Historically, fashion images have been a representation of aspiration. We have deeply immersed ourselves in what we hope to be, whether that is rooted in reality or the well-crafted world of social media. Casting in the fashion industry has taken this notion further, embodying what that aspiration physically looks like. Yet, as society continues to go through relentless trauma and an unprecedented pandemic, it seems a few creatives are pushing back on what fashion’s gatekeepers have force-fed the masses. At a time when consumers are questioning inherited privilege and preconceptions based on identity, the industry needs to make sure that it is broadening the spectrum of stories that it has chosen to share and uplift. Models.com contributor and stylist Carolina Orrico spoke to casting directors who are taking action to no longer accept the status quo, visualizing beauty based on authentic stories, and building a “new normal” in casting.
London-based stylist and casting director Mischa Notcutt is the founder of 11 Casting and flipped her passion for people into great career heights working with clients like i-D Magazine, J.W. Anderson, and new buzzworthy brand, Mowalola. “I love fashion, I love people and I love faces so it made sense to start casting,” Notcutt explains. On the topic of diversity, Notcutt feels as if the discussion “has been trending around the industry for a while.” Her usage of the word trending is firm as if one could talk about inclusion as they talk about a style that might not be ‘in’ next season.
She points out that while tokenism is on its way out, it’s being replaced with performative diversity, what many people on social media called companies out for on the #BlackoutTuesday event this past June. “I believe the current state of diversity in fashion is less of the industry believing in representation but more about individuals or brands not wanting to be called out.” She also observes that although Black, Asian and non-white people represent a large percentage of the luxury fashion market, white models still dominate representation on the runways and campaigns. She shared that some clients have gone as far as questioning the ‘elegance’ of black or non-white people to carry luxury. “These racist stereotypes need to be demolished,” said Notcutt who argues that casting directors have a responsibility to question and push clients if there is a resistance to diversify representation. Despite pushback, the power ultimately lies within the brands to see the value in it.
“…the current state of diversity in fashion is less of the industry believing in representation but more about individuals or brands not wanting to be called out.” – Mischa Notcutt
For Mexico-based casting director and owner of Güerxs Agency, Maria Osado, inclusion is a personal mission with global reach, having worked with coveted brands such as Marni, Bottega Veneta, and Barragán. Osado started representing talent because she found her ex-schoolmates and friends more interesting than the people that didn’t look like them that she saw in media. “I created my agency Güerxs straight out of high school in Mexico City when I was 19. I was far from knowing what working in casting implied but felt a strong need to show the fashion world all these faces that I interacted with regularly but were not represented,” Osado explains. Osado hopes that there’s awareness of the diversity of backgrounds that Mexican talent comes from, “Especially those biographic qualities that are impossible to standardize and shouldn’t be silenced. Diversity in race, emotions, body, sexuality, and gender fluidity are key.” Osado has not let her age, now 22, stop her from using her network to uplift her friends over the status quo.
Casting director, producer, and model Nouri Hassan has shaped the conversation of inclusion by her personal experiences with reducing inequality and poverty. Her previous work in nonprofits paired with her dedication to fashion led her to become the founder of XYNE, a casting and creative collective that champions inclusion in the industry.
“I was starting my modeling career here (in NY) and experiencing tokenism on set regularly. I found myself being the only Brown or curvy model booked for the shoot,” said Hassan. “I felt compelled to use my strengths and knowledge in both of these areas to solve the problems I was facing firsthand. I founded XYNE to provide more opportunities for underrepresented communities while promoting progressive change in fashion and advertising, intertwining fashion and social justice.”
“As a casting director, I refuse to tick a box,” she remarked referring to the fact that each person’s identity is far more intricate than a checklist could ever reflect. With this in mind, her goal to combat tokenism is through working with models from all walks of life, especially models of color and the LGBTQ+ community. She also stands by authentic efforts of inclusion for all brands, both in front of the camera as well as behind the scenes. In her mind, there has never been a better time to leverage privilege and to give a voice to underrepresented communities and ensure they receive equal pay and equal opportunity.
Stylist and casting director Katherine Mateo‘s work has been inspired by her personal experiences with a lack of diversity in fashion. “Growing up I seldom saw any models that looked like me and on the off-chance, I could identify with a fellow Dominican, it would just be a glimpse because she would blend in with all the other fair-skinned models,” Mateo reflects.
“It’s not as simple as an Instagram post but enacting real change – hiring more Black/POC people for various roles across the board. Models, casting directors, creative directors, stylists, photo, HMU – otherwise, the narrative will still be flat and one-sided.” – Katherine Mateo
Casting fell into her lap and she’s glad it did. “I was working at Pyer Moss as a social media manager when my boss (Pyer Moss‘ Kerby Jean-Raymond) asked me to cast the FW 16 show”. Mateo admits that although she felt intimidated, she knew she had enough experience in fashion to pull it off. “Reflecting on the success of the first show I cast, the critics’ focus wasn’t only on the clothing but also on how our models amplified the message the designer was telling,” Mateo reflects touching on what casting should ideally be about. Realizing that she wanted to learn more about this part of the industry, she sought mentorship opportunities working with casting director Michelle Lee and dove into what felt like a crash course of Casting 101. “When a project is sincerely pursued, its intent is not only seen but it’s felt. I wanted my approach to not be part of a gimmick or marketing scheme, but for inclusion to remain as the only agenda,” reflected Mateo.
She calls for bigger brands to stand up and partake in the call for change. “It’s not as simple as an Instagram post but enacting real change – hiring more Black/POC people for various roles across the board. Models, casting directors, creative directors, stylists, photo, HMU – otherwise, the narrative will still be flat and one-sided. Not only when it’s convenient or the political climate forces them to do so.”
Working as the casting producer at Nike, Mollie Maguire oversees hiring faces all across the board for their shoots. She started her career in fashion assisting stylists like Avena Gallagher, Karl Templer, Melissa Ventosa Martin, and Sara Moonves and her styling connections landed her a job at the sneaker giant as an art producer. She found that she loved casting and that it was the perfect niche for her within the industry—bringing both her logistical and creative backgrounds into one world. Having worked with huge names in the styling world and now being part of a brand whose messaging has such a strong impact, she’s been a witness to slow but undeniable, positive change, yet recognizes there’s still more work to be done. “There used to be a very narrow archetype of what it meant to be a model—one frame, body, set of features, but that is shifting.”
She insists that increased representation in casting is important because we don’t live in a world where there is a fixed or singular version of ‘beauty’. “Everyone deserves to see themselves represented—it’s like the saying ‘When you see it, you believe it’—and I’d love to see the industry commit to making even more progress in reflecting and embracing the wonderfully diverse world we live in.”
The crucial conversation of inclusion has impacted each sector from high fashion to media. In step, Ricky Michiels is the current casting director at Office magazine where he recently cast Julia Fox, Luka Sabbat, and Teddy Quinlivan and also recently started his talent management agency. Michiels’ aha moment came out of frustration. Before his current roles, he had forged a path in the fashion industry working for different production companies, often dealing with casting as part of the combo, where he felt that brands and publications’ were overlooking newer faces, ones maybe not 5’10” or with flawless skin, for more established ones. “I couldn’t stand the thought of working for another company whose values I didn’t align with, doing work I didn’t believe in,” Michiels remarked.
At some point, he understood he could have more control over what faces where being put in the spotlight by going solo. He left his last full-time production position to work at a bakery down the street from his apartment while he figured out the next steps to start his own business.
Michiels understands that race, along with other elements ranging from scars to missing teeth, or just a pair of beautiful eyes shape our identity and are part of every individual’s story and is using his position as an opportunity to push for these stories to be visible. “After casting editorials and advertising projects for years, I began to scout interesting faces I saw on the street and online, faces that maybe weren’t right for the publication I was currently working with at the time, but that I thought could be a perfect fit for another project or brand,” he noted.
He’d love for younger generations to see themselves represented in fashion and media through his work and be proud of who they are, an opportunity he feels he and others from his generation didn’t have. “My only hope for the future of casting is that we continue to push the needle further with each project we work on until one-day ‘diversity’ is not a token request made to fill a quota, but rather a natural need to accurately represent the beautiful range of humans that walk past us every day.”
“We live in a media fantasy that doesn’t look like our reality at all and is a false representation of ‘human perfection.’ It is time we change this narrative and celebrate our own native beauty.” – Carlos Castellanos
Something of a fashion activist in his native Mexico, casting director and producer at In the Park Management, Carlos Castellanos represents talent that has booked jobs for Balenciaga, Burberry, and Vogue Italia. For him, the conversation of inclusion wraps around wanting to use his privilege as a white queer, readily admitting that fashion is a rare place where queerness is privileged, to question certain stereotypes in this industry, specifically in Mexico. “My job is to make equality visible through images and break the white and heteronormative paradigm that has dominated the world,” especially in fashion and advertising in Latin America he says. In his view, for non-white Latin American beauties to be celebrated in their own countries is a challenging battle. “We live in a media fantasy that doesn’t look like our reality at all and is a false representation of ‘human perfection.’ It is time we change this narrative and celebrate our own native beauty.” he remarks
Castellanos also often speaks openly about the fact that media and representation can be partially held accountable for people not feeling comfortable in their own skin. Examples of this are queers dealing with the false conception that they should be more ‘heterosexual’, trans that they need to change their biological features to be accepted as the sex they identify with, POC having gone through whitening treatments, all based on media representation of a questionable beauty standard. “I want to challenge these outdated archetypes and champion people who have been underrepresented, not just to follow a trend, but because it is honest and real. If we don’t question the root of these issues we’ll keep minimizing representation and how it molds the way we see ourselves and others.”
The progress that Castellanos and other casting directors are making towards inclusion and visibility is huge in terms of impact. Their perspectives remain essential as they have influence over what fashion looks like.