“Take a walk, babe.”
On casting director Andrew Weir’s command, an impossibly tall, incredibly thin, beautiful blonde woman does an about face and begins striding to the other end of the room. When she reaches a stool placed about half way she pauses, turns around and struts back. The look on her face is all business, like she’s never found anything funny in her life.
When she reaches the table where Weir is sitting, she pauses again, holding the steely-eyed look for half a second, then suddenly her expression melts into a genuine smile. “Where are you from?” Weir asks her. Germany, she replies, and for 30 seconds they chat about cities they love in Deutschland. “Thank you so much,” Weir says kindly, and as she walks away, he jots some notes on a card just as the next model strolls up to the table.
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It’s five days before New York Fashion Week, and Weir is spending one of his precious preparation days, in its entirety, holding a giant casting session. Over more than six hours, Weir sees roughly 400 models, some of whom will be cast in the upcoming shows by Thakoon Panichgul and Jen Kao. Weir’s team has transformed Mister H, a swanky bar attached to the Mondrian Soho hotel in New York City, into a studio. There is a backdrop for headshots and two photographers working simultaneously to document the action.
At the far end of the room, Weir sits at a long table with three of his assistants. He’s dressed in black jeans, boots and a Batman hoodie, which is necessary because the air conditioner is on full blast. The A/C itself is a necessity, not only because it’s nearly 90 degrees outside, but because Weir’s team has set up blinding lights that illuminate the space in front of the bar, which today serves as a makeshift runway.
For most of the models it’s a quick process. After getting a headshot taken behind the bar, they line up on couches, waiting their turn to be seen. For most of the afternoon, no one comes to tell them they’re next; they wait patiently and hop up one by one like they’ve been through this process a million times.
One by one they approach the table; one by one they walk to the end of the room; and one by one, sometimes after a few quick questions, Weir thanks them for coming. He asks each model where she is from: California, Florida, Georgia and Michigan; the Netherlands, Russia, Jamaica and more than a couple from Brazil. Some are dressed in skinny jeans, others in cut off jean shorts that make Daisy Dukes look like pantaloons. So many models are wearing leather shorts that Weir predicts that they’ll be a fashion trend in the coming year. He watches intently, and he seems to know exactly what he is looking for. After jotting a few notes on one of his cards, he either circles the names of the designers whose shows the model might fit, or he circles the word “No.” But regardless of what he writes on the page, Weir is unfailingly polite, complimenting each of the models and thanking them for coming in. “We try to be aware of the power of our words,” he says. “These girls are so young.”
Indeed, the veterans among the models are about 18. When Weir asks them which shows they’ve done, some rattle off a list of designers and cities that could fill an entire page. Others seem to have genuinely forgotten. When one of the models explains that in high school none of the boys wanted to date her because she was so tall, Weir asks how old she is. Sixteen, she replies, but the way she describes high school in Colorado, it sounds like a distant memory. Before thanking her for coming in, Weir asks if her mother or a chaperone is here. Even though we’re in one of the chicest neighborhoods in Manhattan, he doesn’t want a 16-year-old wandering the streets by herself.
While most of the models get the standard treatment, Weir asks every tenth one or so to walk again, only this time faster and with longer strides. When I ask if that’s to correct something in their walk, he shakes his head. “To really get a sense of what they’re capable of, I have them walk faster and take bigger steps,” he explains. “It changes their energy. When they’re walking faster and turn around, they give a more intense look.”
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Second to that look, it seems, the walk is the model’s most important skill. For the ones who do it well, it’s a combination of precision and grace, placing each foot forward, swinging the arms back and forth to create a gentle swaying of the hips. The turn around, like an about face in a military parade, appears to be the most challenging part. Each model has her own technique: some shift their heels to the side and step around where they stood a micro second before; others move the left foot slightly behind the right and complete the turn before the watcher has time to realize what she’s done.
That back step technique appears to have the highest degree of difficulty and the biggest payoff, because each of the three times I saw it, Weir leaned over to me excitedly and said, “Watch this. This is a Supermodel.” He told me to concentrate on the walk, the glide, pause, turn, glide, pause. At first it was hard to see exactly what separated these few gorgeous women from the room full of other gorgeous women until it hit me: they were executing movements with a precision usually seen in military parades. They did all of this under blinding, blazing lights wearing four-inch stiletto heels. But the great ones made it look effortless, appearing to expend no more energy than sitting on a couch. “That in the human race doesn’t happen very often,” Weir tells me after one of the supermodels exits the stage.
Out of the 400 or so models Weir will see that day, there are three he will proclaim to embody that perfection, destined for stardom. And while he’s noticing the subtle, nearly invisible differences between those women and the dozens of others, he’s sorting them into who will work best for the aesthetics of each show. I ask him how his time behind the camera prepared him for this job. “It sharpens my view,” he says. “Twenty years looking through the lens and 15 years in casting” allows him to see the details while keeping the bigger picture in mind.
When I ask why he’s taking an entire day to see hundreds of models when he might only recommend a few dozen for the week’s shows, he says it’s necessary because there are new, talented faces all the time. “Now that the world’s wide open, there’s more girls to see than ever before,” he says. “Scouts are looking for girls from every part of the planet.”
After the stroll under the hot lights, the models change out of their astronomical heels and into sneakers or flip flops, gather their things and head out into the late summer day. Out of their stilettos, they’re still tall and thin and beautiful. But with flat soles beneath their feet, they appear much more normal. It is trait that will benefit them as they traverse the cracked sidewalks and packed streets of New York until they put on the heels yet again at the next of many casting calls—or, if they’re lucky, on the runways of New York Fashion Week.
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