where is fashion at with natural black hair?
After Lineisy Montero’s turn on last week’s Prada runway complete with a short afro, i-D asks, has fashion finally embraced black hair?
Put aside Miuccia's Prada's perfectly crafted pink creations that sauntered down the runway at last week's show at Via Fogazzaro, the real scene stealer was Dominican stunner Lineisy Montero. She's so new that with no profile on models.com and barely a trace on Google, extensive internet trawling suggests this might have been her first major show.
Prada remains one of the most coveted shows for a model to walk. Jourdan Dunn's 2008 Prada debut as the brand's first black catwalk star since Naomi Campbell in 97, was pivotal in the South London-born supermodel's career.
For the faithful Prada disciples watching the live stream, it was love at first sight for newcomer Lineisy. A barrage of favorable comments flooded onto Lineisy's newly created Fashion Spot page, celebrating her exclusive for the Italian powerhouse. Fans are already calling for her to bag the coveted campaign come next season.
Lineisy's beauty is irrefutable, her almond-shaped eyes and flawless skin make her a standout girl irrespective of race, but what made fashion spectators really take notice was her hair. Her short afro was a breath of fresh air in a world where black models are usually made to conform to white beauty ideals when it comes to their hair in order to book the job. Lineisy's short crop stood for a lot more than just a fashion statement, it was a potentially exciting and overdue step forward in the perception of black female beauty.
I have several close friends who are black models and have long vented their resentment of being called "too ethnic or exotic" if they brave castings with their hair in its naturally curly texture. Even when they do book the job and show up to set, they are often made to feel uncomfortable, as insensitive hair stylists pick at their hair and make comments about the inconvenience of styling it, often not knowing how to properly tend to it, leaving the girl with long term damage to her locks and a knock to her confidence.
Adesuwa Pariyapasat, who has modeled for the likes of Kenzo, Vivienne Westwood and Ashish laments, "by the end of fashion week, you're bald, you're missing hair. You want to tell them what you do to your hair normally, but a lot of the time if you say, don't put this or that in it - they will react badly, you come off as rude or sassy. You want to be a good model but don't want things that won't work on your hair so it's a fine line, a Catch 22."
Model Brandee Brown said in a recent interview with Refinery29, "They started picking at my hair like little monkeys, lifting it up and examining it like it was out of this world… people will make comments about my hair, and I'll just shrug it off. I'm beginning to realize that this isn't conducive to fixing the problem."
It's important to note we've had small steps of progress for models with natural textured hair as of late. Moroccan/Egyptian model Imaan Hammam is center stage in this season's Givenchy campaign with a head full of curls. Singer Solange Knowles has become a style icon with a head full of natural hair and has fronted campaigns for Madewell and Eleven Paris, as well as securing the covers of Essence and Fader magazines, natural hair in tow. Actress Lupita Nyong'o has catapulted to A-list stardom, as well as the Oscar winning hall of fame, complete with darker skin than most black Hollywood actresses and afro hair to match, but these cases are few and far between. Reni Eddo-Lodge, writer for The New York Times, The Guardian and The Telegraph weighs in, "women like Lineisy and Lupita play a huge part in redefining beauty, just by existing on a stage that has represented women of color so poorly in the past."
Models like Jourdan Dunn, Malaika Firth, Joan Smalls and Binx are carrying the torch passed to them by black modeling legends Naomi Campbell, Beverly Johnson, Donyale Luna and Iman, and are making sure black models are regularly being represented on the runway. But what do all of these models have in common? Straight "caucasian" style hair. Every woman should reserve the right to style her hair however she chooses without the scrutiny of others, but you can't help but notice the running thread between the success of international models of color and their hair. Seldom are black models shown with their hair in its natural state, and if afro or tight curls are used, it often frustratingly comes off as a commodity rather than an embrace by fashion magazines and luxury houses, often paired with 70s style clothes or settings. The fashion industry must address what subliminal messages are being sent here, especially to its young and impressionable audience.
Afros became a symbol of pride, power and strength in the 60s and 70s, in the wake of the civil rights, and black is beautiful movements and represented a rejection by black people of the dilution of their beauty and culture. But this was a number of years after African-American slaves felt pressure to straighten their hair to fit into the ruling white society. With black models of prominence only having straight hair in 2015, you can't help but feel we've plateaued.
According to a report on the Fashion Spot, 82.4% of models at the spring/summer 15 shows in all four fashion capitals were white, a shocking statistic when it seems other parts of black beauty and its culture are being homogenized by a white mainstream culture more than ever. Kesha, Khloe Kardashian and Gwen Stefani are braiding their hair. Similarly DKNY's spring/summer 15 show featured kiss curls, a regular feature of the heads of black and latina women, who gel down errant baby hair into waves, and with the blanket appropriation of black culture happening rapidly in the music industry, it seems alarming that natural black hair is still being considered so alien.
Bethann Hardison, who set up the Diversity Coalition, that seeks to promote the representation of models of color on runways of the fashion capitals, as well as racial diversity in fashion as a whole, says of her time as a model: "When I came along with my little afro, I started a new wave of fashion expression with the fashion designers. It was ground-breaking and was not easily accepted by all. It's the beauty and style of the girl that has more impact than hair ever will but fashion will not embrace black hair per se because there are not enough trained hairstylists with knowledge of black hair."
Model Brandee Brown goes on to add, "I don't think that fashion has embraced the potential of what our hair can do. It's natural when you don't understand something, you tend to shy away from it so I don't think it's because everyone in the fashion industry is a racist. But how can a stylist get better at their craft when they only have a few "muses" to practice on, and those muses either have relaxed hair, weaves, or a shaved head? Having a weave is one form of beauty, having relaxed hair is another- but what about natural hair beauty? Pressure needs to be put on the fashion and beauty industry to make sure their professionals are well rounded."
History dictates we may have a fair few years before models like Lineisy become a common representation of black beauty in fashion. Up until the turn of millennium, many top make up conglomerates had not even catered to darker skin tones and with the black hair industry estimated to be worth $761 million by 2017, according to Mintel reports, the business is booming and it seems like the fashion industry is missing a lucrative opportunity if nothing else.
The real question remains, how long will it be until fashion embraces more Lineisys, not as novelties but as norms. It seems ludicrous that we lambaste women and models of color for the hair that naturally grows out of their head. It's this sort of archaic thinking that will set the diversity in fashion debates back a number of years. In a world where you're more likely to see white models with black appropriated hair than black girls with natural hair, where an oblivious Giuliana Rancic can make assumptions about an 18-year-old Zendaya Coleman's dreads smelling like patchouli and weed, and where women make millions fetishisizing unrealistic body types created at the hands of plastic surgeons, how about we celebrate something natural and unashamedly beautiful? Natural hair will only seem unusual for as long as it used in isolation. Integrate and embrace natural black hair into modern-day culture and the rest will follow.
Text Lynette Nylander
Photography Richard Burbridge
[The Audible Issue, i-D No. 189, August 99]