Announcing Anita Bitton, Document Journal’s Casting Director

The industry giant sits down with Editor-in-Chief Nick Vogelson to discuss the past, present, and future of her profession

Anita Bitton, the UK-raised and New York-based casting giant, is a profoundly prescient selector. In a career that has spanned some of the most prominent houses of the past two decades including Louis Vuitton, Bottega Veneta, and Burberry, she continues to touch back to her early years in London, where underground culture collided with a wave of independent publishing eager to engage with society’s peripheries.

In a conversation with Document’s Editor-in-Chief Nick Vogelson, Bitton discusses the past, present, and future of casting—and why it all matters to an industry that is ever-changing.

Nick Vogelson: What brought you into casting? What’s kept you in it?

Anita Bitton: And I still get excited about the idea and the challenges. I’ve been lucky to be adjacent to some amazing talents. But essentially, I really needed a job that didn’t require a resumé. And I was like, I can do this. I grew up in London, so it was very much a tribal vibe. We were always attracted to people, how they looked, what they wore, how they danced, who they hung out with. You took care of each other. And you had your cliques. I grew up in the ’70s and ’80s.. There [were] just so many different things happening. So for me, I was like, People, I got this. I can do people.

And, you know, I mentioned before that I was an intern at i-D from the age of like, 15, 16. I would just literally go in and organize and clean the desks. I got introduced to nightclubs. I loved people, I loved being around, I loved music, and I think all that converged. I think what brought me into casting was not understanding how I would get a 9-to-5 job. Then the opportunity arose. And I just took it. I think my trajectory has been some great introductions, brilliant opportunities, and just people believing in me.

Nick: Last year, I went to an art book fair and I saw the first five issues of i-D at a rare bookseller. You mentioned the publication, and I was thinking about how independent magazines used to serve the function of building communities. You were talking about protecting communities, supporting your world. Even until 10 years ago, well, maybe 20 years ago, all of that information and culture proliferated offline. It was about where you were. There wasn’t the same i-D in New York as there was in London. What do you think the purpose of an independent magazine is today?

Anita: I was obsessed with independent magazines as a teenager. We would have zines. I wrote my thesis on Terry Jones and the underground press and the nonconforming conformists. I felt like the underground press was really where we went to show ourselves. It was like our selfies. For i-D, we would go to nightclubs and take these upright Polaroid pictures. Everything was about dressing up and being seen, and all you wanted was your upright Polaroid in i-D. So now when you look at those first five issues, you’re like, Holy shit, this was just social commentary.

Today’s independent press feels slightly more intellectual in that it’s these droves of brilliant cutting-edge individuals from the heyday of the underground who have grown up and want to preserve culture, and who want to identify things that are important to them. Or it highlights things in the art or design world, areas that have become quite neutralized by Instagram. So to read independent magazines is really to be tapped into something that feels more meaningful than the everyday.

“So the future of casting for me is to step back and look at the big picture, and understand how, in a world on fire, we can contribute in a meaningful way.”

Nick: Tell me about your process. What makes your practice and approach unique?

Anita: I don’t know how unique it is because I’ve never worked with anyone else. When I started, there were some people that I really admired. But I think with any task, you have to look at it and really tap into the center of it. We go in with a blank slater. We start from the storyboards for an editorial, and we start to build out the DNA of the product and the designer.

Now there’s a huge trend where everyone is using models from the past and referencing the ’90s. Right? Luckily for us, we were there in the ’90s and pre-’90s. We’re referencing stuff we did in high school. So our references go even further back.

When I meet a designer, I ask a lot of questions. Where are we going? What are we doing? Who is this for? Then we look at the history. We present a historical version and a modern version, and we say, ‘This would be wild, let’s just really fuck it up and do this right.’ I’ve worked with some brilliant people. And what happens is, if you don’t challenge them, you’re not going to move it forward. Anyone can pick up the phone or call a modeling agency, right? So it really is getting the trust from your client.

We try to give it a very honest approach that can be understood. And the minute we hit any plateau, we add more ingredients. I don’t know how unique that is, but the relationship is key. The content is key and the research is key. All we do is research, our research is boundless.

Nick: How has casting evolved in the last 20 years?

Anita: When you work for the creative director of a brand, even with your most creative ideas, you’re not the creative director, you’re not the designer, you’re not the photographer. Since the explosion of the internet and social media, there’s this perception that everyone can do everything. I think it’s become more accessible, and it’s actually developed into being a real job. When I started it was a very narrow playing field, and people did shows and people did print. Now, they can cast on Instagram, they can call the agents, everybody is a model.

“…in order to present the culture and to present these talents to the creatives, especially if they’re on the outskirts, you really have to go to the talents and understand them. You have to say ‘I want to give you a platform, how best would that serve you?’”

Nick: What do you see as the future of casting?

Anita: It’s always going to be necessary to have an external voice, because I think a team of creatives can get so insular. As an outsider, it’s really important to maintain this external relationship, so you can bring something different that doesn’t exist yet.

I think we’re verging on a tipping point in changing the definition of casting. It’s so broad now, and there are so many people doing it, and it seems there must be money to be made doing it. So the future of casting for me is to step back and look at the big picture, and understand how, in a world on fire, we can contribute in a meaningful way. How can I take the opportunities that have been given to me and really think about culture? How do we make positive changes in the way that people look at the world by providing ideas, faces, talents? It’s going to keep growing until it combusts internally, because, for example, I’ve had clients for 12 or 13 years, and now I see people with clients for one year or two years. And I think that’s a shame because you don’t grow, you don’t expand. You’re just constantly in this hamster wheel of trying to make something happen. Nothing happens on the first day of work, right?

Nick: I would say that the role of a casting director today has more cultural weight and significance than ever before. I think we’re at a time right now where a lot of casting is about, as you mentioned, references from other eras. And I think in referencing other eras—whether it’s the ’70s, ’80s, ’90s, 2000s—there’s a cultural responsibility. There’s a cultural responsibility to highlight someone in a way that hasn’t been or to see them in a new light or in a different genre. Do you feel that cultural responsibility?

Anita: I do. It’s all about the culture. We are fueled by the youth because they’re fearless. They’re dangerous. They don’t have the frameworks that we are used to, or the [typical] social structures that we move between. It’s important for us to understand and be flexible in how we look at these things. I don’t ever claim to know everything—if there’s a niche area, I find the specialists. I think it’s also about being collaborative. And in order to present the culture and to present these talents to the creatives, especially if they’re on the outskirts, you really have to go to the talents and understand them. You have to say ‘I want to give you a platform, how best would that serve you?’

Nick: I have one final question. Can you share some of your favorite career moments so far? Something that was a creative win, something that was totally unexpected, something that you felt changed how we look at casting, how we look at magazines, how we look at campaigns? It’s an open-ended question.

Anita: The first thing that springs to mind is Cast Me Marc, because that was the first casting project that was done through Instagram. Back in the early days, I was lucky enough just to be around some of the most creative people. They’ll throw your camera, take some Polaroids. You’re at Heaven. You’re in Berlin. You’re surrounded by people who weren’t at the level of success that they are now, but you just have these opportunities to become fearless. When I got to New York, and I was a model agent, I was like, This is the worst job in the world. I don’t envy any of them. And then I got the opportunity to work with Kevin Krier & Associates. And that was an eye-opener because you got to go to Paris. You got to go to Gucci with Tom Ford. I was the lowly assistant and was so overwhelmed at the opportunity that I would literally do anything, like get coffee. One opportunity fed the next. Kevin Krier was really generous. He offered me a job and I took it, working with him when he was at Gucci in Milan and Saint Laurent in Paris. And that really opened my eyes to fashion.

Later in my career—and I didn’t know this would be a huge big deal—I got my scrappy office on 5 Crosby, in the same building as Humberto and Carol, and Starworks. We all had a floor in this old sweatshop building that was being renovated. It was a really great incubator for young businesses. We were all just making it happen. Then there was this photographer, Kai Regan, who was like, ‘I’ve got this client, Apple. They’re going to do this music stuff, and you have to do the casting.’ I said, ‘Okay, we’re going to do the silhouettes.’ And we did rockers. This was for the launch of the iPod, and it was amazing. When I put that up so many people reached out to me like ‘You did that?’

These are opportunities for people that we were just hanging out with, just like in London 10 years earlier. We were so lucky because the culture was there. These subcultures were seeping out of the woodwork. It was full of young artists like Ryan McGinley, Dan Colen, and Ben Cho. There was just this great energy there. So myself and my assistants got on a board, we had about 10 bucks for each talent, they had to sign their lives away. I did the video, it was handheld. So it’s those kinds of opportunities, like Alexander Wang’s first time at Balenciaga. My first job with Marc Jacobs was his last show at Louis Vuitton. And that was a fucking trip. That was just like, Holy shit.

While they were fabulous, those weren’t what set the groundwork. I’m thinking of people I work with now, like Grace Wales Bonner. She was somebody that I had emailed to work with. I’m a fan, and I admire [her] talent. I’ll go out of my way to work with people who I deem extremely talented, and I’ll drink the Kool Aid, you know what I mean? I am super collaborative. I also don’t believe everything should look the same. I feel a responsibility to go in, get deep, and help define a message that will single these people out, and that will give designers a building block so that they don’t fade into obscurity because they’re all using the same 10 faces.