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John Pfeiffer, Casting Director

John Pfeiffer takes BoF inside the business of casting models for some of the industry’s biggest brands and reveals how a legendary 90s party and helping Anna Wintour into a bias-cut dress led him to the top of the field.
John Pfeiffer | Photo: Robert Fairer
  • Suleman Anaya

NEW YORK, United States — "Models now have a much shorter cycle," says New York-based casting director John Pfeiffer, snapping his fingers at quick-fire velocity to sum up the state of a profession he has helped shape.

Pfeiffer's assessment is realistic enough to crush a young girl's dreams. "The pace of fashion has grown so fast that you have younger and younger girls with much shorter careers. People want the next thing as fast as possible, so there is very little time for a girl to develop. If you don't hit it now, you'll probably be forgotten by the next season," he says. "The stakes are higher than they've ever been, the window of opportunity for a model to make it big incredibly slim."

If the outlook is grim for the majority of aspiring models, the flip-side is that for a lucky and genetically blessed few, one nod from Pfeiffer can mean a drastic change of fortunes. As casting director for the Victoria’s Secret fashion show, Pfeiffer has the power to catapult a model's career into the stratosphere overnight.

Pfeiffer — who also counts Michael Kors, Prabal Gurung, Bottega Veneta and DVF as clients — never planned to become a casting director. Born in Honolulu into a close-knit family of performers and music academics, he spent a childhood split between Hawaii, the Philippines and New Mexico. While he took a few fashion classes (in addition to linguistics) at the University of Hawaii, it was a legendary charity party that really put him on the path to fashion.

The stakes are higher than theyve ever been — the window of opportunity for a model to make it big incredibly slim.

After a brief stint in San Francisco, where he fell in with a creative, style-oriented crowd, Pfeiffer followed one of his brothers, an artist, to New York. It was 1991, the year of the second Love Ball, Suzanne Bartsch's infamous AIDS fundraiser at Roseland Ballroom, an event that united Harlem's voguing culture with the fashion community and nascent downtown luminaries like Madonna and Marc Jacobs into one extravagant, minutely orchestrated production.

Pfeiffer, who attended the fabled party, had an epiphany. "Before, I already knew I wanted to do something in fashion, but going to the Love Ball was super-exciting, unlike anything I had seen before. I knew I had to be involved in the production of big events full of talent, glamour and creativity, at the heart of this world but behind the scenes."

Within a week after arriving in New York, Pfeiffer got his first job in fashion, as a showroom director for Los Angeles-based fashion designer Richard Tyler. Working for Tyler, Pfeiffer says, was "like a crash course. Very quickly I learnt all the different elements that make up the industry."

When Anna Wintour wore a dress designed by Tyler to the CFDA awards in 1994 (the designer received a top prize that year), it was Pfeiffer who fitted the Vogue editor. Pfeiffer wore many hats while at Tyler, but the job was mainly a stepping stone to his next position, as a production assistant at KCD, the New York fashion production and PR powerhouse.

Pfeiffer calls the years he spent at KCD, from 1994 to 1996, 'an education' and credits the discipline and attention to detail he is known for to this date in part to his experience at the firm. "There is a training that goes with being at KCD, a very rigorous way of working that has stayed with me."

As a casting director you are a gatekeeper for your clients. You have to know everyone thats out there.

By the time Pfeiffer was headhunted by Bureau Betak, a top production company, where he would stay for six years before branching out on his own, dealing with model agencies had become his speciality. "I did it well and, importantly, I liked it," he says, without a trace of ego.

"The roots of casting are in production. When I started in the early 90's casting as a career didn't really exist. You worked in production, and one of the things you had to do was book models. No one even called it casting at the time, you were just the one in charge of booking the models," Pfeiffer says.

"Essentially, the reason brands need a casting director is to get access. As a casting director you are a gatekeeper for your clients. You have to know everyone that's out there, every agency, every agent. Not just know them, but have relationships with them. If the model is the product, you have to know what is out there and available."

As Pfeiffer puts it, the job consists of editing as much as it does of liaising. "With more girls than ever available now, and with so much to be discovered and sifted through, you are the first set of eyes for your client. The client trusts you and expects you to bring in a selection of models that is uniquely tailored to their needs."

Far removed from the blank interchangeable faces seen on many other runways, Pfeiffer has a reputation for casting models with personality, a signature aesthetic, he says, that draws a certain type of client "I end up with clients who also like girls with personality. There is no denying that, in energy and spirit, a Michael Kors show is different from a Calvin Klein show."

In more specific terms, the casting process unfolds over a series of stages, the first of which is an active back-and-forth of emails and phone-calls, in which the type of model that will be cast for a show is established. "The client — either the designer or his stylist — gives me 5 specific models that more or less epitomise what he is looking for."

With today's profusion of global coverage available through the Internet and other media, it is not uncommon for Pfeiffer to receive clippings or screen-captures from a designer asking him to identify a desired but unknown model. "Who is this girl? Can we get her, or someone like her?"

Once the strategising and information-gathering stage is completed, Pfeiffer compiles a list of models he wants to ‘option’ (reserve) for a particular brand. This is when a series of actual meetings with the designer begins, where a gradual elimination process whittles down Pfeiffer's initial selection to the small fraction that will actually be cast.

By the time final casting sessions, or 'go-sees,' which can take up half a day, come around, the selection is down from hundreds to about 80 girls, of which only about 15 will ultimately be booked.

"Because there is simply no time for the designer to look at all the models he wants considered, the client has to trust that you are going to pick and choose in their place and bring in the right girls, the most interesting faces that will make their collection stand apart and show the collection most winningly," Pfeiffer says about his role.

Today, a line-up for a brand like Michael Kors typically includes a combination of designer favorites, who have worked with the brand before, and new faces booked from Pfeiffer's pre-selection. "There are so many new girls to love but you can only have so many because there's a limited number of looks," says the casting director, indirectly explaining the trend toward one-look-per-girl casting.

"Managing expectations is a very big part of a casting director's job. Everybody would love to have Kate Moss or Daria Werbowy in their show, and you have no idea how often I get asked 'Is Gisele available?'" says Pfeiffer, hinting at the diplomatic skills his job requires.

"Some of my new clients think that because of the brands I work with and my relationships with some very well-known girls, I can get them those girls. But that is not the way it works, there's a lot more to it, even if you have all the money in the world. So I have to do a lot of finessing."

Concerning the debate about the lack of diversity that continues to plague the modeling industry, Pfeiffer says simply: "I feel very strongly about diversity and inclusion and it's definitely an issue. It would be dishonest to deny that the runway is overwhelmingly white. That said, I will also say that its gotten better than it was just a few seasons ago." He feels sanguine about the subject. "People are a lot more conscious about the issue, and the way for things to improve is to keep the conversation going. Making sure that is the case if part of my job too."

For those aiming to follow in his footsteps, Pfeiffer says: “Take the steps to get an education and learn and develop in whatever it is that interests you. Context is everything — the more you know, the better you can be at something, so whatever you do, get all the experience you can get."

"A lot of people want to come into the industry because they think it's so glamorous. But that's all they see and they want to get to it without all the hard work it takes. That's not how it works. You should want to pay your dues and build a foundation. Then, when you get to the higher levels, you will be able to understand references and, literally, feed back. Because that is ultimately what creativity is: interchange, the ability to keep up with a conversation."

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