The Untold Memos of a Casting Director: James Scully

The Untold Memos of a Casting Director: James Scully

V sits down with the industry's most iconic casting directors to hear their stories of discovery.

V sits down with the industry's most iconic casting directors to hear their stories of discovery.

Text: Christina Cacouris

It's been well documented that the modeling industry has changed immensely with the advent of social media—but what about that of casting directors? V speaks to James Scully about being a voice for models in an unjust system, how social media has made fashion less aspirational, and working with Sara Ziff's Model Alliance.

How did you originally get into casting?

My entry into fashion was on my first day of college in New York. I went to Laboratory Institute of Merchandising. On the first day of class, there was a bulletin board and all it said was “fashion show assistants meeting, show up at Bergdorf Goodman at 8 AM” so I cut school and I went to BG because I thought oh, fashion show! It turned out to be Karl Lagerfeld’s first couture collection for Chanel. They were premiering it at Bergdorf, it was fall of ‘83, and for me I was bit by the show bug. I left school, and Kevin Krier offered me a job; within the first year Tom Ford called about doing Gucci. That was the thing that catapulted me into the business, so I was with him for all of the Gucci and Saint Laurent years.

At the end of my run for Kevin Krier, I’d had enough of the show bug and I became the bookings editor for Harpers Bazaar, and then that was when I started to see the business change; a lot of british editors started taking over american magazines, and diversity started to disappear. So I’d had enough of that, and I walked away from the business, and then Tom Ford called me and asked me to come back to work just for him. So I came out of - I wouldn’t say retirement, but I wasn’t going to be in fashion anymore. And I went back to work with him.

Do you have any discoveries that really stand out to you?

Many, through the Gucci and Saint Laurent years. More than I can count. Almost every model that we used as an exclusive are all still working. Even Karen Elson: her first season in Milan, she’d gotten that weird alien haircut, she was coming to a Gucci casting and she started to cry. She was like “I’m not getting any shows, I’m about to go home, this is a disaster” and in the end, Tom met her, loved her, she had one outfit in that show and got a huge applause when she came out, and the Italian Vogue cover came out three days later, and [then] she was in Versace.

How has social media affected the business?

Fashion as a whole business is not meant to be egalitarian. We’re not aspirational if everyone can have it. We’ve lost our gatekeepers and people think that’s great, but it’s not really great because now you have lots of people on social media with no taste telling people what taste is. I don’t mind hundreds of ideas of beauty, but some ideas of beauty are not necessarily aspirational. I’m all for inclusiveness, but to be quite honest, I don’t want to look like a boy who’s plain and looks like me. I want to look at someone that makes me think “I should have gone to the gym this morning,” or “That’s such a great haircut.” But that’s why this idea of tribes, the world of Vetements, the world of Gucci, the world of Off-White, those are very valid things, [but] will they be fleeting? That’s where we are now, which is maddening, frustrating, interesting.

What made you want to join the Model Alliance?

It started when I was at Bazaar and started seeing people whitewash cast. So as the stylist and casting director became really powerful, you went from having 30 shows that had 30 different people in charge to 30 shows that had 4 people in charge. And they basically hijaked the business! They had the monopoly. If you didn’t work with them or do what they wanted you to do, you got blackballed. It became about ego and power. And then the cruelty and the things that came out of that behavior is what made me want to [join the alliance]. Like what happened at Balenciaga. Those things were happening all the time—designers and stylists pressuring girls to do incredibly dangerous things with their weight. These girls and boys were too young to be in the business to begin with, by the time they turned 18 they were going through puberty and everyone held it against them. Girls and boys started to write me—I don’t know why, but they did—and the weight of these letters was getting too much for me. I felt pushed to the brink last season and I thought, I’m just going to do it because I don’t care if I don’t work again. I can’t be in this business this way anyways, so I have nothing to lose. The reaction’s been interesting.

So true to my promise at #bofvoices that I would be a voice for any models, agents or all who see things wrong with this business I'm disappointed to come to Paris and hear that the usual suspects are up to the same tricks. I was very disturbed to hear from a number of girls this morning that yesterday at the Balenciaga casting Madia & Rami (serial abusers) held a casting in which they made over 150 girls wait in a stairwell told them they would have to stay over 3 hours to be seen and not to leave. In their usual fashion they shut the door went to lunch and turned off the lights, to the stairs leaving every girl with only the lights of their phones to see. Not only was this sadistic and cruel it was dangerous and left more than a few of the girls I spoke with traumatized. Most of the girls have asked to have their options for Balenciaga cancelled as well as Hermes and Ellie Saab who they also cast for because they refuse to be treated like animals. Balenciaga part of Kering it is a public company and these houses need to know what the people they hire are doing on their behalf before a well deserved law suit comes their way. On top of that I have heard from several agents, some of whom are black that they have received mandate from Lanvin that they do not want to be presented with women of color. And another big house is trying to sneak 15 year olds into paris! It's inconceivable to me that people have no regard for human decency or the lives and feelings of these girls, especially when too too many of these models are under the age of 18 and clearly not equipped to be here but god forbid well sacrifice anything or anyone for an exclusive right? If this behavior continues it's gonna be a long cold week in paris. Please keep sharing your stories with me and I will continue to to share them for you. It seems to be the only way we can force change and give the power back to you models and agents where it rightfully belongs. And I encourage any and all to share this post #watchthisspace

A post shared by james scully (@jamespscully) on

Do you think it’s gotten better?

There’s a lot of work to do. But a lot of models are speaking out on social media, which they never would have done before. And no one is bullet proof. So I think a lot of people are afraid their past is going to come back and bite them. A lot of people don’t realize—five percent of the kids that model really came into modeling wanting to model. The other ones by accident, they were never aiming for this world. Some of them are supporting entire families and villages in Eastern Europe; their lives are already tough enough to begin with. We don’t need to make it tougher.

Credits: PHOTO COURTESY OF Neil Rasmus / BFA.com

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