A Glimpse Inside Fashion’s Ethical Casting Agencies

words by daphne milner

photography by raoúl alejandre

The last few years have seen the rise of a number of specialized agencies looking to safeguard and advocate for the rights of their models. But guaranteeing just collaborations between talent and brands remains a struggle.

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When Michael Rotimi set up Offshore—a talent agency aimed at uplifting models of color with a distinct point of view—in 2017, there were two main factors that informed his decision. The first was driven by a personal discovery that, after helping his friend navigate Philadelphia’s music scene for some time, Rotimi had a deep-seated interest in scouting and developing new talent. The second was born out of the even deeper-seated frustration he felt with the fashion system’s historic lack of meaningful representation both behind the scenes and in front of the camera.

 

“My main goal was to work with everyday people that looked like me,” said Rotimi. “I wanted to collaborate with people who come from similar places to me—relatable people—and help give them a platform.”

 

 

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Fast forward four years, and Rotimi’s agency is thriving. Offshore typically books 15 to 20 commercial jobs a month and the agency’s models regularly work with brands from Converse to Jacquemus. And Rotimi is not alone in his endeavour; in fact, Offshore’s success is indicative of a wider shift within the industry. The last couple of years has seen the rise of a flurry of independent, often specialised, casting agencies looking to represent and advocate for models that have been systematically excluded from high-profile and public-facing positions in fashion.

 

One example is Supernaturals Modelling, an all-Indigenous Canada-based casting agency and fashion consulting group that launched earlier this summer with the aim of empowering Indigenous talent. The agency has so far landed a number of models in high-profile national campaigns, but the work doesn’t stop there. In fact, Supernaturals agents have taken on additional responsibilities, like researching the backstories of various brands, to ensure partnerships are aligned with the values of their models and Indigenous communities, more broadly.

 

 

“So much of how Canada operates is based on resource extractive industries,” said Supernaturals co-founder Patrick Shannon. “[That includes] mining oil, gas, all that kind of stuff, and that’s actively destroying Indigenous communities across the country. [In order to] not compromise the integrity of our community, we [are committed to doing] extra work to make sure even the money behind these companies is not being backed by dirty money.”

 

Indeed, while the growing influence of independent casting agencies that focus on uplifting talent is a much-needed step towards a more equitable fashion system, guaranteeing just collaborations between models and brands that—more often than not—have a history of short-sighted gesture politics can be challenging.

 

Advocating Behind-the-Scenes

 

Doing additional research to ensure crew members are as diverse as the talent has become a regular part of a responsible agent’s day-to-day tasks. This might mean requesting a hair stylist or makeup artist who has little knowledge of working with textured hair or darker skin tones be removed from the production in favor of someone more experienced.

 

“Whether it be photographers that know how to shoot people with darker skin tones, makeup artists that are well versed when it comes to our shades of skin or one of my biggest issues — hairstylists that know how to properly style type 4 hair,” said model Casandra Daly. “There’s been so many times I’ve walked on set and haven’t felt catered to because my hair wasn’t styled or the directors thought my hair would do something that it’s not built to do.”

 

So much of how Canada operates is based on resource extractive industries. We are doing extra work to make sure even the money behind these companies is not being backed by dirty money.

Patrick Shannon

It’s a systematic failure that resonates with Supernaturals’ Shannon, too. Shannon, alongside co-founder Jolene Mitton, are in the process of developing a protocol document that outlines what brands and magazines looking to collaborate with Indigenous models should be cognisant of in addition to what will not be tolerated. “This is based on conversations we have with our clients,” said Shannon. “And with our models, too, so that we make sure they know what their responsibilities are, [one of which is] making sure that they are feeling safe and taken care of.”

 

And as models are often on set without agents or casting directors to support them and amplify their concerns, it’s crucial that any accessibility requirements or specific needs they have are addressed well ahead of the shoot date. “[A good agent] needs to know you as a person with your [unique] necessities—for example, I can’t use stairs so [my agent] needs to know that and communicate that [to clients] in advance,” said model Samanta Almeida Bullock who uses a wheelchair for mobility. “Accessibility in old buildings [is difficult sometimes]. And if the shoot is taking place there, how can we manage? As [inclusive casting] becomes more normalized, whole production[s] need to change, adaptations need to happen.”

 

 

A Common Cause

 

The next generation of models are also increasingly aligning themselves with a cause—environmental, political or social—and publicly campaigning for systemic change. For Tara Thomas, a New York-based vegan chef and sustainable cooking advocate campaigning for food equality, separating opportunities that allow for authentic collaboration from companies simply looking to capitalise off her message to sell products can be tricky. Brands are becoming increasingly fluent in marketing their missions as climate positive without the science—or the goodwill—to back it up.

 

“To be honest, [the biggest challenge I face is] transparency,” said Thomas, who has worked with the likes of underwear label Parade and last year featured on the cover of Vogue Italia. “I feel that a lot of brands are just looking to pump out content and not build a relationship with the talent.” Oftentimes, companies may use confusing pseudo-scientific jargon or release only some information about a collection or product to attract model-advocates campaigning for climate justice to back their brand. It’s crucial, therefore, that models are empowered to follow their expertise and instincts when it comes to deciding on the collaborations that are right for them.

 

As a result, agencies are developing strategies that help their talent better recognize the brands that can offer equitable partnerships as well as refining their knowledge on the causes they align themselves with. “In this industry it’s easy to be taken advantage of so I just make sure I negotiate the proper rates, I make sure talent retains their intellectual property and just try to move in a way where it’s more of a partnership,” said Rotimi. “We decline a lot of things just because [what they’re offering us] doesn’t align with the talent’s values.”

 

It’s a sentiment that’s echoed by other casting agents. “We as agents need to vet companies and make decisions based upon the best interests of the talent,” said Jane Belfry, founder of talent agency BTWN Management. “This means saying no a lot and holding people up to a standard that feels fair.”

 

 

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Industry-Wide Change

 

“In the industry, safeguarding is not a general role which agencies consider,” said Alice Winson, press manager at specialist modelling agency Zebedee, which represents people who have routinely been excluded in the media. “However, at Zebedee, we feel it is our responsibility as a specialist agency to safeguard our models. We will ensure that fair treatment is given, shoots are suitable for them and that they are respected appropriately.”

 

Zebedee is part of a growing number of independent casting agencies that are increasingly taking a hands-on approach when it comes to protecting the rights of their talent. Even so, meaningful change across the fashion world remains slow.

 

 

“In many cases, our special and diverse talent aren’t hired for traditional modeling work like e-commerce, beauty campaign work [and] fitness shoots, and are instead only considered for highly-specialized campaign work wherein they are expected to discuss identity and trauma or tell a personal narrative for the brand that feels predetermined,” said Belfry. “I challenge brands to give these special talent and models opportunities that are not dependent on this narrative. Extend the inclusivity beyond optics and into the day to day casting decisions.”

 

One possible solution is the introduction of industry-wide policies that enforce greater transparency from the ground up. This might include brands bringing talent with environmental expertise into their creative boardrooms to discuss and consult on a proposed product or collection early in the process—and offering suitable financial compensation as a result. For Almeida Bullock, greater accountability might also mean brands adhering to externally-imposed quotas to ensure their campaigns are representative and uplifting.

 

“There needs to be regulations in place [in order for brands to] showcase and support a diverse range of talent. Because if you don’t have this percentage [that holds brands accountable], it’s always going to be zero [percent],” she said. “I really want to believe that we can do this together because one voice is not going to change the whole system.”

 

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