People-watching is riveting," declares Sarah Doukas, the founder of modelling agency Storm, when we meet on set. "If I could, I'd spend all day just wandering around looking at people." Her fascination has led to her discovery of Kate Moss, Alek Wek and Sophie Dahl, some of the most iconic and enduring models in the industry. Today though, the focus is on her latest recruits – or "new faces", as they are known – who have gathered at London's Somerset House for a rather unique shoot.
Part of an exhibition celebrating nine years of the photographer Nick Knight's visionary fashion website, showstudio.com, it is taking place in a live studio, where the public can watch the action from about five feet away, behind a one-way mirror. Vogue stories have been shot here, as well as a recent project with the model Erin O'Connor. Today's event is an unconventional twist on the casting process.
Generally, models arrive at fashion shoots having done their casting sessions days before, but in this instance, the selection takes place in a single morning. Former first assistant to Nick Knight, photographer Jez Tozer, and The Independent's fashion stylist, Gemma Hayward, set about choosing their models from Doukas's "new faces" by talking to them, and then taking test photos. Tozer then shoots the chosen ones in Kate Moss's latest range for Topshop and designer Antony Price's new collections for Topman. To complete the package, the whole project is being broadcast live on the showstudio website.
"Once you do this job, you can't ever switch off," Doukas says, telling me about the girl she spotted at a bus stop and persuaded to run alongside her car while she rattled off her modelling pitch; about the girl she spotted on the side of a rural canal; and of course, about the girl she met 21 years ago in JFK airport. "Kate [Moss] is an extraordinary person, and you know it the minute you're in a room with her. She still has that magic."
Longevity like Moss's is something that the hopefuls in the studio can so far only dream of, and this casting call is the biggest many of them have ever come to. Eighteen-year-old student Jack Cornell tells me about the day he was spotted by the acclaimed photographer Ellen Von Unwerth, as he walked along London's Brick Lane with some friends. "She was there doing a shoot for Vogue, and she gave me a number to call. I didn't recognise her, but I realised later just how big she is." Jack is a waifish indie boy with one of those ascetic haircuts that east London seems to encourage. Of the six boys present, he is just one looking to make a name for himself. "These boys are very strong," says Doukas, "which is fantastic, because they've always played second fiddle; it has always been more difficult for them. Men are coming to the fore though, they're more interested in fashion now."
It's a fact that hasn't escaped Antony Price. Known for creating the wardrobes of Roxy Music and Duran Duran, the British designer is credited with fusing the worlds of fashion and music in the late Seventies. His range for Topman is emblematic of a highly specific urban dandy style, with industrial-looking donkey jackets hanging up next to cowl-neck tops, New Romantic shirts and sculpted tweed hunting jackets, all wide-shouldered, triple-darted and with no back flap, to create a uniquely sleek and body-conscious silhouette. "Commercially, the chests and arses are the same size," he tells me. "But these models, their arses are a couple of sizes smaller. I will be furiously pinning today; there will be pins in arses."
The male model selected by the team for the shoot is 18-year-old Oxford, who is, confusingly, also from Oxford. Currently studying literature in London, he hopes one day to write a book. "But I am interested in fashion," Oxford says. "I did one shoot recently where I was blindfolded and put in a bath, another where I wore a fur gilet and posed with a whippet."
There's no whippet today, although Oxford does get to pose with a dead pheasant. He is looking the part in Price's Lowry-esque clothes. "I call it the Hovis look," the designer declares of a black jacket and flat cap ensemble. The suit is called "Zeppelin"; others are named "The Bellboy" and "The Poacher", perfectly summing up Price's somewhat DH Lawrence take on menswear. The coat that Oxford dons for his second shot is named "Oscar's Gone Wild", for its streetwise homage to the modern flaneur style that is so prolific right now – a style that Price practically invented 20 years ago.
Besides his Topman capsule, Price designs a small amount of womenswear for valued clients, among whom is the Duchess of Cornwall. His clothes have a "Glamazon" quality, which is unsurprising given that he was the stylist behind all those Roxy Music album cover femmes fatales. "It's very Eighties," he says as he shows me his intricately wrought sketches in the dressing room. "It's underwear stuff all over. That's what I do, what I've always done – I won't stop, because it's right at the moment. I like women to be glamorous. Models these days aren't like the women I used to dress, that's for sure."
Price's shows in the Camden Palace were high theatre and featured strong-looking early supermodels, such as Jerry Hall and Catherine Dyer (now Bailey, married to the photographer David). "Models don't look that way any more," he says.
Body size is obviously an issue that Sarah Doukas has to deal with on a daily basis. "I would never alter somebody's appearance," she says firmly. "These kids are all mad about body image anyway, so you have to be very careful because they're so receptive and vulnerable." Doukas was, let's not forget, the force behind Sophie Dahl's rise to fame. "I said to her: 'If we start sending you on castings or shoots, some photographer's assistant is going to tell you you need to lose weight.' So we didn't do that with her and she was great about it."
Meanwhile, the team has cast 17-year-old Portia for the womenswear shoot. She's studying for her A-levels at the moment, but would like to go into full-time modelling. With her striking but delicate features, she is perfect for the diaphanous dresses and Thirties-inspired pieces in the Kate Moss collection. "There's always a formula," says Doukas. "There has to be the fantastic cheekbones, wide-spaced eyes and a strong jawline – but after all that, extreme looks can do quite well. Although, in a recession, it veers back to a more obviously beautiful look."
There is a real sense of Doukas being personally interested in each model and of a desire on her part to nurture them. She has a farm outside London where she keeps hens and donkeys and, with her coltish "new faces" bustling around her for a chat, it is easy to imagine her hurling feed around a yard full of squawking chickens. "I'm very maternal," she says. "Teenagers are not easy and we are definitely in loco parentis for a lot of the time. We try to keep them grounded."
Hair: Richard Scorer at Haringtons using L'Oreal
Make-up: Georgina Graham at CLM using MAC Cosmetics
Production Manager: Alex Wilkie
Set: Alun Davies
Set Assistants: Christa & Lizzie
Digital Operator: Noel Mclaughlin
DJ Set: Broken Hearts
Live Stream Cinematography: Nic Chard
Backstage Photography: Kamil Kustoz
Photographic Assistant: James Robotham
Styling Assistant: Rachel Kenworthy
Make-Up Assistant: Thomas
Jez Tozer Studio Interns: Hilary Orchard & Rik Patel
PA: Speedy Disco
Post-Production: Lucie Silveira at Love
Production: Jez Tozer Studio
Special thanks to Crussh.com for providing lunch