Althea on Casting ModelsBehind The Scenes



“It is important to me that my customers can see themselves reflected in my images, or at least feel like the model looks like somebody that they might know or could be friends with.”
-Althea Simons

Grammar’s Founder and Designer Althea Simons’s commitment to better production processes––including using GOTS (Global Organic Textile Standard) certified cotton and fair labor practices––is just one part of what good business means to her. Recently, Simons reflected on and described some of the key business decisions that she values and fights for, including garment fit and sizing, model casting, and creative collaborations.

In the following discussion, which has been edited for brevity, Simons talks about how her decisions in these areas differ from the status quo, and align with her business goals and personal values.

Callie:For you, everything begins with the sample garment––the prototype for a new design. Can you tell me a bit about your approach to making sample garments and why this is the foundation for future decisions?

Althea:My samples are a size six. Most models are a size zero. They don’t look good in my clothes because my clothes are made for real bodies. This decision to make a sample size larger than the industry’s standard is reflected in and determines the types of models I choose.

Callie:When you say your clothes are made for “real bodies,” what do you mean?

Marte in Amsterdam

Marte and Lily are close friends and have worked together many times.

Althea:My fit model––the model that I work with to design my garments––is 5’7’’ and is a size six. Many other designers will make two sizes of each sample: one for the model, and one for the general population. I make one sample. If I want to make clothes for real women’s bodies, which I do, I have to have a baseline—a sample size—that reflects this value.

It is important to me that my customers can see themselves reflected in my images, or at least feel like the model looks like somebody that they might know or could be friends with. Obviously they are gorgeous, they’re models, but I want them to feel and look natural. Usually, I end up going with models who are a little older and have more experience. Even the younger models that I choose tend to be in their 30s. I want my models to communicate a feeling of being interesting, natural, and relatable.

Callie:What are some general qualities of a model that you look for when casting?

Althea:I have basically two criteria for models: I want someone who is healthy, who eats, and who has an actual body because my clothes are made for real bodies, boobs, and curves; and I want someone who looks like she has an interesting life. That part is harder to describe because it’s more of a feeling: do I want to know this person? Would I want to sit next to her at a dinner party? Does she have some stories? This is the part that is aspirational: you want to know her.

Callie:How do you actually go about finding models?

Althea:There are two different types of photoshoots where I cast models: campaigns and e-commerce/studio. The process is different for each one. For the campaigns, I discuss my vision with Lily, the photographer I collaborate with.

In our initial planning for a campaign, we talk about what kind of model we want to work with. Sometimes that means “Oh I really think we need this type of a model” meaning, sometimes we really want a “curve” model, or an older “silver” model, for example. I always want someone who is a size four or above. It is important that the clothes aren’t wearing the models, rather, that the models are wearing the clothes. Lily Cummings, the photographer, knows several models because of her experience working as a model and a photographer, so we are usually able to pick someone or reach out to a person that she knows already, or finds on Instagram or an agency she already works with.

Callie:It is fascinating that Lily knows both worlds: how to model clothes and how to photograph them. Can you tell me more about the process behind campaign shoots?

Althea:The whole process is very unconventional because I am never onsite for the campaign shoots, and I give Lily complete creative freedom to execute the concept. Lily is an artist, ultimately, and I trust her. Most designers would not give a photographer that much freedom, that much control, because there is a lot of ego involved. For me, ours is a magical relationship where we totally understand what we’re doing in a way we can’t even verbalize, but it always comes through in the imagery.

Marie Sophie carries my suitcase

Marie Sophie Wilson, from our Venice Lookbook, hosted Althea at her home in France.

We conceptualize together, but then on the shoot it is just her and the model. There is no hair and makeup person or team; there is no heavy equipment or lighting; there is no assistant––nothing. It is just the photographer and the model. Lily used to be a model, and I think partly because of that experience she is able to connect with models on a deeper level and they trust her. I think that you can really tell in the photos that the models are open and able to be their true selves in all their glory and beauty and power. For the last shoot in Berlin we had a stylist, but most of our other campaigns it is very simple styling. No makeup or just a tiny bit of makeup. It is just Lily and the model having a magical day together.

Callie:In what ways is the casting process different for e-commerce or studio shoots?

Althea:When casting for e-commerce shoots, I generally do the casting alone. I usually begin by reaching out to agencies and telling them what type of model I am looking for. I’ve learned that––in this and many business decisions––you have to ask for what you want. For a past shoot, I knew that I wanted a Black model with a deeper skin tone. When I specified this to the agencies, I received packages––portfolios––of all these models that they had never sent me before. I’ve learned that my preferences, while perfectly obvious to me, are not obvious to everyone and I have to specify and communicate clearly what I’m looking for.

Arnelle in Greece

You wouldn't know it from the photos, but it was actually in the 50s (not that warm) on the day of this shoot.

Callie:It is interesting that using specific language when communicating with agencies had such an impact on the selection of models that they sent you. Can you say more about what you have learned as someone who strives to make decisions that support diversity and inclusivity?

Althea:I’ve found in all instances that having an intention to support diversity and inclusivity and actually making that happen are two different things. It is not going to happen just because you want it to because we live in a white supremacist society. White supremacy is a system; it is pervasive. If you don’t actively work against it, those intentions don’t mean anything. You have to actively recruit, pursue, ask for people from different races, ethnicities, ages, and sizes because if you don’t, you are just going to get more of the same and society is going to continue the way it is. The easy option is always to do the same as everyone else. Making decisions that are different from the norm requires more work. It requires actively looking and making decisions to be as inclusive as possible.

Callie:I’m so glad that you mentioned the active effort––the work––involved in making change happen. Could you say more about this process?

Model "comp cards"

A sort of business card for models, comp cards are produced by their agency and usually feature one or two photos and list the model's measurements.

Althea:There is always room to be better. I try to be very conscious about the decisions that I make when it comes to hiring people for all different kinds of things, models being one of those things. But, I think it’s just as important to be aware of diversity behind the scenes as well, with photographers and with all the other people that I work with, including interns.

Callie:So true––the people that you choose to surround yourself with make such a difference. Before we wrap up, I want to hear more about the photographers you work with on your e-commerce shoots. Can you tell me a bit about them?

Althea:The photographers I have worked with for the e-commerce shoots, Sasha Turrentine and Yekaterrina Gyadu, are not fashion photographers. Sasha is primarily a nature photographer, and Yeka is a portrait photographer. They both bring a different perspective to the shoots which often results in a more relaxed, pleasant experience. I prefer to use female photographers because I don’t want any male-gaze energy to interfere with the overall vibe. I want everything to be natural and fun. The shoots for e-commerce can involve long days and can be a bit stressful, so it is great to work with people that you can laugh with.

Callie:Althea, this has been such a great conversation. I’ve learned so much about the behind-the-scenes decisions at play in creating the visual content––the campaigns, studio shoots––for a new collection. I look forward to seeing your latest work.

Althea:Thank you, it’s been a pleasure to share my perspective.

E-commerce shoot with Naoumie and Sasha

Our small team likes to have fun on set. We were dancing a lot on this shoot!

Marie Sophie in Venice

Marie Sophie used to live in Venice when she was a teenager, so she knew exactly where to go to get the best shots.