Ever since Somali model Iman graced the cover of Vogue in 1976, the ‘African’ model has been a dominate force in the Global Fashion Industry.
Each decade a new star emerges and is put on a pedestal as the symbol of African beauty.
In the 80′s there was Somalia’s Waris Dirie, then the 90′s brought Sudan’s Alek Wek.
Most recently it has been Ethiopia’s Liya Kebede and Nigeria’s Oluchi Onweagba, the first West African international superstar in contrast to the East African women who usually hold this spot.
Fashion writer Uduak Oduok observes a ‘formula’ surrounding each African Model’s success story:
“At the crux of the industry’s definition of African beauty is the following formula: “Exotic” and deep tragic tales coupled with fresh innocence and/or “exotic” features = The African Fashion Model.”
Whether the success of these African Models is a true appreciation of “African Beauty”,a result of “White Guilt” or another phase of racist black stereotype exploitation is a subject of debate.
The fact that designers are prone to showcasing African featured models in “exotic” makeups, body paint, and animal prints sometimes fan the flames of suspicion…sometimes even among the models themselves.
Take for example an incident involving Alek Wek where she herself had mixed emotions about a photography campaign she did for for Lavazza Italian coffee where she was shot against a giant coffee cup, the implication being she was the coffee bean.
“I can’t help but compare them to all the images of black people that have been used in marketing over the decades. There was the big-lipped jungle-dweller on the blackamoor ceramic mugs sold in the Forties; the golliwog badges given away with jam; Little Black Sambo, who decorated the walls of an American restaurant chain in the 1960s; and Uncle Ben, whose apparently benign image still sells rice…” - Alex Wek
Sources – Fashion First
Of course many whites, who have not experienced subtle racial stereotyping first hand, would respond to Ms. Wek’s sentiment as being “oversensitive”.
But most of African descent would admit that she may have a good point and be justified in her suspicion.
(Many Asian models and fashion insiders voice similar concerns about stereotypical depictions of Asian models.)
Lavazza CEO Ennio Ranaboldo defended the the companies choice on the grounds if it being “artistic”.
Even among Black cultures, American and continental African, Black beauty ideals are not always universally agreed upon.
American Black media does have a predisposition towards very light-skinned, European fe/Asiatic featured Black women (ex. Halle Berry, Chanel Iman, Tyra Banks) where as continental Africans do not favor the tall, slim, beauty standards of the Global modeling industry.
“I was extremely skinny and tall at age 17. It was not funny at all. I remember [being called] all kinds of names, Lepa, Opelenge and Pako [names used to taunt the "too tall" and "too skinny" girls in Lagos, Nigeria].” – Oluchi
However due to the emerging Global Fashion Marketplace and convergence of American, European, Asian and African culture and taste…the demand and appreciation of African featured models with European body types is increasing.
Personally, I feel that any one who claims to be a connoisseur in anything (fashion, photography…beautiful women) should learn to appreciate diversity, contrast and uniqueness and recognize natural, primal female beauty regardless of cultural persuasions.
True beauty and sex appeal speaks to all human beings at very basic levels and very often our cultural prejudices that keep us from recognizing it are old relics of “divide-and-conquer” political control.
Yes many designers and photographers do indulge in racial, cultural stereotypes while showcasing models and though they may not mean any harm in it…it can be painful to those who have been tormented by prejudice, racial/cultural alienation and bigotry.
But for some (myself included) art is art, beauty is beauty and sometimes artistically indulging in cultural stereotypes has a certain tabooish appeal.
For me, Alek Wek is sexy as hell covered in feathers and leopard print or rolling around in jungle leaves and so is Indian Model Lakshmi Menon straddling an Elephant.
Yet I understand why many Africans and Indians may be put off.
I am looking forward to seeing more…much more dark skinned, short haired, flat nosed, full lip, African featured Models on the global fashion scene and I salute those pioneers such as Alek Wek and Oluchi for taking risks and facing self-doubt and criticisms from both sides of the color line.
One of the missions of Models & Moguls is to tastefully showcase beautiful Models of global ethnic extremes (Nordic, Saharan African, East Asian, South American, Eastern European, Middle Eastern, East African, Mediteranean, Caribbean, Etc.) and to celebrate and revel in the beauty of diversity and contrast.