Stepping onto the runway at Victoria’s Secret Fashion Show in 2015, Maria Borges made history. It was the first time natural black hair appeared in the show’s 20 year run. “I had to persuade them,” recalls Borges. “I wanted to send a message out there. People think to be sexy you have to have long hair, no ... a lot of women around the world have hair texture like mine.”
When she returned to the show in 2016 models Herieth Paul and Jourdana Phillips followed her example. It was a departure from the long wavy locks Victoria’s Secrets models were known for regardless of ethnicity.
Borges, who has fronted campaigns for Givenchy, Brandon Maxwell, H&M, L'Oreal, Sephora, and Tommy Hilfiger, is one of many now speaking out about diversity and race in the fashion industry. The 24-year-old grew up in Angola during civil war. From age 11, she was raised by her sister after their mother passed away. “I believe in the beauty of diversity,” she said in a statement. “The empowering message that a girl who started from the bottom can be an international beauty symbol and be living proof that our dreams are valid, and the future ahead of us is bright.”
“It’s very important,” Borges told CNN, “for African women and for women around the world [to know] that you too can be included.”
Slow Change, Study Shows
Just three non-white women snagged a spot on the 20 world’s highest paid models list of 2016, according to Forbes. For the first time in history, according to The Fashion Spot’s Spring/Summer 2017 runway report, more than 25 percent of models used in the Spring 2017 season were non-white.
During the S/S 2017 season, 74.6 percent of the models were white and 25.4 percent were women of color, a small increase on last season where 75.3 percent of the models were white. Kanye West’s Yeezy Season 4 was the most diverse sending 97 percent models of color down the runway. His controversial season 3 show featured entirely non-white models.
‘Black Models Weren’t In Season’
Models like Borges are paving the way for a more varied approach to fashion. Nykhor Paul, 28, is another determined to break barriers. Born in Sudan and raised in refugee camps in Ethiopia, Paul emigrated to the US aged 10 with help from the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees.
Paul, who was scouted at age 15, fronted Louis Vuitton's S/S 2013 campaign and is on the cover of this month's Harper's Bazaar Arabia along with Silja Magg, Ajak Deng, Grace Mahary, Jourdana Phillips, and Lameka Fox. “This past season has been the most diverse with many models sharing their experiences so let’s hope it’s not a trend but a breakthrough,” Paul told CNN via email. “I’ve had challenges finding work in some countries because Black models weren’t in season at that time, my hair and finding makeup to match my complexion have been the most difficult.”
An Equal Chance
Fellow African model Tricia Akello has also shared her frustrations. Born and raised in Uganda, and currently based in New York, the 24-year-old model hit the international runway circuit this season, walking for Thom Browne and Naeem Khan, among others.
“I believe every model of color deserves an equal chance,” said Akello via email. She believes there is gradual change in the industry. “At least each show had a model of color in it which is a baby step to achieving more diversity in the modeling world, and maybe in the future they won’t only consider using just one or two but with five out of 10.”
The model is hopeful that this can trickle through onto the catwalk. “It’s heart breaking going for show castings knowing that only one or two models of color might be selected to walk in a show,” she says.