A Touch of Class

Photography Bell Soto

Stylist & Casting Director John Tan goes progressive with a dose of reality

John Tan is a secret bullet of the fashion industry. A believer in paying dues the old school way, with genuine favors and the right kind of back-scratching, Tan is finally getting his due as a team builder, respected stylist, and go-to-guy for finding just the right models.

“I’m first and foremost a stylist,” says Tan. “What may set me apart is that, through my varied experiences, I can see the big picture down the road differently.” Born in Hong Kong and raised in New York, Tan’s eclectic resume includes stints as magazine art director, fashion show producer, and early on, a graphic designer at a publication that had more to do with fish than fashion.

Tan aims to keep it humble. He tells his own story as a creative individual who paid some dues, just happened upon styling, then gravitated toward casting as a happy coincidence.

One significant break came in 2005, as designer Raf Simons asked Tan to cast models for his first and only presentation in New York. Typically, the casting director works in a world of beautiful children, ushered into fashion by demanding agents, anxious parents and fickle designers. And it’s occasionally staffed by some infantile personalities who should have grown up, like, twenty years ago. John Tan is one of the rare fashion players who have built their reputation on a code of respect given, respect earned. He’d rather share the location of his favorite Vietnamese pho joint in Chinatown, than throw back drinks at the new, swanky hot-spot.

These days, it’s commonplace for groups of male models to stride into a casual go-see, proclaiming, “John Tan sent me.” When Tan’s name is dropped, it signifies a partnership rather than a mutual exploitation. Forget what you see on America’s Top Model, bitchy feedback, even with constructive intentions, is not a mark of greatness.

The casting process, handled in the sleepless weeks leading up to the show, is a grueling series of political negotiations. Courtesy and diplomacy are key for the casting director, but most important is a kind of mind reading, an ability to take a designer’s cues and translate them to the boys finally tapped to walk. “The ideal model is someone who has a sense of individual character, a real spirit, but who has an intellectual mind. And yet we don’t talk about it, it’s about the process of experience.”

For designer Thom Browne, Tan knows how to turn the dial. Says Tan, “Thom likes the idea of a model being a recognizable name. He’s not fixated on whether a model [has worked for] Calvin Klein, it’s whether or not he’s a character. It’s always theatrical. If he sees a model and says, ‘I could see him in that bird suit,’ I will cast that guy. It’s very basic, because Thom knows what he wants.”

Miki Higasa, the powerhouse agent for Thom Browne, adds, “Working with John is a real pleasure. Perhaps since he already had a great sense of aesthetics with his styling career, he is very astute with casting models according to the concept or sensibility to that particular collection. He deals with everyone—models, model agents, designers—with diplomacy and respect.” And stay tuned, Tan’s got an online men’s magazine launching for F/W ’09. Niceness, in other words, does pay.

– Cynthia Leung

Concept, Styling & Casting: John Tan
Editor: Michael Cohen
Styling Assistant: Dorothy Fong
Makeup: Hiro Yonemoto
Hair: Kelsy Lilian Osterman at Cutler Salon, NYC
Photography Assistant: Josh Upshaw at Earnest Represents
Models: Douglas at Ford, Paolo Anchisi at Ford and Roy Pratt at ReQuest
Special thanks to Dex Studios, Jesse Simon at Ford, Oscar at ReQuest, Earnest at Earnest Represents and Anna at See Management