As a mother of two little girls, ZODWA KUMALO-VALENTINE feels it’s time we see more black women in fashion campaigns
When will black beauty be considered universally beautiful?
Sipping on a coffee in a remote farmhouse in the Free State with close friends who share similar obsessions, someone passed around a captivating image of model Karly Loyce, shot by Juergen Teller for Céline’s AW15 campaign. It was the rst time I saw it – and I was in love.
Our husbands, lured off the porch by the smell of freshly brewed coffee, sauntered past en route to the kitchen and stopped one by one, glancing at what we were ogling so early in the morning. They didn’t get it and, mildly irritated by the fuss, continued their kitchen mission.
My friend called over my six-year-old daughter to look at the beautiful image we were beholding. ‘Isn’t she beautiful, Maya?’ she asked. ‘ Not really,’ my daughter replied and walked off, disinterested.
This image of a black woman, with no makeup and an afro style in all its glory, marks an exciting shift in the way top fashion labels are telling their stories and reinforcing their brand message. Karly, who was cast by Céline’s creative director, Phoebe Philo, has appeared in a number of ID magazine spreads and covers and is part of a clutch of up-and-coming faces chosen to front the brand’s campaign. Her images are the most captivating.
My daughter’s reaction was disappointing, to say the least, but hardly surprising. A few months ago at a lunch with friends, I shared my frustration about not being able to easily nd black dolls for my two daughters. My youngest is three and Maya, the eldest, attends a school where her main daily frame of reference is little white girls and images of a white Jesus and white families adorning the walls. It’s no wonder, then, that she asked me one day whether she could have long straight hair when she grows up. In her mind, it was an innocent request. I, on the other hand, was mortified.
In 2015, advertisers still don’t deem the black woman (or black men, for that matter), important enough to market to. We are bombarded with images of white women swinging their long owing hair, talking about their creamy complexions; we stare at row upon row crammed with packaging that reinforces the alienating idea that is the ideal; the aspiration for all women.
Prada doesn’t generally use black models for its runway shows or campaigns. In 2013, Kenyanborn Malaika Firth became only the second black model to front a Prada campaign, 19 years after Naomi Campbell in 1994. Jourdan Dunn also followed in Naomi’s footsteps when she became the second black model to walk the brand’s runway show in 2008 – 15 years after Naomi.
It’s no secret that natural black hair is a rare sight on international and national catwalks. There still remains an upsetting lack of diversity on this front. Off the runway, I’ve heard short, natural hairstyles or simple cornrows being referred to as ‘breadwinners’ hairstyles’. The message is that it’s pedestrian and not at all glamorous. Yet it seems like change might be in the air.
Models like Karly and 19-year-old Lineisy Montero from the Dominican Republic are now walking major runway shows sporting tight and combed-out ’fros. And in an annoying twist of events, the inclusion of Lineisy in Prada’s AW15 runway collection has earned the brand credit for ‘bringing back the afro’. (Insert side-eye emoji.)
Still, there remains a distressing lack of role models for black girls. In my home we don’t have a TV, but my children are adept at using YouTube Kids. As a result, they have become obsessed with Barbie. But where are the cartoons about cool black girls starting girl bands or going about their daily lives with their friends and families?
Asking my peers at the luncheon what they think I should do about the lack of identifiable role models for my daughters, one suggested I might stage a burning of all the white Barbie dolls my daughters have been gifted with. I quite like this idea. Another shared how she grew up without a TV and was never allowed to straighten her hair or have white dolls. As a result, she has a very strong black identity and self-worth.
Every day I tell my daughters how beautiful and clever they are. Whenever I brush or wash their hair, I tell them how lucky they are to have such gorgeous hair and how many different things they can do with it. Yet some of those words are undermined by the relentless imagery reminding them that they are not the ideal. Perhaps in a less extreme attempt to recondition my daughters, I should start every school run by playing Nina Simone’s ode to black youth, ‘To be Young, Gifted and Black’. My parents used to play it all the time when were growing up and it remains an important song for me; it serves as a personal mantra to af rm who I am, especially in times when I feel despondent about how black women remain thought of, to this day, as unpretty and unworthy.
Maybe when they’re older they’ll look at an image of a black woman with a big afro and say: ‘Mommy, she is beautiful. I want to look like that when I grow up.’ mc
RIGHT Malaika Firth in the Prada
BELOW AND BELOW RIGHT
Karly Loyce in the Céline AW15 campaign
and walking the
Zodwa KumaloValentine with her daughters, Maya