Some words from James Scully, Casting Director for Stella McCartney, Oscar de La Renta – just to name a few

James Scully has been a casting director ever since I can remember. He has an exciting, crazy fashion job and I wanted to ask him some questions to really show the process of casting. He has been involved in different efforts to move the modern agenda in the right direction, including the CFDA/Vogue Health Initiative plus he has spoken on many panels highlighting the size and the age issue for models. His experience has been an asset to including the career of a model to be an important part of the fashion brand discussion. I love his knowledge of our cyclical world, and I have always appreciated his examples that exemplify the truth.

Who do you cast for during show season?

Jason Wu, Derek Lam, Carolina Herrera, Oscar de la Renta, Nina Ricci, Stella McCartney and special projects for Lanvin and Tom Ford.  And hopefully, 1 new client I’m very excited about and should know any day now.

What is the importance of a model being available for New York, London, Milan and Paris during show season?

Well, it’s definitely important as one of the big changes in the industry was the importance of print work and certain fashion photographers used to dictate which models were hot at the moment, and as casting directors we used to follow that lead. Now, with and other magazine websites, a model can have a very high profile just by doing a handful of the right shows instantly. The shows definitely now launch a models career faster.

What is the first step of your process in casting for shows? Do you see models just before the shows start or in between?

I see most models just before and I don’t do a lot of in between castings.  I get the agency packages and edit out who I need to see. Some people see every girl at every agency. I don’t because there are just some girls that are not right for me or my shows so I’ll see them if I have another project they may be right for. You get a lot of information sent to you throughout the year so I know who these models are and if they strike an interest in me I’ll make a point to find them.  But my work has a definite schedule to it and when I’m not working I disappear so I can wait till the shows when everyone is in town at once. For my needs I’m only interested in who’s in town to work with me at that moment.

Pictured below James is being “appreciated” by Daria Stroukus and Ginta

What is the process once you like a model new to the business?

Well since I work for many varied people when I meet a new girl I’m already slotting her into how many of my shows she could work for whether it’s 1 or all of them. So, once I like them initially, they will meet all my clients. Once they start getting my shows they are on those boards until the client no longer wants to use them.

At what point does the “mood” of the collection come into the casting process for you?

It depends on the client but I would say the type of girl is more important for my clients and me. At Nina Ricci the girls tend to be more refined, frail “jeune fille”, because the clothes have lightness about them. Stella McCartney is about maturity, a great body and lots of confidence and that’s a hard show to cast because that kind of model is dwindling. But a good example this season would be Jason Wu. His clothes tend to be for a more adult customer so to put conventionally beautiful girls in them would make them look less modern. He tends to like kooky character girls. They take the clothes out of context and give more edge and youth. This season the show was imperial china and some of the girls he normally uses just looked to frail in these very powerful military clothes so we did not use them. That is not to say they won’t be right for the next show.

Could you explain why a model in high demand might not be right for a certain collection?

Lots of reasons, some girls are very specific and just cannot cross over to every show. Or a girl is great to look at but does not have the confidence or walk that will appeal to everyone. A model may seem strange to some initially, but once people get used to her looks she can eventually appeal to everyone.  Great examples of this in the past would be Nadja Auermann, Kirsty Hume and Stella Tennant.  In the era of Christy, Naomi and Cindy these “new” girls seemed like Martians and one-season ponies. They were very shocking to meet for the first time. They were all too tall, couldn’t walk, not buxom like the other models of that time but each went on to have very successful commercial careers, and broke the mold for what people thought was beautiful. Today’s examples would be Meghan Collison Saskia de Braw and Julia Nobis. Although if this were the 80’s I think Saskia would have been racking up Vogue covers with Isabella Rossellini and Alexa Singer (yes I just dated myself).

Pictured below James is on the CFDA Panel with (from left) Aerin Lauder, himself, Doutzen Kroes, David Bonnouvrier (President of DNA Models), Zac Posen and Tonne Goodman (Vogue Editor)

How do you know what the designer is looking for in a model? Does it change every season?

Ahh, here’s the can of worms I could talk about for days. Where to start? Many casting directors have different styles. Mine is defining a girl for a designer and keeping it consistent.  So that does not mean constant change for me.  Most people don’t know what they are looking for these days because the biggest blow to the industry is the American fashion magazine and their celebrity covers. Vogue was the gold standard for any model in the business, the pinnacle, the Zenith.  That set the standard of any girl that walked into an agency. You had to be beautiful enough to eventually get that cover and you had years to work yourself up to that honor. When you did you called the shots. Every show had to have you.  With no covers for girls and the rise of stylists who need an inspiration fix as quickly as the internet moves, and many who don’t understand the difference between a show girl and a print girl, this ushered in what I call the era of the disposable model.

Prada became the benchmark combing Eastern Europe for EXCLUSIVE girls much too young and inexperienced to be in any shows but their shows.  I will credit them with creating a look that worked in a very provocative, interesting way for their image. This coupled with the rise of just had people on the edge of their seats waiting to see who the next hot girl at Prada would be and everyone just handing you a list of what they wanted from the internet instead of doing their own thing.  Problem is Prada would just replace them every season and though what they did for themselves I found brilliant, most of these girls were very disappointing in real life. Too young, no confidence or life experience and gone by next season.  So models were no longer developed. Show packages went from 20-30 dependable aspirational girls to 400 girls a season and after seeing them, maybe finding two okay acceptable girls to work with. And then everyone from Calvin on down just followed suit trying to do what Prada did getting all exclusive crazy but doing it very badly and unoriginally.  Personality and ethnicity disappeared and these pre-pubescent girls are why model size went from 8-0. And the business has not recovered from it and the situation is getting worse.

I don’t know who decided 16 was acceptable but when a girl who has not yet developed breasts or even a sense of who she is and is thrust into a woman’s job is hard enough. But then to be made to feel guilty by stylists and designers for turning into a woman must really be a mind f**k no matter what age you are.  And it’s forcing these girls to make very damaging uninformed decisions regarding their health to stay competitive.  What’s worse is that it axed out all the seasoned girls like Daria, Natalia, Raquel and Caroline Trentini who would all still be doing shows but they don’t want to compete with children for the same jobs, so they stopped. And we have not had worthy replacements since.

Is there a “style” of walking that you like? If a model has a bad walk, can it be adjusted?

That’s where I’m old school, if you can’t walk you will not be in my shows. I don’t care who you are shooting with or what hot shows you have under your belt. I can’t put an unpolished girl in front of my clients or it looks like I’m not doing my job.

James and Derek Lam below

What do you like the most about casting for shows?

I really do love to match a girl with a client and of course, my clients. That’s the challenge of what I do to present models that they will appreciate and develop relationships with and to see her career develop as a whole. People always ask is there a show I don’t have that I would like to cast and I always say Balmain. I love how definitive their point of view is beautiful, sexy, grown up and they never stray and they use the same girls who fly in just to be in it. When they add someone new you notice because it’s not about the girl of the moment. A Balmain model has to earn her place!

That’s my philosophy and why Stella McCartney and Tom Ford are favorites.  You become a character in their world and its about you as an individual not just being a lifeless characterless body which is what 90% of all shows are today. I think people have lost sight of what a runway image does. The woman who buys these clothes is sophisticated, rich and they need to see themselves in that picture to give them desire to want to purchase into this world.  It’s as simple as that. Models bring clothes to life. I know so many women outside of this business that look at teenage girls in these clothes and can’t relate. So sadly fashion loses out because at least a woman can look at a celebrity because they look real. And that’s bad also because celebs have now taken the aspiration and exclusivity out of the business because they make every thing average and accessible.  And that’s sad. The character of this business is what I miss the most. So the highlights for me are very few and far between.

What is the best advice you can give a model going on a show casting? What they should do, or not do, and what bugs you?

Nothing bugs me about girls in particular more than agencies are sending out girls that are not ready and when I have to see 400 of them it is very depressing and overwhelming So it’s a girl with personality and confidence that will always stand out in that crowd as clichéd as that sounds. And be on time! Always remember, if you, the model, is having trouble keeping up with your day, don’t try to fix it yourself. Call your agent and they will take care of alerting everyone else for you and giving you the priorities.

What is “looks” with a designer? Why do you ask models to do “looks”?

Ah looks models and hair and makeup girls are THE BAIN of every casting directors existence.  When a designer is creating all the outfits they will eventually use in their shows they hire a model and try all the looks on her to eventually edit and decide what will finally be in the show.  Some people hire models that strictly do only looks and not shows, employ a house model or many like to find a girl that may represent the kind of model that would be on their runway. Many times the looks girl will make the show so for a new girl this could be a big break in their career.  Though it is a good confidence builder and practice for a new girl it is very long hours and hard work and low pay depending on what designer you work for. A lot of girls do not like it or if they do it once and never want to do it again.  So it’s really hard to find girls to do looks especially since stylists want editorial girls and from experience those girls know better. Funny and yet, true. However there are some instances that it is a very pleasurable profitable thing to do.

What does the term, “fit to confirm” mean and why is it important? Could you give an example?

Fit to confirm is a new concept. Another thing that began happening with the stylists (who can’t make up their minds) and disposable girls. Before the supermodels and up until the Natalia, Liya, Daria generation of models, you committed to your cast you booked your models and you paid them. You would NEVER think of cancelling a girl of Linda Evangelista’s caliber. The girls had the power and if they felt a client wronged them they banned together and would boycott your show and you would develop a reputation of a problem client. If a dress did not fit a girl or her body changed you fixed the dress you did not cancel the model for it!

Now you put tons of girls on hold and you do not officially confirm them until they have been fit.  Since a lot of people see only runway photos before meeting models, and you had to pay them, when you finally saw the “girl of the moment” and realized she’s not really “all that” your expenses would be outrageous.

What is the funniest thing that happened during a casting or a fitting?

Funny things usually happen at shows not really during castings. However, I recently had a Chinese model come in to meet me and she pointed at me and said “ I google you and can’t find nothing except you president of J Crew? How you do both jobs?” I share my name with the VP of J Crew. So I laughed out loud and booked her for all my shows. I love a girl who attempted to do her (botched) homework.  Her English has not improved and she sent me a Christmas card this year written in the 3rd person. I LOVE her!

Who are some of the models that you used their first season and then went on to become top stars? What did you see in them on the first meeting that sparked your eye?

Again this goes down to clients. So many people (and their egos) think if you have the girl first that’s what counts. It does not! It is the knowing and the instinct of  the right girl at the right time in the right show.

Certainly during the Tom Ford Gucci/YSL days there were a lot of first timers Liya Kebede, Julia Stegner, Erin Wasson, Karen Elson to name a few.  They all represented something Tom was looking for at the time. But Natalia was around for about a year before her exclusive made her a star. Georgina Grenville was a fit model before Gucci. Arizona Muse was a commercial showroom model for years but Prada took her to the mainstream. Givenchy does a good job re-starting the careers of models whose star may have fallen.

So for me first means nothing. When I look at a girl for the first time I’m looking for star quality and longevity which in those days everyone had in spades! Even if a girl is not right but I know that quality is there I’ll let her cut her teeth in the business and jump on her when the time is right for me and my clients.  When I work with young designers I try to identify girls that I think will have great careers and grow with them as part of their cabine. For example, when Derek Lam had his first show it just happened that the new girls in town were Jessica Stam, Anja Rubick and Caroline Trentini and they remained very loyal to him. Recently with Jason Wu his first big show the new kids were Abbey Lee, Karlie Kloss and the new and improved Joan Smalls. Because of these girls and many others he became a hot show. Things like this are what make my job still exciting to do.

James and Hanne Gaby below

How should a model dress when coming to see you for a show?

I would say personal style wins. If you have good style you stand out. I’m sure girls feel a lot more comfortable and at ease dressed as themselves and certainly more confidant. I hate the agency outfit of bodysuit, black mini tights and high heels. It takes a lot of confidence in yourself to pull that off and so many girls just outwardly look so unhappy to be traipsing around in something that makes them feel awkward, and that shows in your casting. I think half the reason that girls like Tati Collar, Hanne Gaby, and Maria Carla were noticed was that they all have great personal style and prove that it is not just conventional beauty that makes a great model. When I first met Erin Wasson she was wearing a peasant skirt a tiny denim jacket and a paisley turban. She had so much style (still does) and confidence. Two days later she was on a plane to Milan and exclusive at Gucci and the rest was history. I say stand out if it works for you.  That said, I’ve also had models show up in my office looking like extras from a Mary Jane Girls video so don’t over dress either or maybe that’s where I’d leave that up to the agency and have them don the classic go see outfit when all else fails.

Thank you so much James for your insight and fearless honesty. You have shared  some great details of the job of a casting director. In my opinion, your knowledge and background of the model in the fashion industry is what adds so much rich depth to your talent and personal touch to what you do. There are few left in this industry that respect the history of how we got to the present.