She is Safia Bahmed-Schwartz, French rapper and multi-talented artist, working on both fine art and tattoos. Today, she is not walking down the hallway at the fine arts school but along the catwalk for Parisian brand Koché. Before and after her walk Regina Demina, director and performance artist, Simon Thiébaut, founder of the ParkingStone gay club nights, or Morgan Blanc, an avant-garde DJ from Marseille. All are here to tell the story of a new Paris, a generation turning on its head fashion’s traditional obsession with extreme youth, thinness and standardized beauty. Christelle Kocher, artistic director of the brand that carries her name (with one letter change) is the perfect example of this radical change in the industry: after working at Chloé, Dries Van Noten or Bottega Veneta, and still at the head of the Lemarié studio (a specialist feather house owned by Chanel), the designer launched her brand in 2015 to bring together urban aesthetic and haute couture methods. Her casting has earned almost as many column inches as her hybrid silhouettes. A heady mix of race, age, size and occupation, Christelle did not choose them “in terms of the standards of fashion – they were more encounters that inspired another vision and a string energy,“ she says of these faces at odds with traditional marketing strategies, creating a more open vision of elegance and gender.
Her approach is a perfect example of the growing trend for so-called open casting, faces discovered in the street or in clubs, capable of translating a new authenticity to a show by the power of a look or an attitude. This is by no means new: in the early Noughties, Raf Simons and Hedi Slimane saught out bad boys on the streets of Shoreditch or Berlin to give added credit to their rock-inspired style. More recently, Jacquemus or Vetements’ DIY, punk attitude often translates into catwalks filled with friends whose physique is as singular as the clothing. The current trend also aims to celebrate a cultural and ethnic mix, highlighting the absence of any real diversity in the fashion industry. At Hood By Air, the New York brand known for casting personalities of all shapes and sizes such as queer artist Boy Child, founder Shayne Oliver hoped to challenge preconceived ideas about race and style. ”There were very white brands and very black ones, like in all subcultures: today we are looking for a category-less hybrid which often begins on the catwalk,“ he says of his own style remixing hip-hop and punk signifiers. Each season, Hood By Air and Oliver work closely with Kevin Amato, a photographer and casting agent known for his capacity in sourcing kids from all walks of life. For the past decade, this New Yorker has captured youth in the Bronx, which led to him earning casting credentials for more and more brands (Rick Owens, Virgil Abloh’s Off-White, VFiles…). “There has been a real awakening, the desire to create a space for all those who do not fit into pre-defined categories of the traditional success story, or the hetero-normal ideal of the blue-eyed blonde,“ he says. Further proof of his own success is the publication of his book of photographs The Importants (Phaidon), which features Luka Sabbat, provocative singer Maluca or rap icon Mykki Blanco before they were famous. “This vision doesn’t fit into boxes, but represents a new world: the proud claim to a racial and gender fluidity. We don’t know where they come from, who they sleep with, what they identify with, and we don’t care: their passion and future are palpable,“ says Alix Browne, editor-in-chief of W magazine, about this trend for “real faces“ and Kevin Amato’s own work. In an America so often obsessed with pedigrees, CV’s and the absolute control of appearance, this new space goes against the expectations of a society and its vision of a white norm and capitalist ideals.
Another key actor of the trend is Deiwght Peters, founder of Jamaica’s Saint model agency, known for his capacity to source black or mixed-race models for brands whose ideals and typical castings are caucasian, including Céline, Saint Laurent or Vetements. This season, he was the man responsible for bringing Naki Depass to Véronique Branquinho or Tami Williams to Sonia Rykiel: “The face of luxury is as international as its followers on Instagram: we are really talking to the whole world and it has to be evident in the casting,“ he says. Elsewhere, the Rockmen agency in Paris or Tomorrow Is Another Day in Berlin are bringing spice to the classical standards of masculine beauty. And all of these actors see this as more than a passing trend, rather an urgent, almost political action at a time when America is about to say goodbye to the first coloured presidential couple in history and potentially welcome a hardcore conservative whose views are as racist as they are sexist, with violence towards young black Americans on the rise, and while France sees the constant advance of the extreme right. “We have seen history repeat itself too often not to worry about the current climate,“ warns Kevin Amato. “This approach at least promotes a sense of unity, a space in which all clans, genders, colours and social classes can cohabit, at least as long as a fashion season“.