Sarah Bunter got in touch with All Walks to discuss the barriers she experiences in fashion casting. Promoting diversity is key for her; and campaigns for Converse, Whistles and Wrangler, as well as working with designers like Christopher Raeburn, YMC and Matthew Miller, have allowed her a certain amount of creative leverage.
But this isn’t representative of the wider fashion landscape and Sarah’s quest to bring age, race and size diversity to commercial projects has been met with resistance from many clients. Sarah insists “you’ve got to keep asking questions until they feel embarrassed.” Getting less work because of her pro-diversity aesthetic is something that for now she tolerates, whilst actively seeking change.
You have mentioned a race barrier when casting commercial work and that non-Caucasian models are often eliminated from casting presentations in very early stages; what are the excuses for this?
He/she doesn’t fit. Their features don’t fit. Her look is too extreme. One designer was influenced by punk a few years ago, and there was a really cool black model – her energy was fantastic, she had short hair on one side, and long hair on the other. She was lean and had a Sonic Youth t-shirt on, which was very close to the references they gave me. They just said her look was too extreme. What’s extreme? She was selling to young people, life and energy and they wrote her out. I kept asking questions. All the white models stayed in. You’ve got to keep asking questions until they feel embarrassed. Their features only don’t fit because you’ve decided that they don’t fit.
Burberry just used their first black male model on the catwalk at London Collections: Men, and it is 2014. Do you fear that it is just tokenism?
I constantly push for diversity and non-caucasian models. People say we don’t want to cast a token this or a token that. I say, well maybe you should, if you stop using that word; you call it token, but I call it a surprise element. Do something people don’t expect you to do. That word gets around and I think it’s really demeaning. People use it as an excuse.
London is such a multi-cultural city, fashion can be inclusive.
I actually found it really difficult to cast black female models last season, because there weren’t many around and the ones that were around were so good, that the bigger brands were paying a lot of money and the smaller designers had no access to them. I had about 10 girls in mind that I wanted, but they had already been booked for another show, or they couldn’t come to London because the money’s not there. There is a project for Korean models, where the British Fashion Council get involved and bring over Korean models [The Model Agency PLC]. They look after them and make sure they’re paid properly and we actually opened a show with one of the girls. Wouldn’t that be an amazing project for somebody to have, just a set of 10 girls who are looked after and funded.
You have said that within menswear, age and aesthetic diversity are celebrated, with scars, wrinkles etc considered ‘authentic’. You haven’t seen the same response in womenswear. Why do you think that is?
It does send me a little bit crazy. There is a woman who works at Whistles now and she said if you cast an older guy, it’s still aspirational to men. The idea that you’ll be older and have that car, that girlfriend and that watch, is hugely aspirational to them, whereas apparently women don’t look at other women in the same way. It drives me mad. I look at women who are older and think they look incredible. I look at Kim Gordon and I’m massively jealous of her; her life, the music she’s made and the history and legacy she’s left. Why aren’t we looking at her and others like her?
Why aren’t we seeing enough older women?
I think it’s a bigger sociological issue and a bigger problem outside of fashion. Why are women suddenly expendable after a certain age? Why are we less aspirational? It is very difficult to cast women over 35 if it’s not for a brand aimed at a 60 year old. I cast for Wrangler and they have a really positive message, they appeal to women in their 30s and upwards and what they are trying to put out there still has to be aspirational and desirable, but they are finding it really difficult to find that balance. They give me an age range to find a 35 year old model and I show them 35 year old model, and it’s not necessarily what they’ve had in their head. Women of that age that are doing campaigns – like Christy Turlington for Calvin Klein – who have this incredible history of glamour and beauty and we look at them and know that they are gorgeous. They have a 20-year career that proves they are gorgeous. We are not looking at a ‘nobody’ who is that age.
What do you think of M&S’s campaigns?
I was interested in them, but it does also demonstrate that issue of women having to have proven themselves to be noticed. Whereas if you look at menswear of that age and era, we don’t know what they do, and we don’t know what their wives do. I’d like to see it change, and there are brands that are trying to do this. Phoebe Philo at Celine, COS and Whistles are filling this gap of a different a type of femininity, which wasn’t necessarily successful before. They are promoting diversity well and I think they are stepping in quite a positive direction. There are limited views of femininity, the over-sexualised woman is everywhere. Then there is the pregnant woman or mother who appears within lifestyle imagery. Celine was a breath of fresh air.
With your work, have you met with any outrageous demands and decided not to go ahead and work with the client?
This week I turned something down. It represented older women in a derogatory way. It would just take one article to highlight the wrong in that, so I just said no. I think the demands with womenswear are always on cost: if a woman is over a certain age and they are a good model, they become very expensive. If you get a new face for a certain amount of money, then you can get an older female model. There is an interesting thing that I read, someone told me there are two industries in the world where women are consistently paid more than men, and its modelling and porn, which is hugely depressing.
You have mentioned that promoting a ‘healthier body image’, and a pro-diversity aesthetic at London Fashion Week can result in getting less work.
I get less work at London Fashion Week (womenswear). I send out the same emails and show them past work. I get a bigger response through menswear, because of the pro-diversity aspect in my work. There are only a few womenswear designers who want it, but that won’t stop me, in fact it makes me want to do it more.
Give us an insight into casting culture?
I have been in castings and people have been derogatory about the girl while she’s there. I don’t see them as ugly, unless it’s through their behaviour. People don’t look wrong, it just means that the job is not right for them.
Have models spoken to you about the demands they face?
Yes, I’ve made quite a few friends with models and some just won’t do it anymore. Some models have found difficulty going to New York or Paris; they say the demands there are more extreme.
Do you think London is more forward thinking?
I think we have a different idea of thin; it’s quite sporty and athletic sometimes. There was a big trend about five years ago; one casting director in particular pioneered this super skinny look and it’s really taken off since then. Friends of mine who had previously been very successful models found it harder to get work because they would be stood in a line of models whose legs were the size of their arms.
So you would say one person was responsible for the size-zero trend?
No, they are only responding to demand.
Do you think fashion can help with female self-esteem?
It can, but I think you’ve got to take it on individually. If you follow the mainstream I don’t know whether that ever leads to any good and I don’t think that would necessarily lead to empowerment. Choose fashion on your terms.
Do you think the lack of diversity in fashion is a feminist issue?
People are actually more threatened by casting a non-Caucasian male than they are a non-Caucasian female.
Where does change need to start from? The people at the top, or the consumers?
I think change can happen, but people have to keep pushing. The ‘surprise’ element is a good thing; most brands want to be iconic and if you look back at all the people who have been that, they’ve generally done something new and different. I always find it funny when people use the expression ‘the next Kate Moss’. The people that lead the way in something weren’t the next anyone. It is about money, it is a business, but it is worth it to take that risk.
All images courtesy of Sarah Bunter
Elspeth Merry is a recent University of the Arts London Journalism graduate. She was Features Editor of her University newspaper Arts London News, and is the Features Assistant at 1883 Magazine. She has also written for the Huffington Post and spent last summer in New York writing for Zink Magazine.