LONDON — Opening a Prada show can transform a mere model into a supermodel, acting as a gateway to casting in other major shows, glossy magazine covers and lucrative advertising campaigns. For more than 20 years, it has also been a white-women-only privilege.
But that changed in February when Anok Yai, 19, a Sudanese model raised in the United States after arriving from Egypt as a refugee in 2000, became the first black model to open a Prada runway show since Naomi Campbell in 1997. Joining her was Adut Akech, a South Sudanese immigrant to Australia who appeared in over 30 shows this season after making her runway debut in September when she closed the Saint Laurent show at the age of 17.
“I feel like I am part of a great moment, something quite amazing that is happening both in and outside the fashion world,” Ms. Akech said. “There has been a big increase in the number of really dark skinned girls being cast, even from last season. It feels amazing.”
Diversity on the catwalks (or the lack of it) in 2018 is under more scrutiny than ever. While broader representations of beauty have appeared on the runways of the four fashion cities — New York, London, Paris and Milan — in recent years, accusations of racism and colorism remain. But now, following in the footsteps of Alek Wek, one of the first African models to be embraced by fashion, over two decades ago, many young women with dark skin and natural, largely chemically untreated hair have become sought-after runway models.
Aside from Ms. Yai and Ms. Akech, for example, there was Grace Bol (originally of South Sudan), who walked in Thom Browne, Givenchy and Balmain, among others; Akiima (also of South Sudanese origin), who was cast by Marc Jacobs, Jacquemus, Loewe and others; and Shanelle Nyasiase (of Kenya), who appeared at Versace, Alexander McQueen and Valentino.
“When I was younger, I always felt insecure about my looks when I looked at fashion and movie stars,” Ms. Yai said. “Although there were black women, I never saw any that had skin like me, so I always felt unattractive, like a real outsider. But I am feeling so much more optimistic now, especially when I look backstage or on runways at fashion week. There are so many more girls who look just like me.”
Edward Enninful, the editor in chief of British Vogue and a longstanding campaigner for greater diversity in fashion, agreed. “There’s such an incredible variety of black skin tones — and it’s nice to see that full spectrum being represented,” he said, noting that the women had emerged months after the debut of Rihanna’s Fenty Beauty line, a smash hit that has been anchored around a range of cosmetics options for darker skinned women.
“The shows finally feel rooted in the present, and frankly it is about time,” said Laura Brown, the editor in chief of InStyle. Indeed, for the first time it was the shows that did not feature a rainbow of skin tones (Emporio Armani, for example, which had only three nonwhite models) that stood out as problematic anomalies.
Tiya Miles, a professor of American culture and history at the University of Michigan, believes that Hollywood, fashion and beauty businesses are responding to the popular public movements demanding change in the wider global political and economic landscape.
“In reaction to a sharpening sense of white nationalist identity across America and Europe, there is a growing consciousness of the importance of visibility and vocality for people of color, particularly black people,” Ms. Miles said. “It is no coincidence that this runway model trend and movies like ‘Black Panther’ have arrived at the same time. The two are interlocked, as both have been incubating in what feels a like a growing crusade with many of the hallmarks of the Black Power movement of the 1960s and 1970s. They are part of a pushback against the dominant pressures of European and American white centrality.”
Patrizia Pilotti, a casting director for brands including Lacoste and Valentino, both of which featured higher than average numbers of models of color this season, suggested other factors were at play. In the digital era, she said, the frenetic cycles of fashion don’t apply only to clothes, but also to the models who wear them. The pressure is on for brands to feature new faces, and so modeling scouts have been casting their nets farther afield in recent years, visiting new cities and territories in the quest to bring a more diverse offering to casting agents.
“I have never seen so many different girls on agents’ books as I did this season. But there is one reason I cast so many dark-skinned girls, and one reason only: their beauty,” Ms. Pilotti said. She was also emphatic that she was not adhering to any outside demands or quotas when it came to casting for those shows. “This season, for these collections, these girls are the ones that spoke to me.”
She was not the only one. The response to Ms. Yai’s Prada appearance was quick: Within three weeks of appearing on the runway she had become a viral Instagram sensation. “I thought there might be some reaction, but I never thought it would be this big,” said Ms. Yai, who was first discovered by a photographer at a Howard University homecoming celebration in October. “But as a black woman of dark skin, I feel so proud of myself.”
For her part, Ms. Akech now has 70,000 followers. Both women, bursting with excitement, are in the process of securing campaigns with major fashion brands, though they declined to specify which ones.
Still, while there are certainly more dark-skinned faces on the runways, they remain the minority.
A report by Flare, a Canadian fashion magazine, found that the most racially diverse shows of the past season were in New York, where nonwhite models made up 37 percent of those who walked the runways. London Fashion Week was next, with 35 percent. In Milan 24 percent were nonwhite, and in Paris the figure was 26 percent.
“With very few exceptions, even the most inclusive fall 2018 shows were only actually sort of diverse,” said Amanda Demeku, the author of the report. “Dress it up however you’d like, we’ve got a ways to go.”
Ms. Miles warned that the embrace of black beauty needed to be more than just a passing trend linked to a demand for new faces. “We still have a problem with people of color being exoticized, embraced temporarily as a flavor of the month, ” she said. “So while I feel a deep sense of pleasure at such a range of looks and skin colors on the runway, I am not celebrating just yet.”