Even in 2019, race remains a topic of conversation in the fashion industry with minorities fighting for adequate representation. That’s why the latest Vogue editorial featuring black and Muslim models is so important.
One would think the issue of race would be one that is no longer an issue in the fashion industry which, at this stage, should be a reflection of the multi-cultural world we live in, but sadly not. Black models still speak on the discrimination they face at castings, the lack of makeup and hair options for afro hair and the general lack of opportunities for models of colour. Whilst we have made improvement, a lot of ‘diversity’ in the modelling industry is mere tokenism and we have a long way to go before we achieve true diversity.
ogue does not have a great history in terms of representing black women on its cover. Since 1989, only a handful of black women have made the cut including models Naomi Campbell and Liya Kebede, actors Halle Berry and Lupita Nyong’O, singers Beyonce and Rihanna, plus Oprah Winfrey and Michelle Obama.
We often told by the publishing industry that black faces simply did not sell magazines. The Guardian newspaper carried out a study earlier this year which showed that ‘the covers of some the UK’s most popular monthlies remain overtly white. Of 214 covers published by the 19 bestselling glossies last year, only 20 featured a person of colour.’
At British Vogue, Alexandra Shulman spent over 25 years as the Editor of the iconic magazine and during that time, only two black women were given solo covers. In 2012, Shulman said, “in a society where the mass of the consumers are white and where, on the whole, mainstream ideas sell, it’s unlikely there will be a huge rise in the number of leading black models”.
Just last year, Beyonce made history by appointing the first black photographer in the magazine’s history, Tyler Mitchell, to shoot her September issue cover.
Speaking on her decision to hire Tyler, Beyonce said:
Until there is a mosaic of perspectives coming from different ethnicities behind the lens, we will continue to have a narrow approach and view of what the world actually looks like. That is why I wanted to work with this brilliant 23-year-old photographer Tyler Mitchell.
When I first started, 21 years ago, I was told that it was hard for me to get onto covers of magazines because black people did not sell. Clearly that has been proven a myth. Not only is an African American on the cover of the most important month for Vogue, this is the first ever Vogue cover shot by an African American photographer.
It’s important to me that I help open doors for younger artists. There are so many cultural and societal barriers to entry that I like to do what I can to level the playing field, to present a different point of view for people who may feel like their voices don’t matter.
Imagine if someone hadn’t given a chance to the brilliant women who came before me: Josephine Baker, Nina Simone, Eartha Kitt, Aretha Franklin, Tina Turner, Diana Ross, Whitney Houston, and the list goes on. They opened the doors for me, and I pray that I’m doing all I can to open doors for the next generation of talents.
If people in powerful positions continue to hire and cast only people who look like them, sound like them, come from the same neighborhoods they grew up in, they will never have a greater understanding of experiences different from their own. They will hire the same models, curate the same art, cast the same actors over and over again, and we will all lose. The beauty of social media is it’s completely democratic. Everyone has a say. Everyone’s voice counts, and everyone has a chance to paint the world from their own perspective.
As important as it that we seek recognition from our peers, it’s also important that, like Beyonce said, we pay it forward. Let these covers not be just a moment in time but the catalyst for a more complex conversation on representation, inclusion and visibility for black people in all spaces.
Beyonce’s words were so poignant and highlighted a stark problem of representation at all stages throughout the fashion industry.
In a spectacular act of paying it forward, Tyler Mitchell returns to the pages of American Vogue with an editorial that features dark-skinned and Muslim models wearing couture pieces. The stunning editorial, shot by Tyler Mitchell and styled by Carlos Nazario, features rising black models Adut Akech, Ugbad Abdi and Anok Yai.
Adut Akech is a South- Sudanese model who has walked for Chanel, Prada and Valentino to name but a few. She won the ‘Model of the Year’ award from models.com and continues to be one of the most sought-after new models in the industry. Her distinctly African features are what make the cherubic model so unique and she’s breaking the stereotype that black models need to have Eurocentric features to be popular.
Ugbad Abdi is a Somali- born model who has been touted as one of the breakout modelling stars of 2019. The 18-year-old Hijabi model was discovered after from graduated high school in Iowa and sound found herself in Paris, walking in Pierpaolo Piccioli’s Valentino Spring 2019 show. The young model finds herself breaking barriers in a number of ways. As a Muslim woman who chooses to wear hijab on and off the runway, she joins a new generation of hijabi models like Halima Aden using their platforms to drive forward an important conversation on religion and choice. Abdi also became the first model to wear a headscarf during leading shows, like Fendi and Lanvin.
Anok Yai is an Egyptian-born American fashion model of South Sudanese descent. She is the second black model to open a Prada show after Naomi Campbell, and the first South Sudanese model to do so. Anok’s story is particularly special as the young model was discovered by accident at Howard’s homecoming when a photographer took her picture. The stunning image went viral and Yai was signed almost immediately. In less than two years, she has risen to be ranked one of the Top 50 models and has featured in Nike and Givenchy campaigns.
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