A Fashion Week Model's Secret: Sensible Shoes

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Joseph Chi Lin for TIME

Vika Falileeva, a newcomer model from Russia

"I had 16 castings yesterday, and I haven't quite recovered yet," says Fifi Newbery, a visibly exhausted 16-year-old from England, waiting her turn for yet another audition at a midtown Manhattan hotel. "I have 14 today." At the end of every summer, hundreds of strange, foreign creatures — willowy, 5 ft. 10 in. models — can be seen scurrying the streets of New York City, racing between casting calls for Mercedes-Benz Fashion Week. These arduous auditions will decide which models will walk the runway for the almost 100 designers who use the event to showcase their Spring/Summer 2011 lines.

The models, flown in from all over the world, will have their fates decided by a handful of casting directors, including Andrew Weir, owner of ACW Worldwide, who are responsible for most of the week's biggest shows. This season, Weir, a former creative director for Calvin Klein, was responsible for casting six Fashion Week shows, including that of Adidas' high-end Y-3 line and the debut of Zac Posen's ready-to-wear line Z Spoke.

"Almost every girl who does Fashion Week will see Andrew," says Teresa Dilger, a blond, blue-eyed model from Germany who is waiting in line for Weir's casting, held in the Library Bar of the Hudson Hotel.

Although clients have the ultimate say on which models will walk in their shows, they typically defer to Weir and his colleagues' expert judgment to find models to best represent their brand. Casting directors are briefed on what look their clients hope to convey — androgynous and sexy, for example, for the Y-3 line, or feminine and chic for Z Spoke — and round up enough models that fit the profile to satisfy the show's requirements. For the average Fashion Week show, anywhere from 15 to 50 models will take the catwalk.

At the Hudson Hotel, hundreds of beauties in their teens and early 20s start showing up at 10 a.m. for Weir's casting, all dressed in similar attire: no makeup, nice hair, simple clothes and high heels.

"You have to show you can walk in high, high heels," says Dilger, showing off her black 6-in. leather platforms. Most models, however, dare not walk around in them all day.

"We always change our shoes before we go in," says her compatriot Hanne Brüning, as they display the more reasonable flats and sandals they will change into after the casting.

Every model is photographed, head and body, by Weir's staff; the team members will rely on these shots and their notes as reference material to cast girls for Fashion Week and other projects over the course of the next six months.

Few, if any, models are exempt from the casting process, although for veterans, the castings are largely a formality and feel more like a family reunion than an audition.

"They don't make them like this," Weir says loudly as supermodel Cameron Russell, a 23-year-old American who has appeared in campaigns for Calvin Klein and Oscar de la Renta, steps up for her turn. "She's one of the most beautiful women in the world."

With the fate of most models' careers decided within their first season of shows, the Fashion Week casting calls are a critical chance for new faces to impress. But the competition can be daunting. "I want to be the best. I want to do all the shows," says Barbara Palvin, a highly touted 16-year-old from Hungary. "But the worst is when you have to wait [in line behind] a thousand girls and you're nervous."

According to Marques Nolan, p.r. director for ACW Worldwide, the agency usually finds only one or two gems among the newcomers, but by 4 p.m. Weir already has about a half dozen on his must-watch list. Nolan attributes this occurrence to the abnormally large influx of new faces, girls in their first or second season of shows, at the casting.

Weir is particularly enthusiastic about Vika Falileeva, a 5-ft. 10-in. Russian with high cheekbones and large, captivating green eyes. "She's that rare combination of all the things that make a model a model," says Weir. "Strength, height, symmetry, confidence, an amazing walk, an amazing presence, beautiful skin, beautiful hair, perfectly proportioned — an amazing girl." Among all these attributes, however, it is an intangible that really grabs his attention. "To have that kind of confidence going into her first Fashion Week," says Weir, "is special."