The Fallen Legacy of Black Supermodels
Some young faces of color are fighting their way back onto the catwalk
There was a whisper echoing throughout New York Fashion Week last February, and it didn't have anything to do with Alexander Wang's finale look. Though rich with inspiration and creativity, there was something missing from the catwalk: a strong showing of black models.
Cited in the media as the "whitest" Fashion Week since 2008, the week-long event at Lincoln Center provided a catwalk for over 5,000 looks, of which only seven percent were modeled by black women. While there may be strength in numbers, there are a cache of black models who are quickly becoming some of the industry's most sought after talent. They're inking multi-million dollar advertising campaigns, gracing the pages of high fashion magazines and flying to Paris, London and Milan to walk in the most highly anticipated shows. With the supermodel era nearly two decades in the past, whether their careers will reach the status of Tyra and Naomi's before them is uncertain. Still, many are striving for just that, hoping that if they get there, their face won't be the only brown one at the top.
Among these models is Atong Arjok. Born in Sudan and raised in San Diego, Arjok found herself at an open call for aspiring models in 2002 after she and her cousin heard an advertisement for the event on the radio. Her inimitable look piqued the interest of scouts and within weeks Arjok was signed to LA Models and off to New York to start working.
"That was a shocker," she says of the speed at which here career started to develop. "I was 17 and had never been on my own. My family was very supportive, but they were terrified." Arjok got work quickly, walking in shows for Diane von Furstenberg and 3.1 Phillip Lim and appearing in spreads for Allure and Italian Vogue. With so few models of color on the scene, she was soon in high demand and often being compared to another Sudanese beauty.
"There weren't that many people who looked like me," she says. "It was just me and Alek Wek." But while Wek emerged as an industry "it" girl and Arjok consistently booked print and runway jobs, it was clear that their experiences were the exception and not the rule; they rarely shared the limelight with other models of color.
"This is not an equal opportunity type of business and I really don't know why," Arjok says. "After Italian Vogue I thought it would get better, but it really hasn't," she notes, referencing the now infamous July 2008 issue that featured all black models.
But three years later, the lack of diversity in the industry is still clear. Still, the competition faced by women of color doesn't always come from fellow models.
"All of the big jobs are going to celebrities," Arjok says, adding that society's increased interest in Hollywood doesn't leave much room for models to reach the same level of success that there predecessors did in the early 90s. "I think we kind of lost that," she says of the notoriety models of the past once enjoyed.
April Smith, an account manager for L'Oreal, says the shift is especially visible in big-name advertising campaigns.
"Brands see using a celebrity as a way to boost their legacy," Smith says, noting that big-name entertainers already have a following that brands are eager to market to. "It's much more difficult to come in when you're a model who's relatively unknown.”
Though an increase in celebrity-endorsed campaigns has made it more difficult for models to carve out their niche, Smith says the commercial market is a great place for women of color to get recognized. "It's important for brands to communicate an appreciation for diversity," she says.
As models like Chanel Iman, Jessica White and Selita Ebanks remain fixtures in high fashion, a handful of young women are inching their way to the top.
"Ubah Hassan (pictured above right) is really making a lot of treadmarks," Smith says of the Somali-born model who was the face of Ralph Lauren in 2008 and recently appeared in a Macy's campaign. "And Liya Kebede has been trailblazing these past few months." In June, Kebede became the newest faces of L'Oreal Paris, the same month Arlenis Sosa's (pictured above left) Lancome campaign appeared. Strides like these are good news to Arjok, who recently went to work in Paris.
"My career has been an amazing," she says, "but I hope they'll be a day when I can walk in shows and never be the only black girl there."