Following in the footsteps of Liya Kebede, Alek Wek and the famous Iman, is a stunning array of young African women eager to conquer the lofty world of haute couture; but the way forward for many of them is no walk in the park …

Nyasha Matonhodze for Louis Vuitton F/W 11

At 16, most people are busy thinking about boys or studying, but model Nyasha Matonhodze is moving to the top of the modeling heap with one impressive booking after another.  After walking the Zac Posen, Burberry, MaxMara, DKNY and Carolina Herrera 2012 F/W catwalk shows, the Zimbabwe born beauty graced the  Balenciaga Resort 2012 campaign, as well as the latest cover of British vogue’s May 2012 supplement cover. It’s her dream come true.

“I’m getting the chance to work with people who are legends to me. People that I never thought I’d work with. Not only designers, not only stylists, photographers as well and models. What I hope for is a long lasting career. That is what I want and that is what I hope to get, to be seen on the runway at 24 or 30.”

Then there’s Ajak Deng, 19, a Sudanese-Australian model who could have easily been a poster child for war and strife, but is now striding through New York, booking Chloe, Givenchy, Jean Paul Gaultier, and Lanvin shows, plus appearing in an array of editorials.

The wistful and stunning Ajak Deng

Walking closely in her footsteps is Ataiu Deng, also Sudanese. This stunner became a star after only three years of modeling. No surprise, considering her impossibly long limbs and flawless mocha skin and this year alone she’s been a a shoo-in for Diane Von Furstenberg (S/S 12 show), Oscar de la Renta (Resort 2012) and Kenzo.

Relatively new to the scene is Somalian born and America’s Next Top Model cycle 10 alum, Fatima Said, who has the face of an angel, enough to steal hearts at the Dries Van Noten and Herve Leger S/S 2012 shows.

Fatima Said – face of an angel

What’s attractive to fashion houses is their striking looks, long legs and slender bodies which are perfectly suited to Milan, Paris and New York’s catwalks.

However they’re the tip of the iceberg, the few and far between; the truth is that as I flick through Vogue, Grazia and Harpers, I rarely see my fellow black sisters, especially in countries like the US and Australia.

There’s a myriad of African models clamouring for a chance to shine in the limelight, finding it hard to get a foothold in the industry because popular culture seems only able to deal with a small clutch of African models at a time.

My model friends from Zambia and the Congo constantly complain to me that they cannot get a gig for months. There’s simply not any demand for them, and as they tell me, sometimes photographers and makeup artists are scared of their black skin – not knowing how to apply black make-up or light them properly. There’s also a sort of hesitancy expressed about the waist and bust sizes, the shape of the nose and curve of the butt – in essence our bodies just don’t ‘fit’ the skinny norm.

However the real power to hire or fire lies with the booking agencies and their high profile clients when to comes to giving an African girl a fighting chance. When the decision is made whether to choose a stunning black model over an equally stunning white girl, in the economic reality we live in, the white girl gets picked.

Is it racist? Perhaps.

Before we jump on the race card bandwagon, could it be that the reasons for NOT hiring black and African models are more complex and wrapped up in the good old paradigm of … hard cash money?

Let’s not be naive people. The industry is driven by what sells and, in general, white blonde girls sell – that’s the current mindset. In actual fact, black girls do sell but they’re not given as many openings. It is safer to go with a white girl, and in a recession people are very conservative.

Model booker Annie Wilshaw puts it more strongly: “When the client sends you a brief you know straight away they’re not talking about a black girl. They say they want ‘a girl with long hair, who looks like a fairy’ or something. When they want a black girl, they will say ‘looking for mixed-race girl, tribal-prints location, desert scene’.

She goes on to say, “It really bores me when photographers shoot black girls the same way, with a tribal print and some bright eye-shadow going on. Come on, that was Alek Wek in the 1990s, do something different.”

Pundits and plebs aside have opined on this controversial ‘black models being sidelined’ subject year on year – mainly because it keeps coming up annually. The wisdom always boils down to one fact: The only way the industry is going to change, sadly, is when Africans have more consumer power. Money influences the industry. When marketers want to sell to Africans, because they now have the wallets to pay the designer prices, then we’ll begin to see more ethnic models on runways, editorial spreads and ads.

One comment made by a viewer* of from the National Film Board of Canada’s shocking short documentary - ‘The Colour of Beauty’ which examines racism in the fashion industry, recently caught my attention:

“The modeling industry takes it cues, naturally, from the marketing industry. The marketing industry does plenty of research (as someone pointed out) to target their ideal audience and, some would argue, maintain the class hierarchy within our society. None of it is ethical in any sense of the word. And there is definitely nothing ethical about blatant discrimination in hiring practices, but the whole industry is built upon selling superficial products in the (bogus) name of enhancing or creating an identity.

So, really, why should we expect differently? The ‘developed’ world has become, by and large, an insanely consumerist and thereby classist culture. As I was watching this film, I kept wishing that Ms. Thompson would just leave the business and fight the same fight where a real difference could be made… in schools or something that is not in support of an industry that at this level is really meaningless to humanity; not unlike the gazillion-dollar sports stars that so many kids look up to… Which is not to say that I do not think that fashion is art. I absolutely do. But when an art becomes so commercialized, corporatized and marketed that there are national and even global trends that can be seen based on marketing, etc., it is no longer real art. It has turned into commodity. Fashion week is a commodity. Though thanks to Ms. Phillip, maybe Ms. Thompson **is** actually doing significant outreach through this film… Hopefully the young girls watching will see past all of the glamour … ” 


The reality is, we Africans need to stop waiting for, and leaning on the developed world’s tools and marketing devices to find our place and voice. We need to develop our own booking agencies,  fashion magazines (like Arise), editorial and news publishers (a la Afritorial), our own collateral AND our own profitable fashion industry that we can then leverage to our advantage.

As Africa continues to develop at the rate of noughts, I’ve no doubt that in time, we will become self sufficient in the fashion world, and that our own models will find the platform of their dreams right here at home.




5 Responses

  1. Guulo

    I totally agree with this piece. Recently I have been thinking about the phrase “the developed world” and wondering who set that standard up anyway. Does development mean we give up all that makes us uniquely us and beautiful? no. I think it’s about time we showed them that we do not need their runways, we might work with them but even if we didn’t we’ll still be more than fine. Things for Africa should be created and run by Africa because only Africa hears Africa’s hearbeat.


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