The Casting Director Changing The Way We Talk About Diversity

by Jessie Ajluni

Chromat Fall/Winter 2018-19

Last October, Tamu and our Special Contributor Anja sat down together for a frank and very much needed conversation about diversity on the runways. From Miuccia Prada’s moving moment towards a more inclusive show to Tamu’s conversation with the legendary model and activist Bethann Hardison about her thoughts on continuing the fight to improve diversity within the industry, there were many highlights to their discussion. But it was the mention of brands Chromat and Vaquera in our ATPB calculation  of the SS18 runway roundup of the highest amounts of people of color to walk the shows that really drew my attention.

So, when it was decided that we would be doing a follow up to that piece checking in on how the industry continues to make strides in inclusivity, I  thought of no one better than Gilleon Smith, the brilliant brain behind Chromat’s casting choices, to discuss which brands she recognizes as diversity leaders, the difference between cultural appropriation and inspiration, and how she finds all the gorgeous gals and guys to walk her shows.

Casting, particularly fashion casting, isn’t exactly a traditional career path. How did you get started working in the industry? 

I actually moved here with a BFA in theatre and wanted to be an actor. Although I was booking jobs commercially, I was definitely turned off by that side of the industry. It definitely wasn’t what I had envisioned as a classically trained actress. I wanted a lot more control. I got an internship at a casting company called Extra Mile, which was an extras casting company. I got a lot of preliminary training there, and went on to explore different mediums like beauty, and working assisting other casting directors who casted runway shows. In 2012, everything came full circle when the previous owner of Extra Mile asked me to take it over, so I did, and combined my experience and clients with fashion and commercial, and now run a full service agency. We work in all mediums, but fashion is just one of those mediums that creates the most press.    
You are one of the leading casting directors and known for unique and original selections, where do you find people for your projects?

We pull a lot of contacts from our database (with extras you meet a ton of interesting types), but we also do a lot of research each season on who we would be interested in booking for shows, reaching out via social media, and personal contacts. We also get a lot of people that reach out to us directly, a lot of unsigned talent. I always make it a point to meet with all of them when I can. I love when I can help someone get an opportunity when they otherwise wouldn’t be offered one, especially young women who are doing their best to promote themselves. Street scouting is also a huge strength of mine.  I have the gift of gab, so I love just seeing beauty in unusual places and approaching people that way.  
We’ve all been inspired by the casting choices of brands like Chromat, Gypsy Sport, Vaquera and Ekhaus Latta, but what are some other labels you feel should be getting recognition for their runway lineups? 

I actually would say all of the above, and I also like what Willy Chavarria and Christian Siriano are doing.  
What actions can the industry take as a whole to move towards being more inclusive?

I really think more creative teams need to be hired, especially with bigger brands. Employers need to be more cogniscent of the teams they are hiring. The more diversity across the board that is brought on by the people who make the decisions with casting, (the creative directors, and photographers, stylists, and casting directors), can only help with getting more diversity on the runways.  Also having conversations like these praising diversity definitely helps people jump on that bandwagon.    
With many designers reaching beyond their own culture for inspiration, where do you feel is the line between cultural appropriation and creating an homage to another culture’s customs?

I think it’s important to remain authentic to you and your brand. Although I focus on diversity, that is something that is inherent in my basic principles. It looks forced and gimmicky when it is done for press and/or social media recognition.  
What have been some of your most inspiring shows to work on?

Obviously Chromat is a dream to work with. It’s extremely collaborative, but not only that its really fun and beautiful when the creative team is focusing on the fair treatment of models, and recognizing that they are in a vulnerable position (especially since it is swimwear). We celebrate power, confidence, and strength in every woman. More of the casting process is determining how a model made us feel rather than how they looked.    
What ways do you feel that social media has impacted the shift towards a more inclusive industry? 

Social media is radically taking over life to be quite honest. So many people are on it, and addicted to it.  Everyone is able to weigh in on everything, so there is often so much more exposure to not only praise of new ideas, but also criticism. This in turn evokes change within our community and with people of all types and age groups.     
Can you tell us about any exciting projects you have coming up or that you’ve been working on?

Keeping it real, I’m just recovering from fashion week, and enjoying that right now!!  But we never have a dull day in this office since projects don’t really slow down while we are in the midst of casting shows.  We work with Oribe’s educational team on a regular basis, and I have a few high fashion editorials coming out for spring season that I am very excited about.

You may also like