For Casting Director Isabel Bush the Street Is Essential for Inspiration

As a fashion setting, London has historically nurtured emerging talent on the runway and behind the scenes, and for Isabel Bush, that spirit of discovery has stood as a full-circle moment in her casting practice. As the young Australian casting director has ascended in the industry, she has highlighted the possibilities of human expression, casting relative unknowns for clients like Diesel, Vivienne Westwood, and Martine Rose. It is with Martine Rose that Bush emphasized the importance of the street in casting, as many of the unique faces that graced Rose’s runway are newly discovered [sometimes within days of the show] and mixed seamlessly with represented models. Raw, offbeat, and often unrefined, the faces Bush finds are excited to walk a show for the first time, their hair spiked and slicked and dyed green, revealing a sense of unfettered humanity beneath the clothes. Thumbing through the pages of MARFA, POP, Self Service, and Another Magazine, her casting selections of established or less-expected beauties for photographers like Camille Vivier, Johnny Dufort, and Sharna Osborne has shaken up the usual, using muses that ground clothes in tangible reality. spoke with Bush about how she first moved to London after looking at i-D, the importance of working with collaborators like Tamara Rothstein, and the power of a model’s gaze.

Do you recall some of your first connections to fashion and how did you use fashion to craft your identity growing up?
I grew up in a small town in Western Australia, about a 4-hour drive from Perth. My mother has always had a great sense of style, and although it was a very rural upbringing, she had a firm distinction between farm clothes and clothes we could wear out in public. There was a small boutique on our main street by a woman called Ricarda who was curating a selection of smaller luxury European brands, and it was one of my earliest memories of ‘designer’ clothing. Both my parents had become Christians as adults and decided to homeschool me and my five other siblings, so there was always a sense of being an outsider from an early age from the church and other kids my age. I think clothes were an outlet for me to rebel against the repressive feelings I had through the church circle and also to try to connect myself to the wider world.

How did you get your start in the industry, and looking back, how important was assisting in your path, if at all?
I always knew that Australia wasn’t my place, and I decided to move to London when I was 18 after being inspired by an i-D Magazine interview with London creatives. Initially, I thought maybe I could model, or become a ‘stylist’ although I knew nothing about what that really meant. Shortly after I arrived, it was really by accident that I was introduced to a friend of Alexandra Gordienko, who took my number and said she would pass it on. I was so annoyed at myself because I didn’t take their number myself and assumed the friend would forget to pass my details on, but the next morning Alexandra sent me a message asking to help on the second issue of Marfa Journal for Tamara Rothstein’s cover shoot with Brett Lloyd. At the time I was so deeply naive, I had no idea what the magazine was about, or how important the publication would become, but I had a good work ethic, learnt fast and just took any opportunity that was offered to me. I don’t think I realised you could get paid for assisting for about 4 years. I was just willing to do anything that would teach me and figured that people pay to go to university so if I worked for free I could get the real-life version by paying with time. Through Marfa Journal I was able to have this incredible exposure via the team, the interviews, and the shoots the magazine was doing; it gave me an amazing insight into negotiating stories, clothing pulls, and all of the logistics of how a magazine functions. Then much later on after leaving the magazine, I again quite accidentally found myself casting for Martine Rose when Tamara asked me to suggest some boys that were in my social circle for a project. I started to cast for the brand on little projects, however, it wasn’t until 2019 when I was pregnant with my now four-year-old that I really became aware of casting as its own role and focused [on the job]. I owe a lot to Tamara for encouraging me and being able to recognise something in me that I was totally unaware of until then.

Your casting collaboration with designer Martine Rose has resulted in multiple campaigns, lookbooks, and runway shows. Can you speak to your process and what role collaboration played in your success? Do you have people oyu work with time and again?
Initially with Martine Rose, I was just throwing ideas at Martine’s team and seeing what would stick. I am eternally grateful for their patience, and I think this open door for ideas gave me the space to play with characters very freely. It helped that I had worked with Tamara previously (who heads up the art and styling direction) so the visual language was already there to build on. I think once you get to a place where it becomes quite instinctive with a collaboration you’re in a sweet spot. I feel so privileged to work with them both, they’ve really mentored me along the way and they are both mothers so it gave me perspective on how to navigate that part of my life alongside work.

What was a breakthrough project for you?
For me personally, when I cast the Martine Rose S/S 23 show, it was the first time I had cast one of her shows by myself and the first one they did since the lockdowns. Previously it was always done in-house through multiple casting directors/scouts as it is such a heavily street-cast show, so once I realised I could actually do it, I had such a rush! I think for everyone involved it felt like a celebration as we’d finally come out of this heavy period of COVID uncertainty, the sun was finally shining, and we found a really nice groove together.

What do you think contributed to your career growth and achieving the calibre of clients that you have now?
I was lucky to have an amazing network through the experience of assistant styling and working with various publications, so when I transitioned over to casting I could collaborate with people who were my senior through those channels. I think the support of people like Tamara Rothstein and Martine Rose was a real co-sign for me early on too, and I was lucky timing-wise, casting has become much more diverse in terms of age and type of characters we are seeing, and my work grew alongside that.

What do you find inspiring? Whether it’s from the past or from the present?
I have always found people very interesting, I think this is partly why I never felt at home in rural Australia, there’s something about the anonymity of moving through a crowd or on the street that I find really interesting, sensing my way through spaces and different neighbourhoods and the people you encounter. Imagery is also very inspiring, I don’t have a formal education so have always stumbled across different artists. Deana Lawson’s portraiture has stuck with me, and when I witnessed Carrie Mae Weems ‘Reflections for Now’ recently at the Barbican, it was the first time that I really the power of art. However, there are lots of things that inspire me, birthing a child is such a trip. You’re constantly being asked questions that make you reevaluate everything around you. One of my daughter’s favourite things to do is ask iPhone’s Siri how and what things are made out of, and it makes me realise how little I know about the world around me.

“I like a quiet strength in models, someone who when they look directly, you feel the power of their gaze.”

Do you find yourself bringing that inspiration into your planning process when it comes to your point of view in your casting process?
I’ve always thought about inspiration as filling yourself up with lots of different ideas and thoughts and then letting it come out as it’s meant to, quite instinctively. But more recently as things grow, being able to translate my ideas through visual references is super important in helping us all align and build on ideas together.

What do you look for at the start of a model’s career? What do you look for in a new face?
I like a quiet strength in models, someone who when they look directly, you feel the power of their gaze.

Does casting also require an eternal element of scouting, or do you prefer to work through agencies?
The great thing about scouting is it ensures you’re always open to the unexpected, and I think it’s been really helpful for me in training my eye and knowing when I’ve spotted someone special. It’s also so rewarding to work with people who’ve never done anything fashion-related, especially if they are totally unaware of their look. But I also love working through agencies as you develop a relationship with the agents and can help launch a model’s career. I also fascinated by the politics and strategies of agencies, as a casting director you’re the middle-man between agents and clients, and you need to learn to manoeuvre around the stages of models and their careers, which can be challenging but is rewarding when you connect the dots for everyone.

Switching gears – who have been some of your favorite discoveries?
It’s always such a pleasure to discover someone off the street who’s lived their whole life completely unaware of their own beauty. I scouted a wonderful gentleman in his 70s at Notting Hill Carnival a few years ago. He was very active, working as a maintenance man for a shopping centre and his daughter was aware of fashion and encouraged him to go for it. In the end, he walked Martine’s Pitti Uomo show in January 2023 and has worked with them multiple times since. It was really special to open this world up to him and expose him to this other viewpoint.

What is your approach when dealing with clients? Do you find yourself having to analyze their ethos to understand who is the right model for this project?
It’s important to look at the past choices in casting by a client if you can as it gives you something to build on, and then it becomes a conversation of where to take it next. At the end of the day, the goal is to achieve something the client is really excited about and assist them in making the best work possible. As you work with them more, it becomes easier to anticipate their needs and continue building the story.

What do you like to do outside of your job? Is there anything you’re deeply passionate about outside of fashion?
Spending time with my family always but I also fantasize about other lifestyles constantly, I’m really curious. Nothing ever sticks as much as casting though. Maybe one day I’ll grow a biodynamic farm and make wine if I can master the patience needed. Or run a restaurant. Let’s see!