In March 2019, The Fashion Spot published its seasonal diversity report, which measures diversity of race, gender and size on the Fashion Week catwalks.
The report documented a milestone in racial diversity, with runways across all four cities more inclusive than ever before. In New York, 45.8% of models were non-white. Paris came in second, with 39% models of colour, London in third and Milan – typically the least diverse city – in fourth on 31.8%. So good news in some respects, but on the other hand you have industry veteran Naomi Campbell telling Vogue as recently as April this year that her ads don’t run in certain countries because she is black.
The issue of black women's representation within the fashion industry isn’t a new topic, but – newsflash – we need to keep talking about it. I was reminded of this again very recently when I was scrolling through my phone and saw a post by New York-based model, Olivia Anakwe. She took to Instagram to write about a common situation she faces as a working model: the way she is treated by non-black hairstylists who are untrained or unable to look after natural, afro hair. This happens time and time again, despite being asked to turn up to shows with her hair in its natural state. Anakwe said: "This message is to spread awareness & hopefully reach anyone in the hair field to expand their range of skills. Black models are still asking for just one hairstylist on every team no matter where your team is from, to care for afro hair."
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This message is to spread awareness & hopefully reach anyone in the hair field to expand their range of skills. Black models are still asking for just one hairstylist on every team no matter where your team is from to care for afro hair. I was asked to get out of an empty chair followed by having hairstylists blatantly turning their backs to me when I would walk up to them, to get my hair done. If I am asked to wear my natural hair to a show, the team should prepare the style just as they practice the look and demo for non-afro hair. I arrived backstage where they planned to do cornrows, but not one person on the team knew how to do them without admitting so. After one lady attempted and pulled my edges relentlessly, I stood up to find a model who could possibly do it. After asking two models and then the lead/only nail stylist, she was then taken away from her job to do my hair. This is not okay. This will never be okay. This needs to change. No matter how small your team is, make sure you have one person that is competent at doing afro texture hair care OR just hire a black hairstylist! Black hairstylists are required to know how to do everyone’s hair, why does the same not apply to others? It does not matter if you don’t specialize in afro hair, as a continuous learner in your field you should be open to what you have yet to accomplish; take a class. I was ignored, I was forgotten, and I felt that. Unfortunately I’m not alone, black models with afro texture hair continuously face these similar unfair and disheartening circumstances. It’s 2019, it’s time to do better. || #NaturalHair #ModelsofColor #BlackHairCare #HairCare #Message #Hair #Hairstyling #Backstage #BTS #AfroTexturedHair #Afro #POC #Braids #Message #Spreadtheword #Speak #Awareness #Growth #WorkingTogether #BlackGirlMagic #Melanin
Earlier this month, seasoned Australian model Ajak Deng spoke on her Instagram stories about feeling alienated and labelled as not good enough by her peers in the fashion industry. In 2016 she announced she was quitting modelling because she could "no longer deal with the fakes and the lies", before announcing her return a week later. Judging by her latest tearful post, those issues have not gone away. Deng said: "You don’t know how lonely it is at the top. And not only that, the people that work with you are constantly telling you that you need to be a better person and you’re a horrible person on a daily basis. I’m sick and tired." The post was later deleted but after being reposted on a different account, the comments were flooded with support for the model, including a supportive hashtag, #HereforAjak.
In an era where the Fenty Beauty campaign caused a domino effect in the beauty industry emphasising inclusivity, and models like London-born Leomie Anderson are quick to call out issues within the industry, it might feel like we are coming on leaps and bounds – but for many working black models the reality is that not much has changed, and many continue to face discrimination and racism on a daily basis.
Thankfully social media has given black women a platform to articulate their struggles. South London-raised Sophia Tassew is plus-size and black. After being scouted as an ASOS insider, her presence on social media rocketed (she has a 10.5k following on Instagram) and she went on to secure a creative placement with Nike and curate her own exhibition. Although she's been in the modelling industry for less than two years, Tassew realised early on that she wasn’t on a level playing field. "The creative directions brands take needs to be better," she says. "Brands need to know how best to shoot and capture black plus-size bodies correctly and not just use them as some sort of prop or to fulfil more tokenistic roles. They tend to use particular black, plus-size models for one shoot or campaign, never to be used again. It’s a very short-lived experience."
They tend to use particular black, plus-size models for one shoot or campaign, never to be used again. It’s a very short-lived experience.
Sophia Tassew, 22
Discussing the hierarchy in the plus-size world, Tassew says: "I was with a bunch of black plus-size models the other day and we were actually thinking about how we could help behind the scenes and online to reassure any other black women that want to enter the industry. But change has to start from the top. Little things like the makeup artist not being right, the hairstylist not being able to deal with my hair. Many times, I would be on set and they wouldn’t have my size, which was ironic as I was hired as a plus-size model. The current climate in the whole influencer/plus-size industry is a little bit problematic for me. Who we shine the light on can be dangerous and I think about it daily."
Tassew spotted a niche in the market for women that looked like her. "I'd walk into a sportswear retailer and feel intimidated by the imagery portrayed to me. I couldn't find things that fit right or women that looked like me. Ordinarily I would have to order my size online if they did have it. There were a lot of hurdles I had to go through even before starting training." So she decided to tackle the issue by creating a collective called Curves In Motion. "When I wanted to train with people, there wasn’t a collective I could relate to. I hadn’t run a marathon before in my life so the answer was obvious to me at that point: get a good community of plus women who want to train. Usually before training I would put on a baggy tee and leggings and I thought, Others don’t have to do that, so why should I?"
At five foot three inches tall, Vanessa Ohenlen has defied the odds to become a model and influencer. Despite snide remarks about her height on shoots, she graced her first cover, Beauty Papers, in September 2018 and recently starred in FKA twigs' AVANTgarden zine. She tells me about the troubles she has faced in the industry. "Ordinarily when you have issues you should be able to email your agency and let them know of any problems, but when I would email and I would get a reply three days later, they weren’t supportive. I felt as though I wasn’t being pushed. All the white women were being put forward for jobs. It was like they wanted diversity and yet it wasn’t being backed up." She adds: "I did an editorial with another white model from my agency and when the pictures came out our agencies posted the photos, but mine were hidden. I felt as though I wasn’t a priority." The stress has impacted her mental health, she tells me.
Like Anakwe, Ohenlen has had hair issues on set. "When hairstylists do your hair they don’t want to put much effort into it," she says. "It’s like they just can’t be bothered, they put more effort into white models' hair." And it’s not just hair. "I’ve seen stylists give non-black models on set about 50 looks but only give me one look. I just thought, Why am I not good enough to wear the Balenciaga full look?"
People don't want to say anything because they look bitter, like the angry black woman.
Kereen Hurley, 25
Choco Models founder Kereen Hurley can relate. In 2016, the 25-year-old former model started her own agency in the hope of giving black models in the UK more exposure. "I was scouted in 2010 when I was at prom but quickly realised I was good at being a freelance model and hardly any dark-skinned models got signed," she says. "There’s very much the mentality that there’s only room for one of us at a time, which creates division. I had outgrown modelling but I wanted to have a purpose and create unity." If you're wondering why black models aren't more vocal about this issue, then the narrative of the 'angry black woman' could be holding them back. Hurley explains: "People don’t want to say anything because they look bitter, like the angry black woman. I’ve had light-skinned women say, 'Why are you here?' And I explain and they question me further. But you have to choose your battles wisely."
Discriminatory practices such as the brown paper bag test (whereby those whose skin was darker than a brown paper bag weren't afforded certain privileges) have been floating around for decades. One quick look at Blac Chyna’s skin-lightening plug or the response to Spice’s controversial skin-lightening experiment highlights the rampant colourism within the black community. How has the issue played a role in these models' careers? Ohenlen says: "I think because I love myself more now, I’m doing better, but it did used to really affect me. I felt as though I was seen as less deserving than white or mixed-race women, especially when they would be hyping up the white model on set and say how great she looks and I would have to pretend to be okay with it." Tassew agrees: "There’s no denying colourism is present in the industry and I think the industry doesn’t want to move away from that as they want to uphold a certain idea. But it’s definitely something we have a duty to call out. If you’re going to attach yourself to a movement and community and be body positive, that needs to be intersectional."
So what can be done? "I think that’s not only down to us as models, I think it’s also down to our allies," says Tassew. "The decision-makers, casting directors, those that decide who features on certain campaigns or who goes on press trips. It’s about representation and the model feeling like she’s going somewhere. When the work isn’t coming in, that can take such a hit on your mental health. You start to blame yourself." Ohenlen suggests: "Speaking about it definitely helps but also holding mini talks and conferences where black models come together would be a good start, so we all feel like we aren’t alone. It would be good to know there can be changes made and make more opportunities for black models. I know a lot of black creatives that feel as though there isn’t room for us to grow and develop." Hurley agrees: "I’m looking to do more talks and videos so people can get an insight into what goes on, so hopefully this can happen in the future. I feel like lots of models are relieved an agency like Choco Models exists because of what’s been happening in the industry."