Jan 22, 2021
Prior to Arise Fashion Week 2020, the Covid-19 pandemic had abruptly halted such fashion events that were essential to the livelihood of African models. This pause led to African models, like many around the world working in industries impacted by the pandemic, questioning where their next paycheck would come from as the world went into lockdown unleashing devastating impact on the global fashion industry. And though certain modeling agencies, such as Ice Models in Johannesburg focused on commercial shoots for national and international brands to keep their models employed, the effects of Covid-19 were still resonant in the industry.
For Model Amaka Oguike and her compatriots, the return of shows proved a great boost but this down time had also given the Nigerian model time to reflect, noting that the problems the industry faces predate the Covid-19 pandemic. “Yes, the pandemic affected—and is still affecting—South African fashion terribly but, honestly, the industry had been going through changes prior to that,” says Bisi Sowemimo, a booker for Ice Models, referencing the shutdown of major publications like Elle SA and Cosmopolitan SA, which were responsible for some of the largest editorial shoots for which South African models got booked.
Photo: Iman, Alek Wek and Kiara Kubukuru
History of the Industry
The opportunities that currently exist for African fashion models weren’t always present. From the mid 70s to early 90s, models like Iman, Alek Wek, Kiara Kubukuru laid groundwork for black African models looking to grace global runways and glossies. Their being discovered in Africa was a promise of possibility for other models on the continent. However, the representational presence of these pioneers notwithstanding, the fashion industry still suffered from many systemic troubles, with models citing issues that ranged from featureism (a preference for certain features deemed exotic) to plain old racism and change has been slow to come.
Still, the presence of Africans on the covers of magazines like Vogue, Victoria Secret Runways, and ambassadorships like Estée Lauder’s in the early 90s and 00s ignited initiatives to further Africa’s modeling industry. Scouting agencies like Elite Model turned to Africa to discover fresh talent, launching M-Net’s Face of Africa in 1997 in collaboration with South African broadcasting company M-Net. The television network stated that Face of Africa was set up to promote African models and combat the negative stereotypes of African models in media which the M-Net team had found in press clippings prior to starting the show. The competition was extremely successful, with the first show being televised to 42 countries in Africa thereby making history as the first M-Net show broadcasted to that many countries. Nigerian supermodel Oluchi won the first ever Face of Africa. The competition would go on to produce models like Botswana’s Kaone Kario, Namibia’s Venantia Otto, Ghana’s Kate Tachie-Menson and Zambia’s Lukando Nalungwe.
Following M-Net’s success with Face of Africa, competitions like Top Model Ghana also attempted to create opportunities for Ghanaian models. But the show came to an abrupt end. Oluchi would later pay her good fortune forward by not only judging following editions of Face of Africa but also launching her own modeling agency, O Model Africa, in 2008 and in 2013 also producing Africa’s Next Top Model, a scouting show inspired by Tyra Banks’ America’s Next Top Model. Although the show was also cancelled after one season, it was an indicator of just how far Africa’s modeling industry had come.
These initiatives weren’t the only ones that bolstered the industry. Even before M-Net’s Face of Africa, Nigerian Model Agbani Darego won the 2001 Miss World pageant and became the first indigenous African to win the competition. Her victory furthered conversations about what possibilities existed for Africans as conveyors of beauty and fashion, keeping in mind the limitations of pageantry. Although pageant participants aren’t always models, Darego’s win paved the way for Ethiopian Model, Melkam Endale who won Miss Ethiopia 2010 and consequently Miss World Ethiopia in 2012. Endale says the pageants helped open doors for her—including access to international opportunities as a model.
Following in Oluchi’s footsteps, Endale and her team launched Ethiopia’s Next Top Model in 2017 with the goal of creating opportunities for Ethiopian models nationally and internationally. She says, “Ethiopian models suffer from lack of agencies to guide them and mentor them. Many people have the assumption that modeling is flashy clothes and accessories but it’s so much more than that. I want these models to have an easier time than I did.”
Photo: Nigerian model Agbani Darego winning Miss World in 2001. Photo:
Photo: Oluchi, winner of M-Net's Face of Africa covers Elle SA in 1998
Troubles Amidst Growth
“We’ve witnessed a swift change in the industry. People were previously used to seeing a particular type of beauty but now there’s more diversity in the models working on the international scene and the best part is these models have incredible stories backing them,” says Dolapo Yusuf, Management lead of Nigerian based modeling agency Few Models, adding, “There are more African models on the scene and people are more aware.”
Yusuf’s analysis isn’t wrong. Globally, the modeling industry’s history with diversity and embracing change has been abysmal. The industry has gotten critiqued for encouraging everything from harmful diets, to negligence and emotional abuse. The industry’s homogenous standards, despite their western origins, still affected Africa’s own industry as plus-sized women were left off runways even though the physique of the average woman varies from standard physique favored in the West. Kwakofi Joey of Plus Size Model Agency Ghana expresses that it was incredibly difficult to convince Ghanaian brands to work with plus size models when their agency started in 2014. The team persisted, continuing to push for their models to walk fashion shows in Africa and eventually more brands started to get on board, leading Plus Size Model Agency Ghana to book their models for shows such as Glitz Africa Fashion Week.
Although agencies like Plus Size Model Agency Ghana who advocate for their models have been quite integral to the industry, many models have still had to deal with terribly low pay. Following the Arise Fashion Week 2020 show, some Nigerian models took to Instagram to voice disappointment at what they considered to be unfair pay—N200,000 (the equivalent of US $450) for about a week’s work which is on par with the Nigerian industry rate —and they wanted more because the company had allegedly spent more on other parts of the show such as the 30 Under 30 designer competition and paying internationally acclaimed models to walk. Oguike, who walked the show, says “I knew I had to speak up because I want companies to see Nigerian models as assets to and valuable aspects of their shows and photoshoots, and compensate us accordingly.”
Angolan Model, Zacky Dau, says he was lucky to be discovered by Joram Model Management. For Dau, being a male model in Angola has been tough as most designers in Angola design mostly for women and the situation further worsened by the issue of poor pay. The 20-year-old model shares that, on average, Angolan models are offered about US $60 for a fashion show but his agency has made it so that models under them no longer work for less than $100 per show. Recognizing that Angola’s fashion industry is still growing, Dau explains that agencies help to connect continental models to international clients who have the capital to pay more than most home-based agencies through strategic partnerships with Mother Agencies outside the continent.
Models in Pepper Row backstage at Arise Fashion Week, Dec 2020. Photo: Courtesy of Arise Fashion Week
For many African models, getting international work is a major achievement because of the portfolio it helps to build and clientele garnered thereafter. But booking that work isn’t always easy and models often go into debt trying to work internationally. Sowemimo who worked as a model for fifteen years prior to defecting to the management side of the industry in Johannesburg shares that due to visa limitations, many models have to pay exorbitant visa fees out of pocket or have their agencies cover such fees from their wages. The model- turned-manager says she spent upwards of $3000 to be able to work in New York for a few months. Bola Edun, a Nigerian model signed to Few, who has worked with many international brands says she has witnessed many models be affected by the complications and fees models seeking to work internationally sometimes have to absorb (although she’s been fortunate to be represented by agencies who do things differently). “There’s a system that currently exists where an agency will cover your visa, travel, accommodation and feeding expenses and in return when you get abroad, you have to stay marketable and find consistent clients otherwise you risk working without pay (due to debt owed your agency) for a long time.”
Besides the monetary impact, there are other limiting factors for African models who seek to work outside their home country. In some countries like the USA, there’s a limit to how many “Model Visas” are given in a year and these visas have a timeline that does not quite work in the fashion world. But even within Africa, models struggle to work internationally as visa laws are also limiting. In South Africa, there are visa stipulations which could prevent non-South African models from being able to work under any agency besides the agency listed on their visitor’s visa.
Considering the existing limitations within the industry which the COVID-19 pandemic exacerbated, some fashion industry experts in certain parts of the world have looked to VR models as a solution. For them, these limitations exist because of the human aspect in modeling. Congolese designer Hanifa Mvuemba made history this summer for her 3D Fashion Show which showcased the brand’s Pink Label collection using 3D technology that created the effect of invisible models. Despite Mvuemba’s success, Africa’s growing technology usage and platforms like BalmLabs pushing for tech adaptation by African designers, the jury is still out on whether African fashion consumers based in Africa find 3D modeling adequate and relatable for shopping fashion. Additionally, critics in the West, in response to Black 3D models, have argued that 3D modeling has taken opportunities from Black models. And so for African models, who are still struggling to get gigs, the proposal for virtual models that other fashion experts in the West are proposing could do more harm.
Despite how far Africa’s modeling industry has come, industry stakeholders must focus on standardizing pay, creating more opportunities for plus size models, and working to grow the industry within the continent so that fewer models look to international gigs as a saving grace rather than additional opportunity. Dialogue on platforms like Models Talk in Nigeria are helping to push can help create the room for this growth. “Locally, we would really love to see professionalism imbibed in our industry, we need the presence of actual casting agencies with great eyes to spot talents. We still have a long way to go,” says Yusuf.
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