Preston Chaunsumlit was arrested recently for loitering near his apartment in Bushwick. Due to the weekend and some lost paperwork, he was kept locked up in Manhattan’s Central Booking for four days. (The case was eventually dismissed.) “Being booked in the model world is awesome,” he explains. “But being booked in, like, criminal world is awful. But there’s really great street casting in jail. I’m serious. Everyone’s, like, really symmetrical. Everyone was dark-skinned; it was very Givenchy.”
It’s this kind of dark humor that makes Preston the perfect anti-hero on Model Files, a mockumentary web series about his life as a model casting director. In the show, Preston is lazy, mean to his assistants, clueless about how others perceive him, and has a phobia of revealing his feet without shoes. In reality, Preston is a model casting director, but hardworking and kind. The socks thing is real, however.
Preston (the character) is just the way we like our reality stars: one-third loathable, one-third lovable, and one-third completely self-unaware. The first season features idiosyncratic fashion situations, such as casting for baby models; the second season focuses on Preston’s downward spiral with his frenemies R.J. King and Cole Mohr, both top male models. An artistic decision was made to flesh out the characters of R.J. and Cole for Season 2 because there’s just something funnier about male models.
Preston, who is 33 now, moved to New York City to study film in college. This lead him to an interest in photography, and he got several office jobs with fashion photographers and casting agents. His career in casting happened almost as an accident.
“I was constantly being approached when they wanted a ‘real person’ by casting agents, but I never got a job.” He set up a photographer with a model he happened to know, and after that people started calling him for casting jobs.
Model Files was conceived by Preston’s friends who were working at VFiles. Before the site’s launch was at Fashion Week, Preston’s friends invited him to come check out the new offices. When he arrived, they sat him down at a conference table and told him they had planned a web series based on him. The series, which is in its second season, manages to be insidery about fashion but not snobby. More importantly, it’s actually very funny.
One of Model Files’s producers is Lauren Boyle, who has been friends with Preston since meeting him in 2002 at the Odessa Diner in the East Village. Lauren and her team shoot pieces of different episodes out of order without telling Preston what the plot is, while feeding him lines that he ad-libs over. I watched them film a reality genre staple — the video confessional — in the tiny photo studio in the basement of the VFiles office. Preston says a line and adds a sassy finger wave. “You’re so good when you’re being dry,” Lauren coaxes. The finger wave is reduced on the second take.
VFiles is the brainchild of veteran fashion editor Julie Anne Quay, who was recently profiled by BuzzFeed Fashion. A minority stake is owned by V magazine, and, confusingly, the “V” in Vfiles stands for “virtual files,” not V magazine.
The site is an ambitious mix of a Pinterest-like social network driven by a large library of scans from vintage fashion magazines, plus its own original video content. The site generates revenue from its online clothing and accessories shop (you’ll find a physical VFiles store in the site’s Soho office), as well as brand partnerships.
VFiles and Model Files stands out because the fashion industry is notoriously self-serious and, it follows, bad at the internet, where editorial content is often driven by humor. A huge part of the industry also appears to operate totally offline, while some top designers have rambling Twitter accounts and still other important media personalities like Anna Wintour have almost no digital presence.
But VFiles is surprisingly forward-thinking in both its technology and internet-savvy tone. Unsurprisingly, there isn’t a competitor high-fashion Pinterest/Tumblr hybrid fueled by ecommerce with original video content. The closest similar site might be Brit.co, a crafting/DIY blog that sells craft kits and supplies on the site and just raised $6.3 million in venture capital funding. But Brit.co’s fashion and craft advice is pointedly accessible to a Midwest Pinner’s sensibility (fun ways to wear a scarf!), whereas VFiles has Yohji Yamamoto as a suggested search tag.
Preston is the most visible face of this forward-thinking site. When I met with him in the VFiles office, a stream of models came in to have Preston look over their portfolios and have him take test photos. They’re all dying to be on Model Files — a sign of VFiles’s burgeoning influence. Sophie Summers, a spunky blonde who won Britain’s Next Top Model, begged Preston to put her on the next season of Model Files, possibly as R.J.’s British cousin.
He explained why casting and fashion photo shoots make for good mockumentary: “The whole thing’s awkward, and I feel like no one really has explored that except VFiles. Everything’s kind of precarious, maybe there’s a pecking order, and you’re all thrown together in a studio and you have to get along. For a picture.”