In America—and, following the lead of America, in Russia, Italy, France, Britain, Australia, Serbia, Slovakia, Norway, Nigeria, Poland, Honduras, and more—there is an educational institution for aspiring models. It is a television franchise called America's Next Top Model (and Britain's, and France's, and so on), and its one catch is that it does not work. Some of the show's winners, and even some of its losers, have gone on to minor acclaim, but, despite having braved endless makeovers, and photo shoots involving heights and wild animals, none have been, in the international-runway sense, top models.
This may be because modeling is a strange art—part military maneuver, part witchcraft. Those who underestimate it think of models as human hangers, perfectly proportioned and only incidentally sentient. But the mixture of discipline and seduction that's required is unmatched in fashion's other professions. Young models walk, they pose, they preen: These skills, at least, can be taught. But they also need to have the presence to embody the ineffable fantasy that is a designer's vision—and then another designer's, and another's. This quality may amount to a got-it-or-you-don't proposition. There are those who got it. And there are those—like the designer Alexander Wang and his team of casting directors, stylists, and assistants—whose job it is to sniff it out.
This turns out to be a matter of no small import. The right girl in the right look can bring an outfit to life. The designers, like Wang, who are most attuned to this synergy devote obsessive attention to achieving it. The casting of their shows helps set the tone for the season; they, and the teams behind them, help make stars. They hoard their discoveries, insist on secrecy, and demand exclusivity. Agents bring their newest discoveries to the studios of these designers, their books empty—just a few amateur-looking shots taken in the agency office.
Exactly what these watchers are looking for is hard to define. Wang's casting director, Anita Bitton—herself a former model, then a model agent—is after what she calls "excitement." Her mentor, the legendary agent Eileen Ford, called it the X factor. Whatever it is, Bitton, Wang, and his longtime stylist, Karl Templer, have a solid track record of finding it and watching the rest of the world follow their lead. For Wang's Fall 2011 show, they selected a relative unknown named Aymeline Valade, who had a single Balenciaga credit to her name, for the coveted opening slot. She's now the face of no fewer than five major labels. At the next, there was Maria Bradley, a square-jawed Midwesterner at odds with the prevailing trend for neurasthenic Eastern Europeans; this season alone, she walked 53 runways. For his last show, the Wang team selected Nadja Bender, a young Dane with a small number of European appearances in her back catalog, to open. She, too, has continued on to ubiquity. What changed for her after Wang? "Everything!" she said with a laugh while at the designer's studio for a casting several days before the Spring show. "I was so proud, and honored. After that, I did a lot of shows."
The hunt for the next big thing begins immediately after the last show has ended. Bitton and Wang have been in communication about the casting since March. They've tracked a handful of candidates, many of whom will end up in the lineup, but zeroed in on one in particular: a snub-nosed henna redhead named Irina Kravchenko. She is 23 years old, five-feet, ten-and-a-half inches tall, Ukrainian, and speaks very limited English.
Wang tends to favor women who are tough, a bit remote: smoking-in-the-girls'-room types. (When Bitton coaches the models on walking, she edits out hip-swinging: "No sexy.") Irina, with her skim-milk pallor and severe features, is no exception. She's eerily beautiful, but it's hard to imagine her stopping traffic on the street. She has the kind of angular, androgynous look for which fashion people save their current highest compliment: "strong."
Bitton and Wang call her a new Freja, after Freja Beha Erichsen, the boyish, multi-tattooed Danish model who was a sensation a few seasons back. She, too, projected a sinewy, loose-limbed aura of not giving a shit. If many new models—essentially, teenagers plucked from obscurity and sent around the world to be dressed up by teams of adults chattering in languages they do not speak—seem like lost sheep separated from the herd, Kravchenko is a wolf. "There's a certain toughness," Wang says. "There's kind of a provocative way that she wears the clothes, and everything is just believable on her. She's very blasé. She came and met with me and was just, like, 'OK? Can I go now?'"
Wang first saw a photo of Kravchenko two months before the show, when her agent showed him one on his smartphone while out one night. He has occasionally complained that his much-remarked-upon love of models has been overstated—"pigeonholed" is his word—but the way he speaks about models can seem like a religion, complete with icons and idols. "I was like, 'Oh, my gosh! You have to send her to me tomorrow,'" he recalls of speaking with Kravchenko's agent. "I knew from that one photo. I knew that I loved her and needed her." If there's a decisive moment in the career of Irina Kravchenko, it may be that one—at which she wasn't even present. "He had that in his head," Bitton confirmed. "I want to say that he might have captured that face and worked around it, because the minute he saw her, he was like, 'Oh, I love her.'"
Had Wang carried the image of Irina in his mind for months as he'd worked on and styled the collection? "Definitely," he said.
Saturday afternoon at the pier-side space where Alexander Wang shows his collection, the 43 models who will walk in the show are gathered in the hangarlike backstage area, having their makeup done, their hair blown flat, strips of tape applied to their heads. Liberty Ross, the English model-turned-tabloid-fixture, is among them. So is Alex's old friend, the model Erin Wasson, who has graduated from runway regular to a kind of emerita position, and now designs jewelry and, occasionally, clothing collections.
But the opening spot is going to Irina Kravchenko. She has been held back from all prior shows to make her grand debut here; before now, she has walked precisely one local fashion show in her entire life, back in the Ukraine. Wang's Spring collection is a dark, largely black-and-white riff on sportswear: padded sweatshirts, baseball jerseys, and dresses, riddled with cutouts and threaded together with iridescent wires that look like tiny fish bones. Kravchenko is wearing a black zippered jacket with a pull the size of a silver dollar, tailored shorts, and knee-high piecemeal boots that reveal slats of skin between their leather strips. After this show, she will go on to do several more in New York (Marc Jacobs, Victoria Beckham) and a handful of the best in Milan (Prada, Jil Sander, Marni, Bottega Veneta), then graduate to fixture status in Paris (Balenciaga, Givenchy, Chanel, Louis Vuitton, Miu Miu, Valentino…). Kravchenko takes the key closing spot at Versus in Milan and opens Haider Ackermann and Viktor & Rolf as well. She is—model agents at rival agencies grudgingly admit—the new girl of the season.
But on Saturday afternoon in New York, that's all still ahead of her. Does she like her outfit? "Yes, very much. It's beautiful," she says haltingly. ("My English is very bad.") She's nervous, she admits. What will she think about just before she takes that first big step? "My legs are so angry," she says, with warrior logic. Forward march.