ASHLEY BROKAW is as familiar with skull shapes as a comparative zoologist, and knows the female gait as a jockey does the gallop of his racehorse.
She can glance at a teenage girl and guess her height, hip measurement and shoe size.
She can divine what shadows a cheekbone will cast upon a jaw; how a hue of ash blond might contrast with patent leather.
If you flip through a magazine, stare up at a billboard or scroll through the thumbnail images of last season’s fashion shows, chances are that you will be looking at the faces and figures of models Brokaw has discovered and groomed.
Her clients include Miuccia Prada, Nicolas Ghesquière and Jonathan Anderson.
She has cast shows for Miu Miu, Balenciaga and Tommy Hilfiger; chosen models for print ads for Calvin Klein, Chloé and Armani, along with campaigns for more mass brands like H&M, Gap and Zara.
As the fashion industry’s leading casting director, Brokaw, 41, is arguably the person most singularly responsible for what — or, more accurately, who — we think is beautiful.
“She has a foresight. She has a stamp of approval,” says Anderson, creative director of Loewe and J.?W. Anderson. “She finds faces, and she takes risks on faces. All the faces that we see today are passed through Ashley.”
Her decisions affect not only the models’ careers but also our own sense of self: Each season she tweaks what we long to be by changing who she puts in front of us.
Today, that person is less conventional and arguably odder-looking than ever before. Brokaw favours the kind of model who is more memorable than she is pretty. What fashion editors have long euphemistically called jolie-laide, she calls “strong”.
The faces she chooses are sometimes merely a bit off-kilter but often undeniably weird and in some cases visibly asymmetrical.
In print, they can seem outright radical. Such idiosyncratic stars include Jamie Bochert, with her moody, ghoulish aspect; the Shelley Duvallesque Sabrina Ioffreda; and the elfin Hanne Gaby Odiele.
“You wouldn’t know most of the girls that are on the runway today were models,” Brokaw says. “They could all be sitting here and you probably wouldn’t recognise them, wouldn’t necessarily guess they were models at all.”
And yet even the new, seemingly more inclusive beauty standards might themselves be an expression of a certain strain of exclusivity.
The fetishism of unusual facial features could be read as a trickle-down effect of our contemporary notion of one-of-a-kind luxury, a resistance to the ubiquity of mass merchandising.
From a designer’s point of view, personifying a collection with a not obviously gorgeous model can imbue the clothes with an artisanal, avant-garde edge.
Brokaw embodies the more sober aspects of the job. When we met last winter, she wore no jewellery, makeup or nail polish.
She spoke half-burrowed in the folds of a worn cowl-neck sweater. She looks like someone more likely to garden vegetables than prance around Paris.
She lives with her husband and two sons in an 18th-century farmhouse in rural Connecticut. It’s ironic but unsurprising that one of the fashion industry’s most influential figures seems to exist entirely glamour- adjacent.
Casting is a mostly ignored art outside the world of fashion.
Each designer has their own preference about when to bring Brokaw into the creative process; some have her over the minute they finish sketching the collection; others like to provide her with a reference: “the 1980s girl with Madonna in the nightclub” or “vacation in Marrakesh”.
The model who opens the show and the model who closes the show are traditionally considered the stars, but Brokaw’s job is more than just filling the minutes in between.
A short skirt calls for a girl with exceptionally long legs; flats are of course preferable on taller models. Gray tends to look better on a blonde or redhead than it does on a brunette.
Sometimes a designer wants a section of looks — outerwear with brown fur collars, say — to be worn by a group of similar-looking models. Clothes that a designer knows will be heavily photographed are typically matched with the most famous models or those with the most eye-catching walks.
Brokaw sees 300 to 400 models per season. She is, she says, interested in the girls who “grow on you”. She refers to them as “slow burns”, the models who work for a long time before they’re suddenly accepted by the public as beautiful.
“Maybe she started in a Givenchy campaign and everyone thought, ‘Oh gosh, who is that? It’s too strong; it’s too much; I don’t get it’,?” Brokaw says, pantomiming horror. “And then you get desensitised to it, and then all of a sudden she is in an H&M campaign, or a Zara campaign, and it’s a bit more palatable.”
Brokaw is also known for her ability to “bring a girl back” or to recontextualise her years after she first debuted, whether convincing Gemma Ward, who stopped modeling seven years ago and had a baby, to open Prada’s spring 2015 show, or suggesting Adriana Lima, one of the “Angels” of Victoria’s Secret, as the face of the high fashion brand Miu Miu in 2013.
ROKAW grew up in England, attended boarding school in Connecticut and interned
with Woody Allen’s casting director Juliet Taylor.
Before her training in the fashion industry — doing casting for Bruce Weber’s Abercrombie & Fitch shoots — she studied international law at Georgetown. Much of her job, serving as buffer between artist and adolescent model, looks quite a bit like statecraft.
“I always say to the girls, ‘If you have a problem, come to me. Don’t go to the designer, don’t go to the stylist, don’t complain to anybody, come complain to me’.?”
Her job requires mastery of seemingly oppositional skill sets: the ability to perceive the human form with an almost cruel objectivity and the simultaneous capacity for maternal tenderness. For all her artistic vision, Brokaw often plays the role of high school guidance counsellor.
She has sent girls home from castings and shows for being too thin or obviously on drugs. Other forms of coaching are achieved discreetly in conversations with agents.
“Sometimes I will say, ‘Get her teeth fixed’.”
Brokaw recommends dance and yoga to the less coordinated girls, and lots of practice walking in heels to the fawnlike girls whose “legs just aren’t strong enough to hold the weight of their body”.
On the off-season, she likes to meet with regional scouts who introduce her to girls she wouldn’t otherwise have the time to discover. Rather than searching for porcelain-skinned, Nordic blondes or bronzed volleyball players from São Paulo, she is enticed by countries like Denmark, places that “have really good genetic mixes and that aren’t so .?.?.? stereotypical?
I’m always interested in those kind of hybrid girls that are ethnically ambiguous. I like mixtures. I like combinations. You know, that a girl has some Asian and some European and some American Indian.”
The most ideal model-producing places, she surmises, have lots of interracial marriage, a high GDP (predictive of good teeth) and protein-rich diets (good for turning out tall but trim citizens). Australia, she says, would be a great source, if it weren’t for all the sun exposure.
Looking for new models on the street, she explains, is not ideal. Inclement weather is an obstacle (outerwear engorges even the trimmest of physiques), as are certain modes of transportation.
“It’s difficult to do in Amsterdam, because they’re all on bicycles,” she says.
“I’ve stopped girls on bicycles that are beautiful, and they get off the bicycle and” — here Brokaw sticks out her fingers two feet above the floor — “they’re this big.”
Brokaw likes to meet parents — to assess their level of support but also, if the girl is not yet post-pubescent, to get a sense of how tall she might end up.
The very idea of what a model is has expanded. “It used to be that you could kind of get away with just going down a runway. If you could fake it for the 45 seconds you needed to walk, that was good enough,” Brokaw says.
“Almost every campaign has a video component, and video is very, very different than still photographs.”
Increasingly, Brokaw is being asked about models’ personalities. Social media surely plays a role here.
Thumbing out clever captions about your acne, having fun in public and knowing to display your most irreverently inexpensive possessions are contemporary skills whose value cannot be exaggerated.