Well spotted

Their faces can shift T-shirts and perfume like nothing else. Edward Helmore meets the man who finds them on the streets of New York
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The Independent Online
Sitting in one of New York's East Village cafes, Ned Ambler thumbs through a book of cuttings from Vogue, Details and The Face. He points out his "stars" - the pretty-boy rockers, the skate rats, the transsexual blondes and girly Asian punks - who have lately been appearing like strange foliage next to Kate Moss in the Calvin Klein advertisements and in Gap's current campaign.

Ambler, a 27-year-old who dresses in black thrift store clothes, has a missing tooth, a double mohawk haircut and the feral look of someone who has been running fast and loose from mother for some years, is like an old-time talent scout with a difference. He has created a thriving business by combing the bars, the bowling alleys and the streets of the city for the quirky, the tattooed and the pierced to feed the fashion industry's current appetite for raw realism.

"I look for the models who look like they have a soul and a story, who look more cinematic," he says. "They have attitude and a life outside modelling. It's not like they're stuck in a Ford model house talking about fashion all day."

Last year, in what may be his most infamous coup, his casting for a Calvin Klein perfume commercial resulted in the company being investigated by the FBI's child exploitation and obscenity division. This year, Richard Avedon's commercials for Calvin Klein's new perfume CK Be, starring several Ambler discoveries, have been so successful that Ambler claims they have been withdrawn to protect sales of CK One. The company denies this but certainly members of the London fashion pack in New York for the collections last month and keen to buy supplies of CK Be, which has yet to be launched in the UK, found that stores were rationing bottles.

Some members of Ambler's exotic menagerie get more than a chance to make $1,500, and go on to fully-fledged careers. Annie Ok, a Japanese woman he spotted at a rock concert, and who wears a crown in photographer Mario Testino's campaign for Gap, now does voice-overs for MTV, has a role in a new film version of Great Expectations with Robert de Niro and received offers from Woody Allen. Jakob Prufer, the girlie-looking blond boy in Gap's latest ad, has been signed by Ford in New York. Ambler found him sitting on a park bench.

He made another of his favourite discoveries, a girl called So Fine, outside a McDonald's in Harlem. Another, George Castro, 21, a taxi driver who looks a little like actor Willem Dafoe, while riding in the back of his taxi. "I bought him to these really chic parties and everybody loved him. I love bringing people who are totally not into the fashion scene into it to watch what they do."

"This whole thing is called `New Realism'," he says. "It's no longer that fake Eighties sugar-coated thing. People want someone they can relate to, not someone they wish with plastic surgery they could look like." But he also knows where to draw the line between the simply weird and someone who could have mass-market appeal.

Ambler arrived in New York from his native Virginia nine years ago by way of an all-boys' boarding school in Connecticut. He enrolled at New York University Film School and, unsuited to bar work, sold illustrations to fashion magazines to make ends meet. His big break came three years ago when he landed a part-time job at L'Uomo Vogue and was sent to collect a $15,000 diamond tiara for fashion designer Isaac Mizrahi to wear. Next they wanted 10 street kids. Ambler knew where to go and a business was born.

He has been studying the comings and goings of fashion since he was a teenager and has developed a kind of natural understanding of his clients' tastes. He claims Richard Avedon, for instance, likes "a great Eighties beauty"; Steven Meisel, "collegiate with an edge"; Steven Klein, "someone from a bowling alley". His skill in knowing where to find, say, an edgy skinhead has made him into something of a star himself. Two weeks ago he held what must be one of the largest ever casting calls for a Dolce e Gabbana campaign when thousands of club kids mobbed a factory-sized nightclub called Twilo. "The place was packed, it took me 45 minutes to get out," he says in mock horror.

Sometimes, however, Ambler's taste seems too outre for the strict social codes of New York fashion. "I brought this girlfriend to a Matsuda party and she wanted to go dressed really wild. I told her she would be really uncomfortable. She goes, `I thought this was going to be fashion. Isn't it meant to be creative?'

"I told her, `No, it's all going to be fashion editors and they're dressed really boring and it's really snobby and middle-class'. We got there and sure enough everyone was dressed exactly the same in office clothes."

Like many of the nocturnal denizens of thebohemian East Village, Ambler has recreated himself as a personality, and the one-man Ned Ambler Pictures and Casting business is a cash cow to finance his bizarre film productions. The first of these, an hour-long feature titled Rock Star, will be in the London Film Festival in March. It stars Theo, one of his most successful modelling proteges and a singer in a marginal downtown New York band Lunachicks. "It's about an agoraphobic singer called Heaven Sent who can perform in front of 50,000 people at Madison Square Garden but can't go out to get a cup of coffee from the corner, and the parade of characters that come through her loft."

Ambler has cast the retinue of creatures whose celebrity exists within a four-block square of Tompkins Square Park in the heart of the once dangerous Alphabet City - they include Miss Guy, Paige, The Trans Sisters and Walt Paper. In other words, he says, "30 of New York's legendary downtown performers".

So how far can this trend for realism go? "In terms of high fashion it's played out, but the door has been opened and new faces are coming through. We had forgotten these people were beautiful. They're the people that painters would find beautiful ... they're like muses"