5 Top Casting Directors Explain Why Runways Are So White

“I feel the Dior cast is just so pointedly white that it feels deliberate. I watch that show and it bothers me — I almost can’t even concentrate on the clothes because of the cast.” posted on

The finale at the fall 2013 Saint Laurent show. Pascal Le Segretain / Getty Images

Nearly 90% of the models cast to walk in the fall 2013 runway shows in New York, London, Milan, and Paris were white. While this is not a new problem, it isn’t one that seems to be getting any better. New York’s designers even cast more white models than they did the previous season.

Some labels, like Tom Ford and Givenchy, excel at casting diverse models for runway shows. Yet many of the industry’s most important and celebrated labels, like Christian Dior and Chanel, hardly ever cast models of color. I spoke to several of the industry’s top casting directors about why runway shows are so persistently white.

The finale at the Christian Dior show. Benoit Tessier / Reuters

James Scully
Casting Director for Tom Ford, Jason Wu, Derek Lam, Stella McCartney, Lanvin & Carolina Herrera

I feel like we have every kind of family and many types of ethnicities represented on TV shows and commercials — now more than ever. But not in fashion. I feel we’ve made strides in the past three to four years, thanks to people like [former model] Bethann Hardison, but this season in particular was one of the worst seasons in terms of diversity. Some of the biggest names who move fashion to the forefront, like Dior, get a D- on ethnic diversity. I feel the Dior cast is just so pointedly white that it feels deliberate. I watch that show and it bothers me — I almost can’t even concentrate on the clothes because of the cast. And recently they’re changing from a very diverse, worldwide, multicultural cast to just a very Germanic-looking white girl. Natalie Portman could complain that John Galliano was a racist, but I feel [Dior designer] Raf Simons sends the same message. I don’t know what the difference is. If I were at Dior tomorrow, there would be black girls in that show.

I was also disappointed that Saint Laurent, Louis Vuitton, Chanel, and kind of every other important fashion house — not one of them were racially diverse at all this season. My own personal stance is that the more diverse, the better. A lot of my casts were indicative of that, especially Jason Wu and Tom Ford. I’d say the cast was almost half and half. And not for any other reason than a beautiful girl is a beautiful girl. One of the most special things this season was walking into the room at Tom Ford and seeing someone like Herieth [Paul], and in a room with so many black models. It was an incredible thing. A mix of diversity makes the show and clothes more interesting.

Calvin Klein’s fall 2013 show. DON EMMERT / Getty Images

Tokenism does exist on the runways, that’s why Calvin Klein will put one black girl in their show every odd season. They do it to not get in trouble, they don’t do it because they believe black women should be on that runway. Versace will use Joan Smalls in their advertising, but why wasn’t she walking their show in February? Back in the day, Veronica Webb was a top model, Naomi Campbell was a household name. It’s odd to me that the same thing shouldn’t happen to Joan Smalls. And what about Jourdan Dunn? She’s one of the most beautiful women in the world. The fact that Liu Wen is not a household name confuses me; she’s the first Asian face to get a Western cosmetics contract!

Other than Fei Fei [Sun], who made a clean sweep [on the runways], and Liu Wen here and there, I don’t even feel it was as diverse for Asian girls as it’s been recently. You can’t just put an Asian girl in your show to appeal to China. That’s equally bad because a Chinese or Korean or Japanese person — they’re not stupid and can tell the difference. I think people do that just because they think, “Oh, China’s the next big market so we have to put one one in.” You should just book them because they’re beautiful. Some [models of color] wouldn’t even get shows if people didn’t have that backwards reasoning in the back of their heads when casting a show.

[The problem comes from] a mixture of things. The stylist has a lot of say, though. Obviously, the blame can’t be put on the stylist alone, but the designer is taking the cue from somebody. I just think it’s weird how people are constantly saying, “But it’s about who the girl is and her character.” A fashion show is not a storybook. A great model is a great model, and no matter who she is, she can take on any role. I don’t understand why only white girls could be that sort of gin-soaked boozy girl in Louis Vuitton this season. A character can be multicultural. We live in a multicultural world. At this point, it’s almost irresponsible not to represent that on the runway. I have millions of friends from all over the world, and if they don’t seen themselves in the product, they don’t buy it.

Michael Kors, fall 2013. Frazer Harrison / Getty Images

Jennifer Starr
Casting Director for Ralph Lauren, Ohne Titel, Gap, David Bowie & the Pirelli Calendar

I think diversity on the runway has gotten better in the past few years, thanks to Bethann Hardison, the CFDA, and perhaps most importantly, trends. But trends come and go, and the conversation must continue, and awareness must always be elevated. Things seemed to have changed after the Italian Vogue all-black issue and the season right after Obama got elected, but then I feel the next season things kind of went back to the way it was. We have a black president. The richest woman in entertainment is black. The entertainment industry is largely black. It just doesn’t make sense that runways don’t follow.

I have to say that I am always aware of [diversity], as I feel it’s part of my job to try and make the runways a bit more representative of our societal makeup. Some designers are not paying attention to being inclusive and just cast woman they love, which they really cannot be criticized for. I do think casting directors have a responsibility to have the conversation, elevate awareness, and find their clients the best models out there for them, regardless of ethnicity.

I remember this conversation a decade ago when I was called by Time magazine. Inevitably, there is always a blame game and quite often the agencies take the fall. Rationally, you would think that if there is a demand, agencies would have to increase the supply. Logically, I would deduce that there is not a big enough demand for black women on the runway. This season I saw maybe 200 new girls. The percentage of new black girls was really small, so do the numbers! If there are 200 new white girls, and five break out as stars, then if there are six or ten new black girls, the statistics are not in their favor. It’s a loaded conversation, but can anyone be faulted for not casting someone they don’t absolutely love?

I think we need to stop blaming and start trying to figure out how to change things. I would like to say that if agencies took on many more really great black runway girls, then designers would have more [to choose from], but I think that might be naive. I am really excited that there are more Asian women than ever on the runway. I would venture to say that has something to do with Asia’s economy now being second largest in the world. With every new show season, there seems to be a lot of amazing new Asian women.

Tom Ford, fall 2013. Eamonn McCormack / Getty Images

John Pfeiffer
Casting Director for Michael Kors, Bottega Veneta, Donna Karan, Diane von Furstenberg & The Victoria’s Secret Fashion Show

When you see one black girl and one Asian girl in a show casting, obviously there’s tokenism. But right now, Asian models are very trendy. Maybe that’s all attributed to the amount of money being spent in Asia. This past season alone, there were so many great Asian models out there, and they weren’t competing for those one or two slots. My own clients, like Michael Kors — we had six Asian girls. There were so many to choose from. Aside from the classics like Ming [Xi] and Xiao Wen [Ju], there were now Soo Joo, Sung Hee, and Ji Hye. They’re not just Chinese either. It’s great that designers are making those distinctions now — it’s not just an “Asian model,” she’s a Korean model, she’s a Japanese model. Myself, I am Filipino, and there are a few Filipino models out there. People want to identify with their own people.

Diversity is extremely important. You have to make an effort to have diversity in your casting. You really have to work at it; push yourself and push the designers to be diverse and more inclusive. When casting for the runway, you want the models selected to be cohesive as a group both in mood and spirit. That being said, I’m not the kind of casting director that goes for a homogeneous aesthetic. Maybe that look works for certain shows, but I generally find it to be bland and boring. Also, I want to see my own race represented on the runway and in images.

I do think [diversity] has improved in the sense that people are more conscious about it — thanks to a lot of people like Bethann Hardison. But I think we are far from representation from what life is out there. We need to continue to make an effort. Not just be conscious of it, but talk about it, but then, you also have to take action. Turning a blind eye to this issue is unproductive and dangerous. We need to take action. Fashion exists in a space that is about what’s next and what’s new. Certainly designers such as Yves Saint Laurent can be credited with making major strides in diversity — but I’m more interested in how that carries over into today. How can we as a community create a bold, empowering, and inclusive aesthetic? It’s something that is always on my mind.

Gucci, fall 2013. Vittorio Zunino Celotto / Getty Images

Barbara Nicoli & Leila Ananna
Casting Directors for Burberry, Marchesa, Gucci, Emilio Pucci, Armani Privé & Saint Laurent

Nicoli: I think, personally, I like a model if she’s a beauty. Sometimes what I disagree with is putting a black girl [in a show] just because you need diversity.

I love black girls. I’m a big fan of Joan Smalls. I would really like to put her in every casting, but sometimes she’s not right for some castings and she’s much better in others. This kind of diversity is fair and good, but it’s also true that sometimes I notice with other casts, it’s like they were forced to put someone in because they have to. For example, I love Asian girls, but there was a moment when designers decided to put a lot of Asian girls in just because the Asian market was strong and they gave a lot of money to designers.

I don’t like to talk in terms of white, Asian, black, etc., because a model is a model and that’s it. To me, if we want to talk about diversity, it’s about the model and not the color of their skin. It’s more about the body, the face, and the attitude. I think the designer has to decide who is good for their collection, and the role of the casting director is to suggest appropriate models. We have to make a proper selection for our clients. You don’t want to waste the designer’s time with millions of models in town for fashion week. We had some seasons with beautiful, amazing Asian girls, and we would like to use all of them — and some seasons there are less. Same goes with black girls. I don’t think it can be more or less politically correct to put a certain percentage of black girls just because they are black and [not to think about] their body, shape, or beauty.

I’ll tell you something. In Gucci, one season, we used Joan for the show, so she was the muse of the season. But, for example, Gucci never has a huge number of black girls in the show because in the mind of Frida [Giannini, Gucci’s creative director], she wants this [specific] type of girl — no matter the color of the skin. She wants this girl, then if the model she likes is black or Asian, it’s fine. But when you do a casting, [you see a lot fewer black and Asian models than white models]. I think if you’re very strict on your collection and have a vision, it’s pretty difficult to accept someone who is far from your idea of the woman wearing your clothes. It’s all about your beauty ideal, not the color of your skin or race.

It’s also true that, for example, Caucasians have a specific body type, black girls have a specific body shape, and Asian girls have a specific body shape. So I guess there are some collections where it’s more perfect for an Asian body shape because they are more flat and less sexy, in a way. Asians, they are not curvy, so to put an Asian [who’s] very flat [with a] baby body shape in a show where normally the designer knows they love sexy, beautiful, curvy girls, it’s a bit of nonsense. If you do it, it’s just because you have to or you want to please your customer coming from Asia. But it’s not certainly because you have, in your mind, the idea that that kind of girl, she’s wearing your clothes properly if you think your girl is sexy.

Annana [via email]: We don’t think [diversity improved this past season]. Diversity for a show is important as it is for life. All models have a different personality, attitude, background that makes them all different from each other.

For sure, [we think about diversity in our shows]. Sometimes more for some designers/brands and sometimes less. That really depends [on] each brand and the show concept.

Regarding the representation of various faces [on runways], we think fashion shows have already shown it. Don’t you? There are plenty of different faces in a show.

Sometimes we work with more curvy girls, and others with a very androgynous type. We worked on casting with a strong direction, like all blonde girls or all brunette, for example. Or other girls who are very similar, if that helps to make the collection concept stronger.

We think we need to keep in mind that these are shows. A show needs to make you dream, and it doesn’t necessarily need to represent reality.

Tom Ford, fall 2013. AFP / Getty Images

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