The fashion industry has a dismal reputation of glorifying overly-thin white women. Yes, in the ‘90s, Naomi Campbell and Alek Wek rose to supermodel status, but there were rarely more than a few women of color walking the runways then. Today, the fashion industry is brimming with a new generation of models who better reflect the diverse world we live in.
More women of color graced the 2019 catwalks than ever before (90 percent of the top NYFW models, in fact). While stats in 2020 disappointedly revealed a decline in inclusivity at NYFW in three categories—race, size, and gender—we’re hopeful that this year’s lack of representation is an anomaly. Fashion’s recent outcry against injustice has given us hope that there will be continual transformation.
In an industry that sets the trends, embracing models from all backgrounds and gender identities is not just a casting choice; it’s a responsibility in helping to mobilize change. Ahead, the breakout faces of the modeling world (women who are also artists, academics, and advocates), and how their individual experiences and contributions prove there’s some progress (and lot’s more work to do) in an industry that, for many people, sets the standard of beauty.
Somalian-American model Halima Aden made history as the first hijab-wearing model to grace the New York City catwalks at Kanye West’s Fall 2017 Yeezy show. Aden, who is now 22, was raised in Kenya before moving to the U.S. at age 7. She continues to advocate for Muslim women in beauty and fashion. In 2020, Aden helped create a capsule collection of hijabs and turbans that are compatible with face coverings to protect against COVID-19.
Dominican fashion model Anyelina Rosa has starred in campaigns for H&M Beauty, Brandon Maxwell (pictured), Max Mara, Zara, and Reebok x Victoria Beckham. The 19-year-old beauty walked at Dior, Dolce & Gabbana, and Rick Owens for the fall/winter 2020 season.
In 2020 alone, Nigerian fashion model Mayowa Nicholas starred in campaigns for Chanel Beauty, H&M, and Express. She’s walked 283 shows in her five-year career, including Balmain, Burberry, and Michael Kors’ fall/winter 2020 shows.
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Paloma Elsesser has been modeling for the past four years, but it was only this season that the model booked any major runway shows. Elsesser made headlines as Fendi’s first plus-size model, when she walked the fall/winter 2020 runway for the brand’s “liberation-themed” runway collection. She also walked the fall/winter 2020 runways at Alexander McQueen and Lanvin’s Paris collections.
One of the top 50 models of the moment according to models.com, Hyun Ji Shin is the star of this summer’s new Zara campaign. During the fall/winter 2020 presentations in February and March, she walked 28 shows including Chanel, Louis Vuitton, Ferragamo, Saint Laurent, and Tory Burch
South Sudanese model Ayok Yai was discovered after her picture was snapped by a street style photographer in D.C. in 2017. At the time, she was studying biochemistry at Howard University. After signing with a New York agency, Yai became only the second Black model to open one of Prada’s runway shows, following in the footsteps of Naomi Campbell.
Born in Somalia, Ugbad Abdi spent several years of her childhood in a Kenyan refugee camp. At the age of nine, Abdi and her family relocated to Des Moines, Iowa. It was there that she was scouted by Next Models via an Instagram post. At 19, Abdi has become one of the industry’s top models, starring in campaigns for Michael Kors and Etro for fall/winter 2020.
Dutch model Jill Kortleve was the first plus-size model to be cast at a Chanel fashion show in the past decade. Her appearance on the fall/winter 2020 runways—she also walked Fendi and Alexander McQueen—was an important step toward bringing more body diversity to the catwalk.
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Janaye Furman made history when she became the first Black woman to open Louis Vuitton’s Paris runway show in the fall of 2017. The headline-making model was first discovered a year earlier, during a 2016 school performance at the American Musical Dramatic Academy in L.A., where she was enrolled. Since then, Furman has walked in nearly 100 shows, including Vuitton’s fall/winter 2020 collection.
Mona Tougaard, who hails from Aarhhus, Denmark, has landed some major campaigns in the past several seasons, including Burberry, Chanel, Chloé, Loewe, Max Mara, Prada, and Versace. At just 17, the Danish model—whose heritage is a mix of Somalian, Ethiopian, Danish, and Turkish—has already graced i-D Magazine‘s April 2020 cover and has most recently modeled in Chanel’s pre-fall 2020 show.
Top model Achenrin Madit notably walked more shows than any other model in the fall/winter 2020 season. Madit appeared on the runways of 39 different designers, including opening the shows at Marc Jacobs and Proenza Schouler. Born in Nebraska to South Sudanese parents, the 17-year-old star has gained much respect from fashion’s prominent stylists and casting directors. She continues to blossom with campaigns for Marc Jacobs, Boss, Stella McCartney, and Proenza Schouler.