Digital Runway Shows Putting a Premium on Model Performers

No seat assignment, no problem. In the digital fashion era, watching runway collections is as easy as channel surfing (sofa and sweats, optional).

On Tuesday, Stuart Vevers is taking the concept literally, premiering a TV-themed “Coach Forever” fall collection with an all-star cast that includes Jennifer Lopez, Michael B. Jordan, Megan Thee Stallion, Kaia Gerber, Hari Nef, TikTokker Wisdom Kaye, musician Jon Batiste and more in short videos that will channel surf genres and references to Coach’s pop culture history.

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“To make images and film come alive you need personality and character, it’s not just about recording the look, it’s about bringing the attitude,” said Vevers.

The pandemic shift to digital fashion shows has put a premium on models who are personalities and performers (hello, Ella Emhoff at Proenza Schouler), harking back to Halston’s 1970s heyday, when he used Andy Warhol star Pat Ast as his muse and model, alongside Hollywood royalty Anjelica Huston and others.

“A few years ago, people were saying we need girls with Instagram followings, now we’ve realized it’s not just Instagram followings, it’s personality,” said casting director Ashley Brokaw, whose clients include Proenza Schouler, Coach and Prada. “Aside from just a still photograph, which is what everyone relied on five to 10 years ago, there’s now all this other content brands want and need, so it’s video, it’s speaking, it’s being able to not necessarily act, but to have that kind of X factor that is more than just a pretty face…It almost makes my job harder, because the sky’s the limit.”

During the casting process, Brokaw no longer just asks for pictures, she asks for personality videos, where prospective models speak about something they are passionate about. “I get videos of people skateboarding and knitting. Obviously, especially now, you can’t meet everyone in person so you are mining TikTok to see what they are really like. It’s amazing how creative real people can be,” she said, noting that new agencies are cropping up focusing specifically on personalities for digital content. “Ahead of fashion week, I will get emails saying ‘I’m representing three people, one is a contortionist,’ and you keep in a file in case you ever need something that’s really out there.”

Of course, Vevers is not the only one bringing more entertainment to the digital runway realm; recent months have seen Gucci’s seven-part “Ouverture” series featuring Billie Eilish and Harry Styles; Christian Dior’s “Le Château du Tarot” haute couture film starring Italian actress Agnese Claisse; and Ermenegildo Zegna’s “The (Re)set” film depicting a new genderless beginning for the heritage men’s suit brand, to name a few.

Even smaller brands have gotten in on the act. Last week, Christian Cowan — with a financial assist from Motorola’s Razr — released his fall collection via a hilarious short film titled “A Fashion Thing” starring Paris Hilton and “Saturday Night Live’s” Chloe Fineman and Bowen Yang.

“With fashion shows largely experienced through our screens these days, storytelling through casting has become even more critical to the success of a designer’s collection. By casting intriguing personalities for their virtual runways, films or look books, designers add an entertainment overlay to their collection’s debut, driving greater buzz, viewership and engagement online,” said Ivan Bart, president of IMG Models and Fashion, who was early to the models-as-personalities trend, specifically seeing the appeal of Hollywood progeny.

IMG Models recently signed Emhoff and poet Amanda Gorman, and also represents Christy Turlington Burns and nephew James Burns, who walked in Kim Jones’ Fendi couture debut, a next-level casting coup (and logistical feat) that also featured Naomi Campbell, Demi Moore, and Kate Moss and daughter Grace Burns.

Talent with a unique look or point of view can captivate not only the attention of the fashion industry, but of consumers — a vital audience to consider in today’s digital landscape, added Bart, whose platform has leveraged IMG’s Hollywood connections and production resources to help designers create and show digital entertainment content.

When it comes to that consumer audience, celebrities and model personalities are also multipliers, who help tell a brand’s story through their own personal style lens and through their own social
channels. But is there ever danger that entertaining content, chock-full of personalities, will overshadow the clothes it’s meant to sell?

I feel quite relaxed about that,” said Vevers, noting there are still enough brand cues throughout the content to keep the Coach storyline going. “These last two seasons, we’ve styled looks with the individual person in mind, playing to their character.”

The Proenza Schouler designers agree.

“We cast women for who they are, we don’t like the idea of an army of sameness,” said Jack McCollough of choosing Emhoff for the show, and keeping her trademark curly hair and glasses as-is. “We want them to be themselves.”

Playing the runway for a wider audience is changing what model castings look like.

Casting Dior’s latest haute couture film was more Hollywood than anything Milan-based model casting director Julia Asaro had ever worked on. “I tried to find a middle ground between fashion and cinema,” she said, explaining that she worked with both modeling and theatrical talent agencies.

She and director Matteo Garrone and Dior creative director Maria Grazia Chiuri sent the script to prospective models, and asked them to choose their favorite tarot characters and make a video of themselves in character to submit as an audition. “It’s very different from classical casting for a show where you arrive, give your comp card to the casting director or designer, you walk back and forth, say hello and goodbye,” Asaro said.

Zegna artistic director Alessandro Sartori was also looking for models who could emote, despite the fact that his script didn’t include any spoken lines. “To deliver our message, we needed characters acting in a short movie, not just walking” he said of casting “(RE)set” with diverse talent, from Japanese model Yura Nakano as the protagonist (“He had a real affinity for the script,” the designer said) to artist Alfredo Ramirez, who closed the film.

Filming outdoors at the newly redesigned campus of Bocconi University in Milan and in studio on a dollhouse-like set delivered the message of the versatility of the fall collection, he said of the film shot over five days, which cost less than the brand’s seasonal 1,000-person runway shows. “The reach and engagement is impossible to compare to a traditional show,” said Sartori of the film, which has been viewed hundreds of thousands of times.

“Before the pandemic, brands were already curious about a new kind of talent and beauty,” said Asaro, the casting director, explaining that it’s not just celebrity but also diversity and inclusivity driving change in the modeling world, something that younger designers are building into their brand DNA.

“The customer likes to see themselves in the content, it makes them feel part of the brand,” said Cowan of casting “A Fashion Thing,” with “SNL” cast members, Hilton, Parker Kit Hill and other representatives or allies of the queer community with which his brand identifies.

While the Coach film will feature fall collection pieces to preorder, as well as some current season pieces that will be linked and immediately shoppable, other brands are still figuring out how to turn entertaining runway content into quick commerce.

“As a smaller brand, we’ve not been able to have stock ready when we release but one day that’s definitely the dream,” said Cowan. “The content is bringing more people to our online channels, we see the engagement, and they stay because we keep giving them new content,” he said. “We will be dropping loads more in between seasons now to keep people excited and entertained by the brand. It’s an entertainment brand and a clothing brand.”

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