Last week in Paris, as the sun set after an unseasonably warm day, Christophe Lemaire and Sarah-Linh Tran presented the fall 2019 collection for their label, Lemaire, on the top floor of an applied arts school. The models, a diverse mix of mostly “street cast” women and men of all ages, walked in and out of the rooms with a languid saunter, hands in their pockets and a far-off look in their eyes. Every once in a while, some of the models would coyly turn their gaze to the audience, inviting eye contact.
This routine was the handiwork of Vanessa Le Mat, a London-based choreographer and performer who has worked on the Lemaire show as a creative movement director for several years. “I wanted to create a very natural moment that mirrored the first time you see someone,” says Le Mat of the mood of the show, adding, “and I wanted the models to interact with the space as well as the people, to bring their own energy to this idea.”
The movement director Vanessa Le Mat worked on Lemaire’s Fall 2019 show. “I wanted the models to interact with the space as well as the people, to bring their own energy to this idea,” she said.Credit
Fashion shows as spectacles are nothing new: For years, the runway has served as a platform for performance, with designers employing choreographers to help them animate their clothes through dance and movement. But in recent years, designers have shifted toward a more discreet approach — one that encourages idiosyncratic personalities, attitudes and interactions — led by movement directors like Le Mat.
“Even the way shows are staged, the traditional runway as a linear line, is changing,” says Steven Kolb, the president and C.E.O. of the Council of Fashion Designers of America. He cites last week’s Off-White show, where Virgil Abloh sent multiple models out at once in a nonlinear formation. “Virgil Abloh created a runway that was a chessboard and the models crossed over one another — it was energized and exciting.”
“Creating memorable experiences is one of the ultimate goals of a fashion show,” says Brian Phillips, the creative director of the New York public relations and creative agencies Black Frame and Framework. “That used to be easier, but now shows are accessible by image to all of the world, so it comes down to the feeling in the room — the movement and energy is vital.”
Creating that energy in the room comes, in large part, down to casting. This was certainly true at Maison Margiela, where the movement director Pat Boguslawski worked with models to emphasize their individuality. “Previously, John was often looking to history, but now his inspiration, in terms of movement and characters, is what we have here and now, with the people we cast,” he says, referring to the house’s creative director, John Galliano. “Everyone in the show can be different — he’s not trying to put everyone in the same bag.” This season, Boguslawski’s work was evident in the loping gait of the male model Finn Buchanan, who opened the show, and in the model Leon Dame’s fearsome, shoulders-first stalk. (Dame walked quite differently in other shows, like Isabel Marant.) For Lemaire, Le Mat takes a similar approach: “I want each girl to feel that they are more than a number, that we count on their personality.”
The culture of street casting has certainly contributed to this in some way. “A lot of designers feel that non-models, be they musicians or just a woman or man they find inspiring, bring strength to the show and to what they’re trying to say,” says Rachel Chandler, the co-founder of Midland, a model management and casting agency that specializes in finding unique faces for runway clients like Helmut Lang, Eckhaus Latta and Marni. This season, all of these brands cast some non-models, but “I do shows that don’t have any street casting at all, and even when I’m casting experienced models, I’m always looking for their individualism as well,” she adds.
Movement direction empowers each model to be a unique player rather than just a member of a faceless chorus — but it can often be a subtle art. “A lot of my favorite jobs are when you don’t even know that I’m there,” says the Los Angeles-based creative movement director Stephen Galloway, a former dancer who worked on the recent Deveaux presentation at New York Fashion Week. This season, Galloway helped the brand’s creative director, Tommy Ton, explore the concept of falling in and out of love. He had the models — many of who were not professional — meander about the room and interact with one another; at times they even embraced. “Stephen was there to guide them into character, to help them to be very gestural,” says Ton. “He’s really good at connecting with people.”
For their debut show at London Fashion Week this season, the designers Max Pearmain and Anthony Symonds of Symonds Pearmain tapped the model Lily McMenamy, the daughter of the ’90s supermodel Kristen McMenamy, as their movement director. While McMenamy, who trained in physical theater and mime at the Jacques Lecoq school in Paris, has always modeled in the brand’s presentations, this season she coached the other models. “We needed someone who has an instinctive understanding of body and movement,” Symonds says.
Leading by example, McMenamy sashayed down the runway to the archetypal industry anthem “Fashion” by David Bowie, throwing her arms up to strike poses at every turn. Other girls in the show twirled, caressed their face or threw glances back over their shoulder; some did nothing out of the ordinary. They all did what they wanted. In the lineup, McMenamy tried to talk with each model and offered demonstrations. “I feel restricted when I’m on the catwalk or on a photo shoot — like a puppet — so I wanted to bring something out of every girl so they feel they can contribute,” says McMenamy. “I wanted them to feel like they had a voice.”
Chandler says that now almost all of their clients consider casting new faces, or moonlighting models. This, however, can mean that models can often come into a show experience without much experience or confidence. To be sensitive to this, for the Maison Margiela show, Boguslawski works entirely in isolation, coaching the models one by one on both their walk and attitude. His most important task, however, is to ensure that they are comfortable. “Sometimes they think I am there because they’re not good enough, but it’s not like that at all — I’m there because I have a vision for them,” he says. “I’m there to build them up and to help them to create stories in their head.”