Academy of Art University’s School of Fashion steps forward with diverse cast of models at NYFW
By Stephan Rabimov
This fall marks the 22nd season of Academy of Art University’s show at New York Fashion Week (NYFW) and the School of Fashion is determined to continue to raise the bar.
Simon Ungless, executive director of the School of Fashion, pushes boundaries forward in model casting by taking part in the industry movement toward more diverse runways. “Our casting has always been inspired by the diversity found within the student body and faculty at the University,” said Ungless. “This season is exactly that, to the power of 10! We’re after our most diverse cast ever.”
Noticeably since 2015, the fashion industry has made greater strides toward model diversity. According to data compiled by The Fashion Spot, runway demographics have been growing incrementally more diverse for the past three years in a row.
To help accomplish this ambitious task, Ungless turned to Zan Ludlum, founder and casting director at New York and Los Angeles-based Zan Casting. “In 2012, I called my most trusted contacts in the industry, and the same name came up several times,” Ungless shared. “I could tell we shared a similar aesthetic and that [Ludlum] truly cared a great deal about the models.”
The mission for casting the School of Fashion’s shows has always been to find ‘cool, art-school type kids’ from every corner of the globe. “They are definitely citizens of the world! Some of them may even come from another planet,” Ungless said jokingly. Self-defined as ‘streetwise,’ the Zan Casting talent search relies on a candidate to have a strong sense of self, as much as a memorable appearance, with confidence and energy that can be captured in a photograph or exhibited on the runway.
“No matter what the casting brief might be, we speak our truths on inclusivity and representation,” Ludlum explained. “We listen to diverse subcultures shaping contemporary society and look for unique personalities and representations of beauty. ‘Celebrate the authentic’ is our approach that helps guide our clients.”
This approach isn’t easy and certainly isn’t the norm. The fashion industry often struggles with the notions of diversity in terms of race, gender, ability, and other factors. “Without a diverse group of people in an open dialog, it is really hard to make decisions that recognize the full perspective,” Ludlum said.
Working with the Academy is a full-circle moment for Ludlum. She attended her first fashion shows as a 15-year-old, on field trips to the Fashion Institute of Technology and Parsons School of Design, where she was “blown away.”
Ludlum developed a passion for casting; however, it’s not a skill she learned at school.
“There is no guidebook for learning the casting trade. You have to live it and intern, intern, intern,” she said. Ludlum worked with some of fashion’s biggest names early on. Through casting shows for Vera Wang, she helped put a spotlight on top models such as Karlie Kloss, Joan Smalls, Liu Wen and Arizona Muse, during their debut seasons on the NYFW runways.
There is a thrill in seeing a star get discovered, Ludlum said.
For example, after walking the Academy of Art University Spring-Summer 2018 show, model Oumie Jammeh went on to work with Prada, Valentino, Miu Miu, Tommy Hilfiger and Gucci. “We found our new muse yesterday,” Ungless added. “His name is Bachir and he’s from Senegal. This is his first time doing shows.” Their excitement is palpable.
Challenging how the industry approaches diversity one show at a time might seem slow, yet systemic changes have lasting effects. The Washington Post fashion critic Robin Givhan recently called the momentum “undeniable.” Ludlum acknowledged that her agency and the Academy are aligned on the importance of inclusivity in the casting process.
And, change is evident beyond the runway. Designers, photographers, publishers and other key players across the industry are being held accountable for their editorial choices on social media—the new court of public opinion. “Everyone is being pushed out of their comfort zones,” Ungless said. “It also feels like models are more socially aware today, and savvy in developing themselves as individuals and brands, to ensure their influence expands beyond the clothes.”