midland, the modeling agency rebooting fashion’s beauty ideals
Representing a roster of street cast fresh faces and overseeing casting for New York’s most exciting brands, Rachel Chandler and Walter Pearce are pushing the fashion industry to keep up with their progressive, political aesthetic.
"It's not like pink hair, it's an entirely new way of looking at people," says Walter Pearce. He's explaining a shift in casting practices that began with brands like Hood By Air and Eckhaus Latta in New York and has since spread to every level of the fashion industry. It's a shift towards what Walter calls "weird in a good way," away from "the female beauty standard that's so aggressively all over New York." And it's partly what led to a centuries-old brand like Balenciaga sending artists and DJs down its runways this year.
This summer, Walter and photographer Rachel Chandler founded Midland, a new kind of modeling and casting agency to support this new kind of model. Their goal is to make sure the Instagram- and street-cast students, skate kids, and club kids that brands now covet for their subcultural capital get work and get paid, while maintaining their sanity and sense of fun.
"We talked about how drastic the shift in casting has been over the last few years. How a lot of students or artists are modeling now, because they have a look that's desirable, but they're not represented," explains Rachel. "And if you're unrepresented, you often end up underpaid. So Midland has two parts: it's a casting agency but we're also a model agency."
Rachel and Walter currently represent 16 models, in addition to casting and consulting for brands including Junya Watanabe, Eckhaus Latta, and Hood By Air. "I think so far, the greatest compliment anyone gave me was from a friend who's not in the industry," says Rachel, "They told me, 'When I look at the roster, I want to know more about each person. I want to know who they are."
Rai, one of Midland's models, went to Walter's high school in upstate New York. He is over six foot tall, with the luminous skin, long hair, and slightly angular upturned nose of an anime character. "Right when I started casting, he was on my mind," Walter says. "But I think I hadn't developed my style enough, I wasn't confident enough, to know that he was actually so strong."
Walter, now 21, began his career during his sophomore year in high school. He interned at DIS magazine at 14, before a mutual friend introduced him to Shayne Oliver of Hood By Air. At 16, he started interning with Oliver (who he now refers to as "my mother"), and assisted the brand with casting. He helped oversee the street casting for Oliver's beautifully twisted scholastic spring/summer 16 show, flying over two guys he'd met in LA, with faces covered in tattoos. And this past September, working as Midland, he oversaw Hood By Air's show casting for the first time. Rai walked in a white shirt with straight-jacket-like sleeves, his hair and forehead wet with a half-inch-thick layer of Vaseline.
"Only when we were forming Midland was I like, 'Wait a minute, this kid is so sick,'" Walter says. "It's so funny knowing the context, that he went to this little high school upstate, because now of course we have a totally different relationship."
"The whole thing's super personal to us, and as a result the relationships are super personal," Walter continues. He says that Guy, another model who was a Hood By Air exclusive this past season, is like a little brother to him. He sometimes goes to Walter's house for dinner, he texts him on his birthday. "We basically shattered this idea that enjoying modeling and getting work are mutually exclusive. That's been the standard up to this point, for real."
"The other thing that's been really cool is that the agency's two parts feed each other," says Rachel. Rachel works with Eckhaus Latta year round, and through the brand's open casting calls on Instagram she met two people she ended up signing with Midland. "Another boy we have on our roster, I was eating in a sushi restaurant on Avenue A and was literally mid-bite when I saw him walk by. I ran out and my friend thought I was completely insane. But I signed him and he did the Helmut Lang [campaign] I just cast."
Like Walter, Rachel has a sought-after eye for spotting talent in unlikely places, a knack she honed through her work as a photographer. In March she helped curate the lineup for Demna Gvsalia's fall/winter 16 Balenciaga show. "The casting director was a friend of a friend and he needed help," she explains. "I suggested a few people for them and they ended up taking all of my suggestions! So I thought, 'Ok, I must be good at this.'"
"Really everyone at this point is interested in this type of [street] casting," says Walter, before listing work he's done recently for household names like L'Oréal. "I think there used to be a pretty strong line between what brands would and wouldn't hire me, and now that's really fading away. Within the last two days, I've worked with brands I thought wouldn't touch me with a twenty-foot pole! I think that's also why Rachel is great with me, why we're a good team."
I ask him how actively he thinks about challenging inherited, cookie-cutter ideas of beauty when he casts less familiar faces in major campaigns and shows. "On the one hand, it's just what I like — what I think is beautiful and cool — but on the other hand, there's an element of it that's political now. Once you do something enough times, it becomes a statement," he says.
"There is something really positive happening right now," he continues, describing rapidly changing ideas of beauty. "There are more opportunities now than ever, and I want to use that, I want to infiltrate as much as possible. This [traditional fashion] girl has lasted for 200 years but she's not going to last forever."
Text Alice Newell-Hanson
Photography courtesy Midland