character and beauty? Where one stylist may ask on what a model has been working lately, with whom they’ve been shooting, and what they have coming out, Tom simply asks what time they can see him, and whether they are available for the project he has in mind. Taking risks on one model after another, this Belgian-born editor has very quickly made a habit of discovering his own stars. Oftentimes the first to book the boys and girls in whom he finds inspiration, the only formula he seems to follow is his own. Petitioning to slow down the speed of the generation turnovers, it’s incredibly interesting to hear from someone coming out of the present moment that he, too, would love the chance to have more time with the same girls from one season to another. Keeping up with his verbose excitement was an entertainment that I was happy to indulge and eager to endure.
Christopher Michael: After what has now become a few years of stylists claiming more and more control in the casting and concept process, we wanted to take a moment to stop and question this subject with someone who’s very much coming through as a promising force of the next generation. Additionally, you are quite possibly the most casting-obsessed stylist I’ve encountered among the new kids, and have always cared very much about the models with whom you choose to work. This decision-making process does not always follow a trend, as much as your own idea of beauty, character and inspiration. With that in mind, let’s start with the reasons behind your choices in this particular group of models.
Tom Van Dorpe: All of these models have some kind of story behind them. Starting with the boys, especially in menswear, it’s easier to develop a little bit of a relationship with them, because there are fewer models. Working with Tim Coppens in New York, I’ve always had a carte blanche, because I’ve been there from the start. With him, I’m very involved in the casting. In the beginning, as a new brand, he always wanted to find the newer guys, so it was really about finding the best of the new. We did an exclusive with Abel van Oeveren, who is now a big star, which is always a great followup to investing in an unknown who has so much potential. It’s not always easy for younger designers to get exclusives for their shows, which I don’t always think is necessary, but it is fun if you have your own face for that season. With Abel, when I met him, he was so tanned, like a beach boy, and it was fall / winter season. We ended up having to go to Duane Reade to get a scrub to exfoliate his face until the tan went away, so that we could show that he was actually amazingly right for the show. Eventually, we showed him how to walk, and everyone loved him, and he became an immediate sensation. He also has the character and willpower for success, which is something that many male models don’t necessarily possess. Since then, we’ve gone on to shoot editorial and advertising, and it’s nice to have that sort of progressive story together.
Another great guy that I used for Tim’s show, and like a lot, is Felix. I remember when I started doing shows in New York, everyone was very much interested in the bad boys. I was never into this idea, nor do I find it attractive. For me, a kinder personality is more beautiful to look at, with stronger features and a professional attitude. This, for me, is more chic and sophisticated in terms of casting.
Kyle Mobus, much like the first two, is someone whom I was the first to use. This is not a must, but it’s still something in the journey or process that I really enjoy. He looks like the baby brother of Daria. Originally from New Jersey, he just walked in from Re:Quest Models, and I thought he was amazing. We used him first for Richard Chai, and also took him for Tim Coppens.
In Europe, there are so many high fashion-looking male models, but they don’t always come to New York, because there are just not enough men’s shows for them to do. If they are American, for example, and have this very fashion look, it’s not easy for them to do shows here. This is the kind of guy I like, though, so I tend to use them here and, of course, continue to work with them for the European shows.
CM: And the girls?
TVD: In regards to the girls, I started as a scout. That was my first job. There is an agency in Belgium called Dominique Models, and I was friends with one of the agents there, Marc Dochez, who is now, actually, the owner. I’ve always been quite socially active, and I was friends with Ann Oost, Delphine Balfour, and all of these wonderful people. He asked me, one day, if I could start looking around a bit for them, because I was always out and about. He explained that the best girls rarely ever walk into the agency trying to be a model, but instead are found outside. Many girls in Belgium don’t really have that drive to be a model. It’s just not a common aspiration of the culture. Fast forward to a music festival about ten years ago now, I saw Hanne Gaby jumping around and thought, “Wow, this girl is incredibly interesting.” I think, within weeks of having found her, she was already walking Marc Jacobs. This was around the time that Paul Rowland was opening Supreme, and they were looking for really different and interesting girls, so it all came together quite perfectly.
CM: So, including her is very much an homage to your story, and your past, as well.
TVD: Yeah, but it all comes together in a way that very much reflects what I’m doing now. With girls like Hanne, and others that I had found, I would always go with them to their test shoots, and was quite involved in their careers: bringing clothes, dressing them, telling them how to walk and how to act, and that’s when people started telling me that I should be a stylist. Hanne was the first one who actually went international, and it was because of her that I was able to learn everything about the international market and such. The others with whom I was friends were already famous when we met, so I never really got a chance to experience how it worked before my journey with Hanne.
Taking a step back, I really have to talk about Hannelore in this story, because she was such a pivotal moment for me. You always hear people say that the first model they knew was Christy Turlington or Claudia Schiffer. The first model I ever knew about was Hannelore. I started looking at fashion because of her. There was this magazine, at the time, for which Olivier Rizzo was working, and he had her on the cover. That was one of the first times I was like, “Wow.” It’s something like T Magazine, but out of Belgium. Olivier was always doing these amazing shoots, and always using the Belgian girls, and, at the time, I had not yet started picking up international magazines. The first girls I knew were all of the Belgians, and, years later, after having the chance to get to know Hannelore, I fell in love with her even more. She was the first one I loved, and I still do. Because of her, and the way I perceived her from the beginning, she will always represent something very unique to me. I’m quite thankful that my first experience with fashion and beauty was of someone so different and special, rather than something from the world of a more mainstream idea. I think that it affects my taste and experience with the subjects of fashion and beauty, still, to this day.
Living in New York, even working for a magazine like V, that is not necessarily mainstream, it’s a different aesthetic. It’s always an interesting game to find the balance between what people understand, and that unique character that I’m grateful to have had as my first experience. It just makes things a little bit more interesting.
All of the other girls, like Marine Deleeuw and Josephine Le Tutour, feel very much like my generation. Over the past two years, I have really started to travel more and work on shows and advertising, and these girls are very much of this time. I can easily say that I love Anja Rubik or Catherine McNeil or Daria, but these girls are from a previous generation than my own. I’m currently more excited to work with girls that are new and with whom I have a shared story. Marine and Josephine, for example, we did our first advertising together. With Devon Windsor, as well, I’ve been working quite often. With these girls, I understand them, they know me, and we are very comfortable together. We have the sense of a shared journey or being colleagues, in a way. (laughs) I’m very excited about that. When I was only working at a magazine, I, of course, had my editorial work, but I had many other things to do there, as well, so I couldn’t really establish a relationship with the girls. I would choose a model, and she would be the face of that one story, but it would stop there. Now, I’m on the same schedule as the models. I have to go to the fashion week, then we have to do all of the editorial and advertising. It’s really the same calendar as the girls, which feels quite different, as a process. Right at the time that I took my own office, and really branched out on my own, at that same moment, many great girls were coming out.
CM: Would you say that your taste is more character-based than aesthetic-based? Or do you think there is any sort of common thread in the look of your casting?
TVD: 100% character-based. If I can’t talk to the girl, I feel so uninspired. It’s very much my reality. If I don’t understand the person, I just can’t work with her, even for shows. If I can’t see a future in her — if, to me, it appears to be a one time thing — I also have trouble with it. I need to see girls that have a star potential, girls that you can change into all sorts of characters and who love to be there. If the girl doesn’t enjoy people or fashion, I have a very hard time connecting. I also like girls who are slightly more mature, otherwise I get quite uncomfortable. It doesn’t motivate me to work with girls who are just sort of a puppet or a doll. You need to be inspired and that takes something by which to be inspired. French girls are great with this. They have the personality, but they are not over the top. They have a very good understanding of how to give personality, but without showing too much, because they have a sort of mystery to them. I think that’s why there are so many French models right now. Marine Deleeuw and Josephine Le Tutour both have that, I think.
Devon Windsor is something else. Recently, there is growing, incessant demand for ‘new girls new girls new girls.’ Devon, somehow, almost has the personality of a girl who’s been around for 5 or 10 years. I’ve rarely seen a girl that is so already developed, with such a clear character. It’s like she was born a model. She’s great with the client, she knows her body already, and has that chameleon kind of character. She can be so many different things.
Kai Newman is so, so stunning. Her first-ever editorial was with me and Benjamin Lennox for V, that is now out. She’s so incredibly beautiful and also such a natural. I think it’s really nice, because you’ll notice there is a classic and timeless element to each of these girls’ beauty, but they also each have something that’s quite unique unto themselves. I was so stunned by this girl’s beauty, and her smile, and she is really a girl with whom you want to spend time, which is very important to me. All of these girls have that. I think that it would be really wonderful to go back to a time when we have more chance to gradually develop a relationship with these girls. Even I can’t keep up with the new girls anymore. It’s all just happening too fast. If I can’t recognize these girls, looking at magazines constantly and every single show, then who is it that can? It makes me wonder if this is the ‘revenge of the casting director’ or something like that. Everyone finds a way to make themselves needed, I suppose. (laughs)
CM: Certain shows have always been known for their habit of launching new faces, but with shows, in general, including your own, do you notice that this demand or suggestion for new faces is coming from the designers more? Or the casting directors?
TVD: The casting directors, for sure. I mean, designers, of course, love to have their own identity, and having a line up that is unique to their show, but not to such an extreme. Look at the history of designers and their muses. They would use the same girls over and over again. Same for the stylists. I hear designers talking about that time with such fondness. It was always the same group of girls for at least five seasons, and it was much more fun for everyone. No?
CM: Oddly enough, I think everyone agrees with this idea, but, for whatever reason, it doesn’t take.
TVD: Also, for those who are not in the industry, they all had their favorite models, and the general public had more of an interest in shows. You had girls like Frankie Rayder, and all of these incredibly beautiful girls that were all doing shows, and they had a sort of public following. There is a reason that everyone loves to shoot Andreea Diaconu right now, for example. You can have a conversation with her. She’s well read, well travelled and has a lot to talk about. There is a value in that. I don’t understand the obsession with trying to push in all of these extremely young girls for shows. Perhaps there is a reason, but I don’t know what it is.
CM: I think that there is definitely a trend with this among casting directors, of course, because it’s a way of claiming a certain amount of influence in the process, instead of being reduced to a middle person who’s simply fulfilling requests. How do you feel the experience is, in general, for casting. Do you have much pushback from photographers and designers on your jobs? Or how is that chemistry, in general?
TVD: Usually, the photographers I work with are very open. Everyone knows I’m very interested in casting. It will always come down to a couple girls, and we decide together. I used to do a lot myself, but I can’t do it anymore, so I end up working more with casting directors, of course remaining very much involved. With advertising, the clients will always come to the stylist, because there is a sense that we are the most familiar with the brand and vision. They love it when we’ve already worked with the girl before, and are able to tell them a few details about each one and things like this. I’m very happy to be in a position, now, that I can work with the girls with whom I have relationships, and knowing that we can continue together. Without that, it’s very hard to do a good job.