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Michelle Lee is petite, as in first-thing-you-notice tiny. Her diminutive stature only becomes all the more glaring when among the beanpole, 5-foot, 11-inch sort—Lee’s frequent company.
This story first appeared in the November 19, 2012 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.
“We’re seeing models from nine in the morning straight through till we close up at night,” the casting director says on a late August afternoon inside KCD’s sun-soaked Meatpacking District offices. “It’s hundreds of new faces a day, and I see each individual girl myself.” That’s apparent when looking at her desk, currently buried by foot-high stacks of comp cards, Lee’s notes scribbled across them.
She’s in the midst of the exhaustive preliminaries, better termed the weeding-out process, when Lee, 37, sees “literally every single new model in town,” trying to find the unrealized needles in the oversaturated haystack that is New York’s modeling market. Those new faces that make the grade—this season 20 to 30, by Lee’s estimation—are conceivably on the cusp of their big break: the moment Lee books them to walk in one of the biggest shows of the season. As one of the industry’s top casting directors, Lee boasts a heady client roster. For spring, she cast the models for Marc Jacobs, Marc by Marc Jacobs, Giles, Philosophy di Alberta Ferretti, Versace, Versus, Sacai, Chloé and Louis Vuitton.
Lee’s ascent to the acme of the casting trade was an unintended one. At New York University, the New Jersey native studied British literature, ultimately aspiring to become a lawyer. “I know, no connection,” she says.
After a failed attempt to transfer to Columbia, Lee reconsidered her career trajectory. “I was like, ‘Forget academia, I’m going to do what I really want to do,’ which was fashion.” She landed an internship that fall at KCD, and soon after got hired on a freelance basis while still in school. “Literally the day after I graduated, I came in and met with Nian Fish [KCD’s creative director at the time] and said I wanted a job in production,” Lee says. She secured a full-time position soon thereafter.
Initially, Lee had her hands in every facet of production, from organizing model cards to handling vendor contracts, but her role evolved and eventually became more specialized. “After a while, I was doing production on shows and got exposure to casting,” Lee says. “Then I started casting some smaller shows, and I parlayed that, over time, into something that just got bigger.”
As the familiar platitude goes, beauty is in the eye of the beholder, and navigating that subjective terrain is a tricky business. Lee’s eye is discerning, informed and constantly adapting. “I see the girls turn that corner and walk in,” she says, pointing to the entrance of KCD at the opposite end of her office. “And sometimes I’ll be like, ‘Oh, that’s it.’ It’s just a split second, and you just kind of feel it.”
Still, snap judgments are not always viable. Lee’s perceptions of beauty are neither annealed nor her opinions obstinate. Even with all her acumen, Lee sometimes vacillates, unsure about a girl’s look. “Sometimes it’s instantaneous and other times you’re like, ‘Hmm, I’m not sure.’ I’ll ask them to walk over and over and they grow on me,” she says. “Especially now, when there’s this trend of character casting, this demand for unconventional beauties where you either love their look or you don’t get it at all.”
Lee weighs a number of considerations while the models parade up and down in front of her desk. She must not only factor in the client’s overall taste—a designer’s general proclivity for, say, pouty lips or an aversion to freckles—but the particular vibe of each individual collection. “For instance, people think Marc [Jacobs] likes a quirky, androgynous girl, but then he does a collection for Louis Vuitton like the God Made Women one, and we had all these amazing bombshells—Laetitia Casta, Karolina Kurkova, Alessandra Ambrosio—so the casting is always very specific to what the collection is.”
Also, the clothes need to fit, which is more of a dilemma than one might presume. “You have to work within the designer’s creative direction, but you also have to account for how the clothes look on each model’s body,” Lee explains. “Every house has a different body type. With Vuitton this season, it was a quite long silhouette with a narrow shoulder and narrow hip. It was super specific. You either fit the clothes or you didn’t. That eliminated quite a lot of girls.”
Lee’s casting process is highly collaborative; she lays much of the groundwork, sifting out the new talent and pitching those fresh faces to the designer and the collection stylist. Designer input is as unique as the clients themselves, with some knowing exactly who they want—what Lee terms “modelcentric” designers—and others relying more heavily on Lee’s guidance. Ultimately, Lee aims to please, despite potential disagreements with a client. “It’s not the Michelle Lee show. It’s the Marc Jacobs show, the Chloé show, the Versace show,” she says. “I’m there to give an educated opinion. If they absolutely love someone and have to have them and I disagree, I’ll let them know why, but at the end of the day, it’s their call.”
Every now and then, albeit rarely, Lee’s draft is off the mark entirely. When we meet again in October for a post-collections tea (hers green, mine chai), she describes the Marc Jacobs casting as a near fiasco: the 20 or so unknown new faces she culled from her preliminary castings were not to the designer’s liking.
“This was one of those seasons where we thought we had an idea of what he wanted, we presented it to him and it was not what he wanted at all,” Lee says. “So we went back to the drawing board.”
Mind you, this occurred three days before Jacobs’ runway show. Notorious for his down-to-the-wire, nick-of-time preparations, he doesn’t disappoint when it comes to casting. “Marc won’t start the casting dialogue until a week before, at best,” Lee says. “That’s when we see the mood board, we see the prototypes, the knitwear, swatches.”
Timing can be everything. Just look at the schedule the day Chloé was set to show in Paris, sandwiched between Giambattista Valli and Saint Laurent. “We were sharing six girls with Valli. The show after us, Saint Laurent—no shares,” Lee says matter-of-factly. “Saint Laurent had a four-hour call time, so the girls wouldn’t make it if they were in Chloé.” In other words, due to Saint Laurent’s early call time, the top girls—those coveted by both Saint Laurent and Chloé—had to choose between the two. And with the buzz surrounding Hedi Slimane’s first collection for Saint Laurent, it wasn’t looking good for Chloé.
Lee adapted, gunning for the girls who were right for Chloé while still keeping very mindful of Saint Laurent’s cast, which, of course, was still not determined. “As with any big designer, decisions were made last minute with the Saint Laurent casting. So we were really trying to figure out where they were going to go with it, thinking, Do we sort of know who they like?” Lee recalls. Ultimately, she had to make a critical decision with Chloé designer Clare Waight Keller about the overall cohesion of the cast. “You can either go in a different direction than Saint Laurent to save yourself a headache or you can say, ‘You know what? Let’s go for what we want and deal with it,’ which is what we ended up doing.”
The timing conflict proved auspicious, with Lee rolling the dice on a few more new faces than she ordinarily would have, casting, for instance, Brit beauty Rosie Tapner, who ultimately opened the show. “This was her first season doing anything besides Balenciaga. She was exclusive for them for two seasons,” Lee notes. “Clare just responded to everything about her—her energy, her vibe, what her attitude brought to the clothes. She just loved her right away.”
That’s not to say the process was without much contemplation. Waight Keller is not one for impulse, often mulling over her bookings, discussing each girl with Lee at length. “Clare’s a very thoughtful designer, so it’s not just like, ‘I like her, put her in,’ or ‘I don’t like this girl, take her out.’ She’s very open. She’ll be like, ‘Tell me what this girl’s all about, let’s have a conversation about it.’ ”
In fact, Lee’s clients are all distinct in their approach. Though one might infer that since the Versace girl is a very specific look (glowing complexion; long, tousled tresses; a come-hither look in her eye), the designer would want a very specific cast. Not so, says Lee: Donatella Versace has broadened her eye in recent years, becoming more inclusive to beauties that don’t fit the bombshell mold. “Donatella has definitely evolved with the industry. She wants her girls to look more modern now, not so obviously sexy. Like Kel, for example: I would not paint her as a Versace girl, but it worked,” Lee says of Kel Markey, who, known for her tomboy-tough, grunge-girl look, strutted Versace’s runway in a bias-cut goddess gown with a thigh-high slit. “She couldn’t believe it. She was like, ‘Seriously? I’m getting a gown? Awesome!’”
While a slew of variables shape each casting—a 60-look show, for instance, gives you a lot more room to play than a 20-look show—the modus operandi is fundamentally the same across the board. “I would say for any show, you’re going to have those 10 staples, those 10 girls of the season that regardless of what the direction is, those 10 cool girls are in. Then you build on that. I’ll say, ‘OK, also here are 30 brand-new girls that you need to see,” Lee says. “They might say, ‘OK, well I saw this girl in an editorial, I want you to bring her in.’ ”
And sometimes a girl just gets lucky. Such was the case with Eliza Cummings, who walked in Marc Jacobs’ show this season, her first runway in a year. “Marc just saw her on the street and that was it,” Lee says. “I guess that’s one way to get cast, hang around Spring Street.”
For the uninitiated, Jacobs’ headquarters is at number 72.
NEXT: The Low-down on Three Newbie Models >>
In Launch Mode
Prior to the spring collections, these three newbie models had never before walked a runway. Look how far they’ve come—and what casting director Michelle Lee has to say about them.
Stats: She’s 20; from Croix, France; signed with Wilhelmina in August.
Spring shows walked: 31
Most difficult look: “McQueen, of course! The hat wasn’t the hardest part. I had this corset, which was not very comfortable. The shoes weren’t as difficult as they looked, but they were tricky since they were without heels, so you only had the platform to put your weight on. Also, the necklace kind of hurt, but I only had to wear it for 15 minutes.”
Surprising designer demeanor: “Mary-Kate and Ashley Olsen are true designers. You can tell they’re very intelligent and artistic. They want everyone to be very, very quiet, and everything is very serious and very clean.”
Michelle Lee says: “With her flawless skin, delicate features and swanlike neck, Manon is the epitome of French refinement.”
Stats: She’s 18; from Valenciennes, France; signed with Ford in August.
Spring shows walked: 46
Scariest shoes: “The ones I wore in Dior. I loved them, but they gave me a terrible charley horse when I was on the runway. But I made it through.”
Longest night: “I was at my Prada fitting for eight hours, but the team was supersweet. They would dim the lights in the waiting room and bring in pillows and blankets so we could sleep while we waited. When it was your turn, you would have to make your way over sleeping bodies to go in.”
Michelle Lee Says: “Marine’s one of this season’s truly powerful beauties. Classic yet with a modern, slightly masculine edge.”
Stats: She’s 23; from Kiev, Ukraine; signed with Ford in July.
Spring shows walked: 32
Trickiest terrain: “Alexander Wang and Marc Jacobs had a very precise circuit. The more complicated runways intimidated me, but I always pay close attention during rehearsal. The last thing you want to worry about is walking the wrong way!”
Most memorable moment: “Opening Alexander Wang was nerve-racking because it was my first show, but Alex made me feel so comfortable. When the lights came on and I walked out on the runway, it felt like the starting gate. Everything I did before that was preparation for that moment.”
Michelle Lee says: “Irina’s unassuming confidence won us all over. She doesn’t get how cool she is—which is very cool.”