‘Catwalk diversity is here to stay – we’ve never been more visible’: Kenya Hunt


“It’s ‘in’ to use me and maybe some people do it when they don’t really like me. But even if they are prejudiced, they have to be tactful if they want a good picture.” Naomi Sims, The New York Times, 1969

Black women are in fashion,” one editor casually said to me in Paris following a runway show. The skin on my arms felt prickly and my stomach tight in the way it does when I feel a conversation taking a particular kind of turn. I found it curious that someone would use the temporal language ascribed to clothing and fleeting fashions to frame an entire people. It felt wrong. It sounded wrong. And yet I kept hearing similar observations while travelling the runway show circuit and doing all manner of panel discussions (so many panel discussions) about diversity and inclusion in fashion in general.

“With so many black women appearing on magazine covers and catwalks, do you think this is just another trend?” a white news anchor asked me another time, mid-broadcast.

That was in 2018. Now, six months into the Great Pause, the front row as we know it is on hold. The shows may have temporarily moved online and to individualised one-to-one appointments, but the power structure the front row represents is very much still here.

Until recently, the fashion week catwalks were a dime a dozen. There are shopping mall fashion shows. Church fashion shows. School charity fashion shows. And pet fashion shows. There are entire weeks filled with fashion shows in cities all over the world – Tel Aviv, Dakar, Dodoma, Lisbon, Bogotá, Liverpool, Reykjavík, Miami, Moscow, Copenhagen, Lagos. But only a few hold the kind of power that impacts the way people dress and perceive themselves. And they take place in just four cities: New York, London, Milan and Paris.

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To sit in the front row of a luxury fashion show in one of these cities, home to the world’s oldest and most storied houses, is to experience a unique set of conflicting emotions, particularly as a black woman.

Because the rise of black women is the talking point that has been most attached to the label of fleeting trend. One white editor went as far as to describe it to me as a bubble bound to burst.

Imaan Hammam walks for Versace in Milan, 2018.



Claiming the floor: Imaan Hammam walks for Versace in Milan, 2018. Photograph: Victor Virgile/Gamma-Rapho/Getty Images

On the surface, the front row is a thrill. There’s the excitement of gaining entry to a rarefied world filled with the finest clothes human hands can make, designed by some of the most skilful couturiers known to woman. A tiny little alternate universe populated by the rich, influential, beautiful and famous, along with the insiders powerful enough to determine who will become famous next. The front row is where the people deemed most integral to the success of those clothes – retailers, celebrities, stylists, journalists, popular internet personalities and clients – converge. Spaces are limited. The invited are few. You know better than to consider inclusion a form of validation. The idea is intoxicating nonetheless. But, below the surface, a seat on the front row for someone like me means a heightened consciousness of the many who are left out.

Navigating the front row can be an isolating and emotionally fraught experience for anyone. Its dramas have been well documented in all manner of books and films with varying degrees of accuracy – Prêt-à-Porter, The Devil Wears Prada, Zoolander, The September Issue, and more.

Will I get a seat? Where will I be seated? Who will I be seated next to? To many, these are all very important questions, without an ounce of irony. The answer can determine everything. How you’re viewed by the rest of your peers. You’re standing in a $2.4tn industry.

It’s a century-old system built on art, desire, commerce, prestige, insider access and hierarchy. Power, buzz and influence come and go. One day you have it. Months, years or, if you’re lucky, decades later, you don’t. One minute you’re in, the next you’re out.

But lately, fashion has been rife with talk of the shift in who gets to be an insider and who gets to tell whose story. Because a dress is not just the covering on our backs, but a story of who we are, what we think, what tribe we belong to and how we view ourselves.

Naomi Campbell for Chanel in Paris, 1992.



Trail blazer: Naomi Campbell for Chanel in Paris, 1992. Photograph: Victor Virgile/Gamma-Rapho/Getty Images

In the world of fashion, the reality of what is in fashion very much depends on who is in a position of power to declare it. Those who have an influential platform from which to tell the story determine the narrative. Anyone can claim red is the new black. But only a relatively small pool of people have the sway to make it so. The problem is that the group dominating the storytelling, determining the trends on and off the runway, have been so homogenous, so overwhelmingly privileged and white. And, of the rest, few are black women. Of the designers working at a high level, there is Rihanna, Martine Rose, Grace Wales Bonner and Tracy Reese to name a small sampling from a fairly short list. Of the writers, editors and stylists in sufficiently senior-ranking positions at powerful enough publications to warrant a front row seat on the international circuit, just as few are black women.

I came to fashion as an outsider. My earliest memories of the fashion show were not in Paris, Milan or London but in my grandparents’ house, listening to my aunt recount her evening out attending the Ebony Fashion Fair, the travelling catwalk expo that operated from 1958 to 2009 and promoted the makeup line by the same name.

As a bank manager who lived and worked in Tidewater, Virginia, hers was a world away from the runways of Oscar de la Renta, Yves Saint Laurent and Valentino. Yet she knew who they were thanks to the fair, which introduced luxury fashion to audiences of stylish black women, like my aunt, nationwide. Ebony Fashion Fair came to fame in the 1960s, as Black Is Beautiful became a rallying slogan for growing black pride. And like the Grandassa Models, a Harlem-based fashion show that celebrated natural black beauty, each operated beyond the white gaze.

I never actually attended an Ebony Fashion Fair – a source of much personal regret. But as a child, I would study the images of black and brown models, booted and dolman-sleeved, in my grandparents’ old issues of Ebony magazine, which once a year would turn into a promo for the fashion extravaganza. (Long before events became a much-needed revenue stream for magazines, Johnson Publishing Company had cracked that nut with Ebony.) I’d read the issues in my grandmother’s house and feel like I was there, at Scope exhibit hall in Norfolk, Virginia, or the municipal auditorium in Charleston, South Carolina, or Hixon convention center in Tampa, Florida. I could imagine the smell of perfume, hear the R&B soundtrack, and see the clothes sway and swagger.

My next encounter with the world of fashion was as a teenager attending a runway show at my local shopping mall, sponsored by Seventeen magazine. I’d go with my mom and get styling advice about new ways to put together my Gap denim and Express sweaters for school. Meanwhile, pretty, photogenic, wide-eyed and wide-smiled local teens with names like Misty and Danielle would parade the runway hoping it would be a bridge to even bigger opportunities in Washington DC or even New York.

When I was a student at the University of Virginia, we’d have parties and a big annual fashion show during homecoming weekend, a time when the smaller black student body would have its own lineup of events that ran parallel to the big keg-and-bowtie-filled parties put on by the white fraternities and sororities. The fashion show was the highlight of the black student body’s social calendar and a kind of imitation of the legendary student fashion shows held at historically black universities like Howard and Hampton. At UVA, it was less a catwalk show in the traditional sense, and more of a sexed-up theatrical production in which students wore the tightest or sheerest clothing possible (the guys would often go shirtless, their torsos oiled and bronzed to caricature levels). There would be dance interludes, involving body rolls and slow, dramatic walks to popular R&B songs like Ginuwine’s Pony – the models all at that stage of youth when the awkwardness of hormonal pubescence gives way to spectacular, unblemished beauty.

Students auditioned by walking for a panel of judges made up of models who had walked in shows years before. Earning a spot in the cast was a badge of honour that secured social cachet and doubled one’s dating prospects. During my freshman year, only one girl from our entire class made the cut. I won a place in my second year, along with four classmates. We practised for months. And the night of the show, we fantasised that we were models in Paris, Naomi Campbell’s long-lost cousins, twirling in couture.

Paloma Elsesser in a bright orange sleeveless dress and matching coat



Ahead of the curve: Paloma Elsesser, a London-born, black American and Chilean-Swiss
Vogue cover star. Photograph: Krista Kennell/Paul Bruinooge/Patrick McMullan/Getty Images

It would be quite some time before I actually saw Naomi Campbell walk on a high-fashion runway (Dolce & Gabbana, 2009) or attended my first couture show (Chanel, 2010). Back then, black faces on the runway were fairly rare, and even more so on the front row.

But that has all changed in incremental steps. We have gone from the fringes to the forefront of the conversation, but we still aren’t the primary storytellers and we remain criminally under-represented in positions of power.

Much has been made of the fact that we are, at long last, “in”. Black women, but also a variety of women who exist beyond the narrow standard of old: Muslim women, non-binary women, women over the age of 50, little women, women with Down’s syndrome, bigger women, wheelchair-using women, and more.

But this language is inaccurate, because our emergence is not a fleeting trend in the manner of incoming skirt shapes and outgoing hemlines. Instead, it represents a paradigm shift away from fashion’s entire history so far. Going back to its earliest days when Charles Frederick Worth created custom gowns for queens and princesses in the mid-19th century, fashion has long existed around the famous, influential and aristocratic. And those groups were exclusively white until recently.

But fashion has spent the past decade slowly and finally opening its borders to communities of people who weren’t included or even considered. If you ask these women, their inclusion is not a “moment” but the result of tireless campaigns and organised efforts to break through mind-numbing homogeneity.

All it takes is a cursory glance at the landscape to get the gist. We’ve never had more visibility than we do now. This is particularly so with black women, where our presence finally goes beyond the tokenistic one or two on the runways (Alek Wek, Liya Kebede, Adut Akech, Ajok Madel, Selena Forrest, Lineisy Montero, Imaan Hammam, the list goes on) and the covers of magazines (Beyoncé on Elle, Rihanna on Vogue, Lupita Nyong’o on everything).

Halima Aden in Milan, February 2020.



Covered star: hijabi Halima Aden in Milan, February 2020. Photograph: Jacopo Raule/WireImage

As I write, the women who rank among the industry’s most in-demand models include Adut Akech, a South Sudanese native born on the way to a refugee camp in Kenya, who now counts supermodel Naomi Campbell and Valentino creative director Pierpaolo Piccioli as her biggest champions, and Halima Aden, a Kenya-born, Missouri-raised hijabi who just four years ago was moonlighting as a cleaning woman, scrubbing toilets in a hospital during her big debut runway season, in which she walked for Kanye West’s Yeezy in New York and Max Mara in Milan. When the month of shows ended, Halima returned to her custodial job in Missouri until she reached a level of fame where she could afford to live on her model earnings.

There’s also Paloma Elsesser, a London-born, black American and Chilean-Swiss Vogue cover star who wears a size 16 and actively campaigns for body positivity. And Indira Scott, a Jamaica Queens local best known for her waist-length, bead-embellished braids, a hair style she used to get bullied for wearing in school but is now a trademark that got her runway jobs with Christian Dior. If one were to distil the shift in fashion down to a single visual symbol, Halima’s hijab, Paloma’s full, relatable figure or Indira’s box braids would do. Each sparked conversation and headlines, yes, but each also ran counter to the long, wispy, western ideal. Each also signifies a compelling story that has dominated not just the runways, but ad campaigns, magazine covers and social media impressions.

The beauty is in the breadth and the nuance of the representation – not seen since the 1960s and 1970s when the Grandassa Models and an overall rise in black consciousness inspired a diverse movement in European fashion. The beauty is also in what this means for the waves of young girls who only know this moment of heightened visibility and nothing else. Girls who will consider this the norm. Girls who will grow into women with a healthy sense of entitlement because of course they can be cover stars, and supermodels, and creative directors and CEOs.

It can be easy to boil it all down to trending, like a hashtag that gathers steam and then becomes yesterday’s news. But this would be lazy. We are here, living, creating and flourishing, whether the fashion world chooses to tune in or not. Declaring a group of people “in fashion” implies another group is out. And the suggestion that a group of people are out of fashion leads to the conclusion, no matter how knotty, of a scarcity complex and the feeling that there isn’t room for all – not to mention the implication that we are present, not based on merit, but purely because we are trending.

This thinking undermines the power of the moment and the positive gains made by an industry that prides itself on progressive politics. It’s the Azzedine Alaïa-clad elephant in the room that reveals itself as and when the opportunity presents itself, as it did a year ago when an editor casually remarked to me, “We blondes are out of style right now,” as we waited for a runway show in New York to begin. This thinking is the achilles heel of the well-intentioned, exposing that the act of declaring a group of people in fashion means one was likely complicit in that same group being out of it.

Extracted from Girl: Essays on Black Womanhood by Kenya Hunt, fashion director of Grazia UK, published by HQ on 26 November, £16.99 (£14.78 at guardianbookshop.com)



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