It used to be that models had to tick off very specific boxes in order to be booked or even signed. Height? At least 5’9”. Hair? Long and straight. Dress size? Anything beyond a 2 was unheard of. Even shoe size was preordained: 9 or nothing. Things like personality, interests, ambition and smarts? Not a factor.
But these boxes are starting to be unticked. Agencies specializing in non-traditional models have become the industry’s hook-up for atypical fashion faces. At Vancouver-based Rad Kids, founders Jon and Anna B. Hennessey ignore all the old-school archetypes, prioritizing things like, well, personality, interests, ambition and smarts. Their roster—which includes Annapurna, Emily and Jenny, all featured herein—focuses on people who are too busy pursuing their personal passions, like styling (Jenny’s clients include Hypebeast and Stüssy), launching streetwear brands (Annapurna is working on her line, OGentity) or running a “kitty-pop” bondage business (Emily makes pink and playful harnesses as Yung Future Clothing) to drop it all for a life of go-sees and measurement-taking.
Elsewhere, London’s Anti-Agency, which launched in 2013, is known for its street-cast characters, and reps creative types like artist Arvida Byström. Lorde Inc., established in 2014, has offices in London, New York and Toronto, and focuses on cool kids of colour. DNS, a Toronto-based studio, has worked on music videos for MSTRKRFT and Grimes. And Moscow-based Lumpen (loose translation: “social outcast”), founded in 2014, is the go-to for Demna Gvasalia, who has become as known for the off-kilter crew he sends down Vetements’ runway as he is for his rebellious streetwear send-ups. Whether they’re unknown punk kids or friends and collaborators like stylist Lotta Volkova and designer Gosha Rubchinskiy, Gvasalia has actively shone a light on the kind of raw, unexpected characters who might actually wear his gritty ripped-from-the-skatepark designs.
Hood By Air, Diesel and Marc Jacobs have been street-casting for years. In 2012, VFiles casting director Preston Chaunsumlit popularized the term “nodels.” But now that labels as it-brand-y as Gucci and as commercial as Kate Spade are eschewing the traditional options (artist-photog Petra Collins stars in Gucci’s fall ’16 campaign; sex writer Karley Sciortino appears in Spade’s latest), it’s clear that the anti-model has officially exploded.
“My job is no longer just about finding a beautiful face,” says casting director Shay Nielsen. “We now look for diversity and uniqueness as much as anything.” Nielsen has worked on major campaigns including the new Kenzo x H&M ads as well as Calvin Klein’s fall ’16 photo series, which features a line-up of against-type faces (Canadian artist Rhi Blossom, Aussie it-girl Raenee Sydney, NYC-based activist Ebonee Davis) alongside celebs like Kate Moss, Kendall Jenner and Frank Ocean. “Brands aren’t afraid to put their clothes on people of different sizes or backgrounds anymore,” she says. “That openness creates so much emotion, as well as a sense of relatability and inclusivity.”
Social media has of course played a huge role in fashion’s growing interest in people whose unadulterated realness has turned them into global muses. “It’s this platform where individuals can show their personalities, and where we’re able to see immediately how they’re connecting with people,” says Nielsen, who has used Instagram to recruit new faces for various projects. “We look for interesting people,” she says. “And we aren’t totally sure what that means until we see it.”
Nielsen isn’t the only insider scouting badass babes on Instagram. When Bridgette Bayley joined Jeffrey Campbell as creative director in 2015, the company was ready for a change in direction. At the time, the L.A.-based footwear label had been relying on the same old overused IG tropes (streetstyle shots of bloggers in floral crowns and platforms, artful still lifes of flats and fruits) that had earned it more than a million Insta followers, but also rendered it increasingly irrelevant to the fashion-forward. “Jeffrey really wanted to stand out and be cool again,” says Bayley. “Going in, our goal was to do the weirdest stuff possible. We wanted to target that girl who’s edgy and different, and get back to what the brand used to be.”
Bayley started trolling her social media feeds and messaging girls who fit the bill. Casting unexpected unknowns like Saymon Sima (who vogue.com recently crowned “the coolest girl in Moscow”) brought a real authenticity back to the brand, even if “we lost a lot of followers at first,” admits Bayley. That said, online sales have now tripled—and those are the kinds of likes a brand can take to the bank. “If you fall into that pit of being too marketable and trendy, it’ll work for a while…until it doesn’t,” says Bayley. “Being one step ahead, even if people don’t get it at first, will always be better for longevity.”