Meet the Mavericks Making Modeling More Diverse

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Nafisa Kaptownwala; Philomena Kwao; Peche Di
Nafisa Kaptownwala; Philomena Kwao; Peche DiPhoto: b0llyh00d/Instagram, Lily Cummings

Crouched on an armchair in the Soho Grand lobby, Nafisa Kaptownwala is tugging at her nose ring. Kaptownwala, who goes by the Instagram handle @b0llyh00d, has streaked blonde hair and the kind of intentionally scruffy athleisure style that reads as glamorous chiefly on the very young and beautiful. She’s recalling her reaction to the spring 2014 Rick Owens show, which famously showcased a step-dance team primarily made up of women of color. “For me it felt uncomfortable,” she says, “because it felt like he was using these girls as a prop rather than genuinely inviting them in a fashion space to participate kind of on the same level as everyone else.”

Though she speaks like an academic, Kaptownwala is an entrepreneur. Not long after Owens’s show, she founded Lorde Inc, an agency that represents a number of young, beautiful, cool people like herself — all of whom are also people of color, like she is. “I just started the agency because I wasn’t finding models that I wanted to work with and style and shoot,” she says, “and my friends weren’t styling or shooting models of color either. It was my way to be like, you don’t really have an excuse to not use models of color anymore because here they all are. Like, I’ve just put them together for you.”

Kaptownwala’s is one of several agencies that have sprung up in recent years in response to what the founders see as the hegemony of the major agencies that have dominated fashion for decades. In addition to Lorde, there’s JAG, focused on models of varying sizes, and Trans Models, devoted entirely to transgender talent. Though their stated missions are different, they’re linked — underdogs in an industry where a few big agencies maintain a stranglehold. Despite that, they’re attracting talent and — even more important for their longevity — an influx of corporate clients. (Most of the major agencies — IMG, Ford, Next, and Wilhelmina among them — declined to comment for this story. The Society, which represents Kendall Jenner and Andreja Pejić, declined to make agents available to comment but provided the following statement: “We represent women of diverse backgrounds and experiences who have the ability to inspire both within our business and beyond.”)

Since Kaptownwala founded it in London in 2013, Lorde has been steadily gaining on its established competitors. “We’ve been projected into this more mainstream fashion lens, which definitely wasn’t my initial intention,” she says. That said, the agency still has a scrappy feel to it — its website isn’t fully live yet, and it redirects you to a Tumblr with candid-looking street shots of Lorde’s model corps rather than the slick black-and-white shots you often see on major agencies’ boards. It’s also far more diverse than those boards. “It’s quite jarring that there’s obviously not a lot of people of color on their rosters,” she says. “For a lot of the people that come to our agency, it’s because they’ve tried their luck with other agencies and there wasn’t an interest.”

Kaptownwala is most excited about two recent signings: up-and-comer Jenny Choi, who’s “gotten profiled on a few websites for just having great style and being really cool,” she says; “We also signed a girl named Layla” — whose last name escapes her at the moment — “she just has an incredible look.” She’s recently cast some models in an upcoming music video by a major R&B star (though she swears me to secrecy on said star’s identity). “We’ve also been working on a campaign with Nike, which is going to be pretty fresh.”

That doesn’t mean that she isn’t concerned about the future of the movement she’s trying her hardest to pull off. Her biggest insecurity, she says, is “feeling like we’re just going to be a trend, like [diversity] is a conversation that people want to have right now, [but] where will they be in five years?” Her intent, she says, is “to try to get designers to warm up to the idea of working with models of color, and not just the five main girls of the season.”

It’s worth noting that the gulf between so-called “real” models and honest-to-goodness real people remains unbridged by the industry. These three agencies are out to break boundaries, but they’re not upending our standards of beauty entirely. Scroll through the Lorde Tumblr and you’ll find that everyone is stunning, perfectly symmetrical, young, hip, and (for the most part) slender, though the agency does represent some plus-size models. But its mission serves as a corrective for fashion’s mode du jour: applauding every advance toward diversity made by big brands as some sort of glass-ceiling-shattering watershed, when the reality is more challenging.

Some models have already made the jump from the big pond of a major agency to one of these start-ups. Philomena Kwao, a British-born model of Ghanaian descent, used to be signed to Ford, the 70-year-old behemoth that once helmed the careers of Christie Brinkley, Elle Macpherson, and even a young Martha Stewart. Still, the decision to leave for JAG Models wasn’t one she agonized over. She was already close with Ford bookers Jaclyn Sarka and Gary Dakin, who left to found JAG. “I trusted them. I decided that they were the best people for my career,” she says. Since signing with them, she has booked campaigns for Nordstrom and Lane Bryant, a job as the face of Torrid, and a fashion spread in Essence.

JAG is one of the few agencies that represents models of all different sizes — not just straight-size and plus-size, but plenty of so-called “in-betweeners,” like Myla Dalbesio, who booked a Calvin Klein underwear campaign while signed with JAG. (She has since decamped for Next Models.) Kwao pointed to the individual attention she gets from her agent at JAG as the biggest factor for her, and she’s confident that casting directors are having no problem finding her. “If a brand wants a specific girl, they want a specific girl, wherever you are.”

In recent years, she thinks that they have become increasingly open to casting a wider net for new talent. “They’re listening to people,” she says. “Because of social media and reality TV, people want to understand the person who’s wearing the clothes. It’s not just the top that you’re looking at, it’s the girl behind the top. Who is she? What does she like? What’s her attitude like? Why is she wearing the clothes?” She strives to make herself available on her social-media accounts, where she fields questions about finding the best foundation for darker skin tones, or about her signature close-cropped hair.

Though Kwao has booked campaigns, commercials, and editorial spreads, the runway is still the branch of fashion that eludes her and many models of different sizes. “Every season you get a few more,” she says. Kaptownwala agrees that size diversity has been slower to emerge on the runway, which she attributes to the prevalence of sample sizing. “Time and time again I’ll get casting directors asking me for people in sample sizes,” she says, “and I’m like, ‘Oh shoot, I don’t even have that many models that fit in sample sizes.’” Kwao, for her part, says modeling on the runway remains a major career goal.

Perhaps one day Kwao will go on to found her own agency. That’s what Peche Di, a trans woman who has modeled for brands like Barneys, did with Trans Models. The former Thai beauty queen drew from her own frustrating experiences dealing with agencies, which she found to be less than open to trans people. During the transition, it can be very tricky for them to understand,” she says. “It [was] really hard to explain to them that I wanted to be a woman.” Despite the signings of trans models like Nef, Andreja Pejić, and Lea T to major agencies, Di still feels the need for a trans-only enterprise. “Most of the transgender [models] at the big agencies are white trans people,” she points out. “They still are not inclusive to trans women of color.”

Di also claims that many agents aren’t equipped to deal with the unique needs of models who are transitioning. “Sometimes a model still wants to dress up like a woman but doesn’t want to have any surgery, or some of them want to have surgery,” she says. For example, Trans Models updates models’ photos after their facial surgery, “small things that another agency wouldn’t understand and would freak out about it. With a bigger agency, they still want to sign that person into a male category if they don’t want to have surgery.”

Like Lorde, Trans Models has an explicitly political bent, with its members acting not just as faces but as advocates. Models from the agency recently held a TED Talk–like event, and have done the speaking circuit at Howard University and other colleges around the country. This coming New York Fashion Week, Di is planning an all-trans fashion show. “People still think that we are a modeling agency, but we aren’t. We are also advocacy-tied,” says Di.

And their emphasis on social change doesn’t mean that they don’t care about making money. Though the agency has only been around since May, its signees have landed campaigns for clients like Budweiser and Smirnoff. “My goal is to find jobs for them because I grew up struggling [to find] a job,” says Di. She’s still learning the ins and outs of what it means to run an agency. “Contracts are really tricky for me — the least glamorous side!” she admits. “It scares me a little bit.”