Conversation with Preston Chaunsumlit about Casting and Racism
Last week, Australian label Misha Collection thought it would be a brilliant idea to have an all white runway show, led by Bella Hadid, with Beyonce’s Formation playing in the background. Not entirely sure what part of having an army of homogeneous white women stomp down a runway to the lyrics “I like my negro nose with Jackson Five nostrils” seemed smart to the people at Misha Collection, but for some reason it did. And I’m wondering, how? How is it possible that these ideas somehow make their way through a team of people and no one challenges the possibility that they may be completely inappropriate? While supposedly cutting-edge contemporary brands such as Vetements and Balenciaga continue to regurgitate the same played out euro-centric beauty ideals, I chatted with casting director Preston Chaunsumlit to investigate how it’s possible that in 2016 people in fashion are still this oblivious. Preston gave me some insight on the casting side of things and how these decisions are made, and why inclusive casting isn’t more common.
When you’re casting for a brand, are they ever explicit about casting mostly white models?
To be honest, very rarely. This is not a good thing necessarily. It is understood all models are white. White is the standard. Unless otherwise requested, it is pretty much understood “model” means a white one. Of course, I am selectively obtuse and bring in everything. Not to antagonize, but more to show and hopefully inspire a client to think outside is understood. Half the time it fails though. Clients are confronted with their own implicit racism, internalized or not, and when forced to demand a white-only cast, that is a position I feel I have forced them to confront. The problem with racism in the West, especially when working in a commercial industry, is that most of it is implicit. These clients are usually white, or have to answer to a white man, or a white consumer. Then there are the Asian clients (specifically Japanese, which is a whole other can of beans) who have this white worship, and of course if its a more “urban” concept, have this strange exotification for Blackness and Black bodies. As a person of color, as an Asian person, I do relish at the point when a client, frustrated with me, can confront me in all seriousness and say to my face “NO ASIANS” or “WE NEED A WHITE GIRL HERE OR YOU ARE FIRED.” It is usually the white clients who get really riled up and upset and apologetic. “I am not a racist. I really am not! I am a good person. My best friend is Black. My favorite Aunt is Korean…”, etc.
Why do you think it is that many brands work almost exclusively with white models?
Because in our culture, again, white is the standard. White is the blank slate. As with anything racial, from aesthetics to even science, we base everything on white bodies. For example, as an Asian person, white people and even other Asians say, “You look young for your age because you are Asian,” or “We look young for our age because we are Asian.” Or when a black model comes in who is older and looks younger, “She looks young because she is Black.” Point is…if all these other races look “young” for their age except for white people, then shouldn’t the stereotype be, “White people look OLD for their age”? This is my point. We measure everything against whiteness.
Since white is the understood standard, it serves as a control. Having another race in that ad campaign or runway can send another extraneous message that the brand or designer might not want to send. For me as it is for them, it is the race that is the most obvious. But I feel if your team is good, from the designs to the styling and creative direction, great clothes and brands will be about the clothes and the brands. Ralph Lauren has been successful at this in presenting Americana using a racially diverse international cast.
Have you been in a position where you found that you didn’t agree with the directions you were given as a casting agent?
Of course, all the time. Most of the time I mistook the concept as being a lot more interesting and cooler than it actually was and find myself feeling like an idiot. Some clients hire me because they trust I can make a good idea better with my vision, while as others hire me because they know what I am talking about…and then there is the client where they just expect you to act like a paid intern. At the end of the day, they pay the bills (if they do) and decide who they employ.
Have you ever disagreed with a client and tried to challenge their casting choices? Is this something that’s easy to do?
All the time. I find it easy. I have noticed it is the client who finds it most uncomfortable. 1) Because they feel they are not paying me to argue with them. 2) They want what they want. 3) Perhaps, it is uncomfortable to deal with someone calling them out on something they know is truly fucked up and they want to avoid it. There is a power play with the client, because they are paying. At the end of the day the client cares about their bottom lines. A white model is safer, because consumers are for the most part just as implicitly or even explicitly racist as themselves.
What steps do you propose we take as a fashion community to challenge prioritizing European beauty standards?
I have to say, as someone who represents the models, I always assumed the control was on the casting agents. Of course, the brand has the final say, but I didn’t think they paid it that much mind. I really thought the casting agents crafted the image they perceived the brand would want to project, which ended up meaning fewer models of color. But clearly, after speaking to you, I’m totally wrong. A lot of this seems like a catch-22. While the casting agent is trying to cast more models of color, they are trying to adhere to the brand, and the brand is trying to adhere to the consumer. There doesn’t seem to be any way to win. I don’t want to feel like this is totally bleak and hopeless. Do you really think there’s anything we can do as individuals in the fashion industry and consumers outside of the fashion industry to challenge this?
Within the industry, there has been a circular blame game. Agents blame clients, clients blame agents. Race, as with anything else, is not sacred in fashion. It is just another superficial means to an aesthetic. And that is the problem. Our regard for race is very deep-seated and beyond fashion, yet fashion takes it on as it would take on anything else. This also includes how the consumer regards race. This is what clients mean when they say it is dependent on their customer or audience–this is what their customer wants, this is the person that is going to wear and buy the clothes, this is our brand identity, etc. I think this circular blame within the industry is very shortsighted. We have to blame the consumer and ourselves as a society. It is not fashion’s responsibility to be a social justice cause and if it ever poses itself to be, it is just using it as superficial means to sell products. We tend to forget the “industry” part when we say “the fashion industry”. It is a business that feeds and sells to a consumer for…well, money. So, in order to change, culture has to change, the consumer has to change, and I guarantee you, fashion as an industry will follow suit. A lot of the criticism fashion gets is from the outside, and most of the time it is out of context. Criticism needs to be made from the inside as well.
When we think about racial inequality as a whole, and especially when it comes to white privilege, if an industry is mostly run by white people, the decision makers, the influencers, the muses, the conglomerate that pays the bills are all white. You cannot expect fashion to have a perspective other than one of white privilege, almost ignorant of other experiences. It definitely will not be coming from the racialized experiences of people of color. How do we challenge this? We need more people of color in the industry. We need more active voices from people of color in all aspects of industry, not just fashion. The dialogue needs to be there. Coming to my own castings and the receptionist asking me to take the freight elevator to deliver her teriyaki chicken is not unique to fashion. Mistaking the black male model for the messenger is not unique to fashion. My point is, all aspects of our society has issues with race. Fashion is just an easy target, because in some ways, as an industry, it effectively and explicitly demonstrates this lucrative, ugly truth beautifully.
I agree with Preston, there is an institutional problem here. It is way bigger than just fashion, but when racism surfaces in fashion it garners a large amount of attention because it’s in the media, it becomes pop culture. But perhaps a place to start is to demand accountability from these brands that continue to slip up and deny that race plays a factor. It isn’t fair that it’s entirely up to people of color in the industry to ask for justice, everyone else needs to take responsibility for their actions and take accountability when they’ve done wrong. It’s not too late for Misha Collection to come out with a public apology but I’m also not holding my breath for one.