Where the runway meets the street

Lingerie and architecture-inspired brand, Chromat, has developed a reputation for runway shows that are the equivalent of a UN global summit – with less off-the-rack suits, of course. In fact, last year an independently published diversity review from ‘The Fashion Spot,’ saw the cult New York brand ranking third for most inclusive fashion week show with a final lineup that boasted 85% models of color, curvy models, or models who identify as part of the LGBTQ community.

We’re certainly in a time where fashion is having a rare moment of sincere introspection, as a result, such statistics tend to generate conversation about how brands, critics and publications can play a part in making sure underrepresented people find a place on runways.

While such reports do give us an idea of industry trends, they offer little insight about the true perspectives of designers and casting directors. We wanted to know what they thought, so we reached out to Gilleon Smith, the powerhouse behind Chromat’s broad spectrum approach to casting, to discuss the current state of the industry and why Chromat’s commitment to diversity matters.

How long have you been casting for Chromat?

I’ve been working with Chromat since the very beginning, I cast their first show.

When you were casting that first show what were some of the things you looked for?

Working with a brand that plays with lingerie and swimwear, which extended into everything, even since the beginning, we really wanted to focus on strong, powerful, confident women. For Becca McCharen [Chromat’s designer] it’s all about personality when they come into the casting. We want to see their walk convey a certain sense of pride.

Do you do a lot of street casting?

A lot of times, especially when I first started working with Becca, budget was really low. People kind of come to me because I’m good at working on tight budgets. That’s actually a big part of why I enjoy casting, because street scouting is the best alternative for situations like that, and because Becca is so open-minded about who she works with. We look at shows as a great opportunity to showcase talent that isn’t necessarily with an agent or might not be seen otherwise. I definitely tend to invite people we know are just getting into the modeling world. People tend to hear about Chromat through word of mouth as well, so we get a lot of inquiries coming to us and we just kind of say the more the merrier at the castings.

Was there a conscious effort to make Chromat’s shows more diverse?

I don’t think we wanted a specific amount of black people or Asian people or trans models, or whatever. I think there are  different approaches to casting; some people cast with the mentality that the women are just hangers for the clothes. Becca is really the opposite of that, she thinks more deeply about her designs in the sense that she wants the women who showcase them to bring them to life, that’s why personality is number one.

In that sense, it doesn’t matter if that means every single person in the show looks a certain way – although that would be a crazy coincidence.  I think after the initial casting when we are determining the final looks is when we really start to think about being inclusive of all kinds of different women. We try to be conscious of the trans community, the queer community, the curvy community, everyone.

Where does your mentality differ from designers who consistently get called out for not thinking about diversity?

I feel like now it’s kind of a trend to cast for attitude rather than just looking for “hanger” models. For Becca, though, that point of view has always been part of how she founded her brand. She just innately craves diversity and an eclectic runway. I don’t necessarily think it has to be a bad thing that others designers don’t feel that way. There is something to be said for leaving the girls as blank canvases and being able to paint them with the clothing, it’s just a different school of thought.

I definitely feel like being inclusive of different body types, different ethnicities, and different shapes and sizes can only make our community stronger. I also think it can increase revenue and sales because it makes a more powerful statement. If a curvy girl sees there’s a swimsuit line that is making designs in her size that brand has just expanded its reach to that many more people. If you just keep the aesthetic homogenous and sterile it certainly limits your exposure and reach.

What was the casting direction for SS17?

Well, because it was SS17 it was definitely about swim. Obviously we want girls who look good in the garments, so the focus is always showcasing the clothes in the right way. Another big part of it was the look and attitude when walking down the runway. Our direction is always to include all different types of people, it’s just a matter us feeling their vibe and how it will appear to the audience in a show.

Has inclusive casting ever done the opposite of working in your favor?

With critics and designers? I mean, there have been times where I have been asked to book only a certain ethnicity – only Caucasian – or a certain type of model. Honestly, it’s my job to execute the vision of the designer no matter what, so I have to take my personal feelings out of it. However, I do think that if people want to utilize my talents and strengths, then, what I take pride in is having a great eye for a well-balanced show with a lot of diversity. With that said, there have been instances where I’ve been asked to do the opposite of that. It’s not necessarily done out of a desire to be prejudice, but it is shocking considering the progession of fashion.

Do you think fashion has a diversity problem?

What I’ve been noticing in the past couple of seasons is that either you’re in or you’re out. If you’re in you make an effort to have a diverse show and that’s what you’re standing for. On the other hand, if you’re more traditional you’re sticking with whatever aesthetic you want to stick to, and you’re choosing possibly to focus on the clothing and less on the models. I think those two mentalities is where the lack of diversity stems from.

So yeah, it’s kind of split down the middle; it’s a 50/50 thing in the sense that there’s a 50% chance you might have a show with all ethnicities, or you might have one that is alarmingly Caucasian. So there’s still a long way to go because that’s still 50% that is exclusively Caucasian.

A lot of the industry conversation has been about the lack of opportunities for people of color. Trans models also have a really difficult time, and so do curvier models. Do you see any trends changing there?

We have a lot more work to do there but I am proud that Chromat had six trans models in our lineup this season. We do a lot of research and street scouting and that’s how we found a lot of our cast. I feel like the agencies need to do more scouting and really own a commitment to being inclusive when it comes to dealing with designers.

A lot of times you might have agents who have a couple of trans models on their board and they’ll send them to castings with designers who weren’t necessarily thinking of including them but when the models get in front of them they like them. A lot of designers are more open to using trans models right now but it’s also about supply and demand. Those models just need more exposure and more opportunities to shine.

What’s the biggest trend you’re seeing in designer preferences right now?

I’ve been seeing a big increase in curvy castings in the commercial world and in the runway world’; it’s out there and I love it. It’s a big thing for designers to expand like that, but at the same time it’s really not. The designers are the ones who determine what is sample size, you know? Casting models that are the size of average women can ultimately only help them to expand. Having curvy women represented is ultimately more inclusive of our actual society. It’s also really helping to redefine what’s beautiful, what’s determined as beautiful, and what is wearable. Curvy girls can wear two-piece bathing suits and cages just as well as a size zero girl. I think that’s what’s powerful about Becca, she conveys that on the runway.


Also check out our review of Chromat’s SS17 show from the perspective of a man and a woman. 

Words by Stephanie Smith-Strickland
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