Unexpected, unconventional and unstoppable. Angolan supermodel Maria Borges carved her success by being everything the fashion industry isn’t – herself.
Supermodel Maria Borges carves her way to success
statuesque, elegant and red-lipped in a striped button-up shirt dress, Maria Borges arrives fresh off the new Woolworths Edition campaign shoot when I make my way to interview her at a studio in Green Point, Cape Town. “I’m ready for you,” she tells me with a smile. She’s the face of L’oreal, a regular feature in the Victoria’s Secret shows, has strutted down the runways of Chanel, Balmain and Moschino, calls designer Riccardo Tisci a personal friend and is signed to 20 Management, SA’S most elite model agency. But as a black woman whose look was considered atypical, success was not guaranteed for her. According to the 25-year-old, it was her refusal to compromise on being her authentic self that positioned her where she is today. “I think that the industry embraced me because I’m always myself and I never try to imitate anyone,” she says. “When you show people that you’re just being you, it changes everything, and they really start to respect and support you. That’s why I just have to keep on going, making sure I open the door for other models as well.”
She admits that it wasn’t always easy, but dealing with rejection on a regular basis at the start of her modelling career only helped build her character and strengthen her determination. “I started modelling when I entered a model search contest in Angola, but they didn’t pick me as the winner,” she explains. “For me, that ‘no’ was really a ‘yes’ in disguise. When someone says, ‘This is not going to happen for you,’ it just gives me more motivation and I’m like, ‘I know I can get this – no matter how hard or how long it takes to reach success!’”
With Edward Enninful’s appointment as the editor-inchief of British Vogue and Virgil Abloh’s placement as the creative director of Louis Vuitton Menswear, the model believes that the fashion industry’s embrace of diversity is long overdue. “It’s about time,” she exclaims. “Everything that’s happened to me, to Edward and Virgil is because we’ve all been working hard, and when the opportunity presented itself, we went for it. Now we need to keep it up and continue to do our best. But it’s not only fashion, though. Whatever position we’re in, being black is powerful, and everyone should realise this and be proud. You should wake up everyday and say, ‘I’m beautiful, I can do this!’”
She also credits other African models like Alek Wek and Ajuma Nasenyana for paving the way. “These are the two women who inspired me when I was growing up. When I met Alek for the first time, I was in awe. As soon as I spotted her, I was like, ‘Oh my God! I love you, let’s get a picture.’ Afterwards, she told me, ‘Girl, never change. I know it’s hard in this industry, but keep it up and be strong.’”
Maria emphasises that she tries her best to live by those words and that she has no intention of slowing down. “I want to be the Anna Wintour of Africa, or be someone who’s going to make a change for the fashion industry on the continent,” she explains. “I’ve always dreamed of becoming a businesswoman and having different projects, but most importantly, I want to start my own charity foundation, so I can give something back to the place that made me who I am.”
Although she now resides in New York with her boyfriend of five years, businessman Perikles Mandinga, and leads what appears to be an A-list life, she insists that she’s still the same person she was before leaving her country. “I’m still the young girl who left Angola five years ago to pursue her dreams. I never forget to be humble, and I keep my circle of family and friends very close to me,” she says. “I make sure I take the advice of those who have lived more than I have, because I don’t know everything and there’s still a lot that I need to learn.”