Growing up in a council estate on the outskirts of Edinburgh, I knew nothing about fashion. I was ridiculously shy, and a total tomboy. So, when I was scouted by a top modelling agency at 15 years old, I didn’t really know what I was signing up for.
Unfortunately, I’ve experienced racism at many points in my career. I was dropped by one of the largest model agencies in the industry after refusing to relax my hair. Little did they know, it was because I was terrified after watching my cousin receive second-degree burns from accidentally leaving the putrid mix of Dark and Lovely Relaxer on for too long. Aside from the fact I didn’t want to look European, the aesthetic was just impossible for me to maintain with my tight afro curls and ebony dark skin. Afterwards, I signed with another modelling agency and travelled around the world walking for top fashion houses, including Alexander McQueen and Christopher Kane.
Imagine being in a position where an award-winning hairdresser uses water on your hair, thinking it would leave it smooth? Speaking up about this labelled me “difficult to work with.” There was another job, in 2005, where the makeup artist attempted to colour my face in with an eye kohl, because there was no foundation that would match my skin tone. “Owwww,” I winced in agony. I politely offered her to use the MAC concession. She looked at me with scolding eyes, as if to say, “How dare you tell me how to do my job?” I wept, and afterwards my skin was raw. For the next two years my bookings dropped drastically.
I later found out that the makeup artist had reported me for intimidating her. In retrospect, this relied on racial profiling. Extensive research has gone into this area, revealing that representations of Black women are often violent, angry and distinctively aggressive. Its origins are rooted in Western film, TV and media - let's not forget the age of the Spice Girls, where the Black girl was of course dubbed ‘Scary’.
In the last few years, it has been encouraging to see more diversity in the industry, from the curvaceous Lizzo on the cover of US Vogue to Adut Akech winning Model of the Year at the Fashion Awards. Organisations like the British Fashion Council and Official Graduate Fashion week work tirelessly to provide public facing shows and exhibitions of inclusivity that make me feel proud to be a part of the industry now. And in 2019, I produced the first on-schedule catwalk show in Brixton as part of Next Generation Regeneration, to commemorate the introduction of National Windrush Day, which included panel discussions with the likes of political commentator Afua Hirsch and Emma Dabiri (author of Don’t Touch My Hair).
However, all too often I have seen examples of collective amnesia in fashion, with brands sucked in by their own propaganda in a convenient tragicomic travesty of Black cultural appropriation and stereotypes. Dove’s campaign with a Black woman turning white, H&M’s controversial Coolest Monkey, and Gucci’s famous “blackface” jumper (complete with thick red lips) all highlighted a deep-seated ignorance.
Of course, many fashion brands flocked to join in with #blackouttuesday this month to show their solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement. Sadly, some of these posts just seemed like performative activism, plainly insincere or far too vague a statement. Like CELINE, who posted that they, “stand against all forms of discrimination, oppression and racism. Tomorrow’s world will not exist without equality for all.” Though, it appears as though they’ve only used two Black models on their entire IG feed, and rarely use them at all on the catwalk (according to fashion watchdog Diet Prada, in spring 2019, only 6% of Celine's models were Black).
It’s essential for fashion brands, publications, and organisations to actively stand against racism in every aspect of culture today and every day. Be transparent and vocal about these changes. How are you committed long-term to a culture of inclusivity? In what ways will you elevate and amplify black voices in your company?
Fashion’s reckoning with racism is long overdue, yes, but now is the time to call this behaviour out. Ensuring that there are more BAME people in leadership roles, reforming internal staffing through positive discrimination, auditing fashion PRs to find out how many black influencers they’ve worked with (be it press events to brand campaigns), and making sure that there is never only one token black gesture in any capacity.
Above all, it should be incumbent upon all of us to read more about the history of African diaspora in the West. Knowledge gives us the courage to truly make a difference. In an era of continued physical and mental racial abuse, leading to death and destitution for black people, we cannot let this be merely a moment. Words and posting black squares are not enough. We need action. If not now, then when?