Women with a mission NAOMI 65

By Angelic Vendette

Three trailblazers have made their mark on the industry, and are changing it in ways never before seen. These models are more than just pretty faces – they are women with a mission.

A woman who needs no introduction, who is often referred to and recognized on a solo name basis, Naomi Campbell is the epitome of supermodel. Known for her stunning Amazonian looks and her flamboyant personality, Campbell has been setting a new standard in the modelling industry ever since she first began posing in the late 1980s.

As the first black woman to appear on the covers of French Vogue and British Vogue, as well as being the first black model to appear on the cover of Time, Campbell has set unprecedented milestones for models of colour everywhere, fighting racism within the fashion industry, one cover at a time.

It is no surprise, then, that earlier this spring I met with Campbell in Ottawa at a gala for the Nelson Mandela Foundation, a cause the supermodel holds dear to her heart. The foundation’s mission is to contribute to the making of a just society by promoting the legacy of Nelson Mandela who, as South Africa’s first black President, focused on dismantling the relic of apartheid by tackling institutionalized racism and fostering racial reconciliation.

Not unlike Mandela, Campbell has been an advocate for racial diversity and equality, on and off the runway, throughout her career. With the recent launch of her eponymous Taschen tome –released late this spring, she gives us a behind-the-scenes look into her career as a black model, from her early beginnings in the UK, to 90s supermodel prominence, to the present day. At the beginning of her career, the iconic supermodel recalls dealing with stylists who were unprepared to work with black models, and how she’s always been made aware of her skin tone within the industry.

This is an edited extract from Naomi Campbell, published by Taschen in April: “I made the June cover of Italian Vogue, shot by Steven Klein (in 1988). He was very cool and professional, but the shoot was difficult, because the makeup artist hadn’t brought the right foundation for my skin. I don’t know what kind of girl he was expecting, but I wasn’t altogether happy with the final picture, because I didn’t feel it captured my true skin tone. Afterwards, I always took my own foundation and powder to set. Three months later, I got the cover of French Vogue, which was an even bigger deal. I’d already shot a lot for French Vogue and been told – not in an especially rude way – that a cover wasn’t a possibility. I didn’t realize that there had never been a black model on the cover, but when the August issue came out, it made a huge impact! Finally, a black model on the cover of French Vogue. Later, in September 1989 (the biggest issue of the year), Anna Wintour put me on the cover of American Vogue. It was nerve-racking, because I understood the importance of being a black model.”

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This is still a major issue today for models who are women of colour. Notoriously, models like Jourdan Dunn and Nykhor Paul recently spoke out about having to bring their own makeup to shows because makeup artists do not have colours suited to their skin tones. Because of this, Campbell has banded together with Iman and fashion activist Bethann Hardison to promote diversity within the industry through the Balance Diversity initiative. Balance Diversity’s objective is to encourage the fashion industry to be inclusive of racial diversity – Naomi and her colleagues point out that the focus shouldn’t only be on equality when casting models, but also when styling them.

Change doesn’t always happen overnight, but engaging in an honest and open dialogue about the issues at hand with regards to racial diversity is certainly a good first step for #BalanceDiversity. With nearly three decades of fashion industry experience and success behind her, and a history of leading the way for coloured models, Naomi Campbell demonstrates her power and clout within the industry yet again through this campaign. And if the supermodel has it her way (as she infamously always does), Naomi isn’t going off our radars anytime soon without making more of a mark … this time, in the name of racial diversity – not just on a cover or runway, but everywhere in fashion.

Ashley

For years, the fashion industry has been criticized for the strict body standards that models are obliged to meet. Enter Ashley Graham – who is not only changing the way the industry depicts beauty, but also changing the way women are perceiving themselves.

As a body activist and size 16 model, Graham has been revolutionizing the industry, one statement campaign at a time. After breaking ground as the first ever full-figured model to grace the covers of Sports Illustrated’s Swimsuit Issue this spring, the 28-year-old is leveraging her public platform to further champion the cause of body positivity in every project she gets involved with, having previously affirmed to all women out there: “So, I want to say I’m here for you. I’m doing the best I can. Join me. Let’s hashtag it away. Let’s Instagram it. Let’s talk about our body issues together. Because if we’re not doing it as a community, it’s not going to change.” 

This year alone, aside from her hosting debut earlier this month at the 2016 Miss USA competition, and appearing as the love interest of Joe Jonas in DNCE’s latest music video, Graham has excelled at what she does best, modelling. She has been the face of Addition Elle, Forever 21’s plus-size active wear range, as well as the leading model in Lane Bryant’s #ThisBody campaign. The size 16 model has also broadened her design portfolio this year. With a successful collaboration with Addition Elle that landed her on Forbes’ 30 Under 30 List in 2015, Graham most recently launched her #Swimsuitsforall collection, which of course has been taking the social media world by storm.

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Proving that there is still much ground to be made within an industry where historically thin models are the norm, Graham’s accomplishments have not come without obstacle and without the need to challenge fashion’s status quo. Her recent #ThisBody campaign with Lane Bryant ended up being banned due to Graham and other curvy models appearing in lingerie, something she was already familiar with, seeing as last year the #curvy hashtag she was also associated with was banned from Instagram for a period of time. Speaking at the 2015 Forbes’ Under 30 summit, the size 16 sensation spoke of her outrage over the temporary banning of #curvy on social media – admonishing the platform for picking on women just “because there’s a few extra rolls on some girls.”

“Rolls, curves, cellulite, all of it – I love every part of me. I believe that beauty is beyond size,” she continued, adding that as a society we need to “work together to redefine the global vision of beauty.” 

Graham stands for much more than just being a stunning model. She is also a role model for women everywhere, young and old alike, taking a tough stance on body shaming. During the Tedx Talk she gave this year, Graham stated: “We need to work together to redefine the global image of beauty, and it starts by becoming your own role model.” She went on to describe how the term “plus-sized model” made her feel like she was an outsider in the fashion world, even though she had a successful modelling career. “I felt free once I realized I was never going to fit the narrow mould society wanted me to fit in,” she said. “The fashion industry might persist to label me as plus-sized, but I like to think of it as my-sized. Curvy models are becoming more and more vocal about the isolating nature of the term ‘plus-size.’ We are calling ourselves what we want to be called – women, with shapes that are our own.” Graham is right, after all, given that social pressures about appearance are so strong, the last thing we need is another label telling us who we are. Any woman can agree, the only important thing is to be happy and comfortable (and feel beautiful) in your own body, no matter what it looks like (#TeamAshleyForTheWin).

If the last few years have taught us anything, it’s that there is no stopping Graham. She truly is on a mission to better society. With a body positive message everyone can get behind, and with legions of women supporting her (and hashtagging along with her), we have a feeling that although we’ve been seeing her in magazines since the age of 15, the curvy role model is only getting started when it comes to taking the fashion (and social media) world by storm. Change has actually come, and we’re excited! To quote Graham, “This is the generation of body diversity. The current is changing!”

Winnie Harlow

At 21 years old, the model and spokesperson has succeeded in changing the way we perceive beauty within the fashion industry – a difficult feat for any model, let alone an up-and-comer. Not wanting to conform to a standardized mould, Chantelle Brown-Young, also known as Winnie Harlow, has paved the way for herself and other models with stunning and inimitable particularities that set them apart, and make them that much more attractive. Harlow, however, is much more than just a stunning and talented model. She lives, breathes, and exudes confidence and leadership, inspiring millions of people, especially young girls and women, with her story.

Scouted on Instagram by Tyra Banks in 2014, Harlow was encouraged to audition for the 21st cycle of America’s Next Top Model. It is the passion she holds for raising awareness around vitiligo, and her dedication to empowering those with low self-esteem, that have set the young model apart. Since appearing on the show, she has continued to successfully build her career with features in various fashion campaigns, including Diesel; appearing in magazines such as Dazed & Confused and Vogue Italia; and walking the catwalks for the likes of Ashish and Desigual (becoming the face of the latter brand this year) – all while speaking up for diversity in fashion and, even more broadly, the way society perceives beauty.

And although penetrating the modelling industry is difficult for anyone, Harlow has proven to herself, and to the 1.2 million young followers that look up to her, that there is no obstacle too great to overcome. Case in point, in 1998, Harlow was diagnosed with vitiligo, a rare chronic skin condition that causes discolouration to develop on the skin due to a lack of melanin. The visible presence of the condition led to torment and bullying during her youth and, by 16, she dropped out of school. “When I was young I was picked on for something that today I feel is amazing. One thing about me connects millions of people around the world. And it’s my skin condition, vitiligo,” she stated during her TEDx Talk.

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Harlow later admitted that after suffering through years of being bullied, she began to bully others, which she now regrets. “I want to put this idea in your head that it takes one person to realize there is beauty in everything, and you don’t have to be on one side of the spectrum or the other side of the spectrum, or fit into someone else’s mould…be your own person, know for yourself what beauty is.”

Today, when Harlow isn’t busy modelling, accepting awards, touring, or even appearing in Beyoncé’s new visual album Lemonade, the fashion model and diversity activist continues to speak out for those with low self-confidence, or those who have been told by traditional media what they should look like: “Everyone asks me what the turning point was, but it was just me making the effort to focus on my opinion of myself. I was like, wait, I don’t actually think I’m ugly – I think I’m beautiful. So where did I get the idea I wasn’t? From someone else. Now I’ve learnt to just listen to myself.”

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Harlow’s message is loud and clear, and she is changing the game, not only by showing us a different perception of beauty through her campaigns, but also by empowering all those around her. It’s clear that we have a long way to go to encourage brands to be more diverse in their beauty offerings, but with champions such as Harlow leading the way, that goal can only be nearer than it once was. And with 1.2 million reasons (and counting), she proves that the newer generation is ready for more diversity within fashion. Not just colour-based, or body type-based, diversity, but diversity in terms of what society and fashion consider beautiful. And if Harlow’s influence isn’t a resounding enough reason for why diversity is so important – because it means that brands can tap into a much wider audience than they currently are now – then we don’t know what is.

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