5 Top Casting Directors Explain Why Runways Are So White

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.

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.

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.

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.

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