Last week, fashion designer Peter Som and casting director Jennifer Venditti stood in his office studying five photos of pale, thin teenage girls with dirty blond hair.
"Weird," said Som, scanning the teens. "They're all the same."
Venditti, who is hired by designers to cast models for their fashion shows, noted that "there are so many of these types. You could do a whole show with them." She advised Som to pick no more than two of the five blonds to appear in his upcoming fashion show.
Amid recent public criticism about the lack of ethnic diversity on fashion runways, the role of casting director is drawing more attention during New York's fashion week. In the past, designers chose the models themselves. But now that designers are required to produce multiple collections, make media appearances and court celebrities, the job of casting director is usually outsourced to specialists like Venditti. Her specialty: navigating models' competing schedules, negotiating with frantic designers and fighting with agents.
Bethann Hardison, a former model who has been organizing efforts to raise awareness about the lack of color among runway models, says the growing power of casting directors, many of whom cast multiple shows, is part of the problem.
"Everybody gets into this Stepford Wives mentality," says Hardison, a black woman who modeled in the '70s, when there was a big demand for black models. She says designers now look to hire models who tend to be white and very thin.
In response to the recent exposure of the issue in the media after Hardison's efforts, the Council of Fashion Designers of America has been lobbying designers to hire a broader range of models this fashion week. In a letter sent to designers, modeling agents and casting directors on Jan. 9, CFDA President Diane von Furstenberg encouraged industry players to create fashion shows "that are truly multicultural" and to embrace "whole groups of people no matter their race or color," according to a copy of the letter. Steven Kolb, the CFDA's executive director, said, "We are reminding people of positive behavior."
Just who is responsible for diversity on the runway depends on whom you ask. Casting directors say they work for the designers, so if the designers decide ethnic models don't fit their aesthetic, they don't hire them. Designers gripe that they would use more minority models, but the agencies don't send any "good" ones. And the modeling agencies say they aren't scouting and developing many minority models because there hasn't been demand for them.
Clothes, not models, are stars
A designer's goal with an expensive fashion show is to keep attention on the clothes, not the models. That's why, many designers say, they don't hire distinctive-looking models, either ethnically or otherwise. But public concern has put so much pressure on the industry, some say they have to change.
"The tricky thing about this business is that (designers and casting directors) can always say it's a matter of personal and aesthetic freedom," says Roman Young, an agent at Elite Model Management. "You wonder, 'Are they racist or are they just dumb?'" Young says he hasn't been aggressively scouting models of color because, until now, designers haven't demanded them. Very young, newly scouted models are highly in demand every season since the market likes fresh, unknown faces.
African-American models Iman and Naomi Campbell helped break through the race barrier long ago. And several Asian, Latina and black models routinely appear on the runways. Chanel Iman, a 16-year-old black model, is particularly in demand this season.
But nearly everyone in the fashion industry acknowledges that minority representation on the runways, as well as in high-fashion advertising, doesn't approximate the general population. The lack of minorities in high fashion contrasts with a noticeable increase in the casting of ethnic models in print and TV commercials, as well as in television and movies.
For casting director Venditti, the recent conversations about ethnicity have emboldened her to push harder for diversity this season. When one of her client's stylists said she didn't need to book a second black model because they already had one, Venditti says she told her, "They're both beautiful. Why can't you have two?"
At Som's casting call, he explained that his fall collection was inspired by the social outcasts captured in the photographs of Diane Arbus. He was seeking models with a "loopy and loony" vibe, he said.
After casting the two blonds, Som asked Venditti how many ethnic models were on the roster. She told him there were four - two black and two Asian - out of a then-selected cast of 18. "I do not want an all-white cast," he says. "But there's always room for improvement."
Creating her own image
Venditti, now 35 years old, once modeled at Saks Fifth Avenue near where she grew up. But when a scout from the John Casablancas modeling school began leaving messages at her house, she never returned the calls, explaining now that she preferred to be in charge of shaping the image, not the image itself. She moved to New York, working first at KCD, a fashion-show production company and then as a freelance stylist.
She started her own company, JV8 Inc., in 1998. For her first casting job, she found a homeless woman and a local band for a photo shoot in W magazine. Advertisers like Gap and Benetton began calling to request her services.
Venditti quickly developed a reputation for finding unusual characters for modeling jobs. For a photo shoot in Detroit, fashion photographer Bruce Weber asked Venditti to bring him a local guy to appear alongside supermodel Kate Moss in W magazine's September 2006 issue. Venditti camped outside a high school prom at Detroit's Lewis Cass Technical High School. The following morning, she presented Weber with photos of a tall Puerto Rican student in a tuxedo. "I thought, 'Wow, this guy is so beautiful,' " Weber recalls. When Venditti informed him that the student was a female, Weber decided to use her in the shoot instead of a young man.
As for whether the industry will ever change, Venditti says it's all about whether racial diversity becomes the latest fashion trend. "In general, (the industry) is a bunch of followers," she says. But "the conversation has started."