The 2010s saw the fashion industry embracing diversity more than ever — in fact, 47% of models at the last New York Fashion Week identified as people of color.
But with still more to be done, there are black models working every day to change the industry for the better, including Jillian Mercado, Winnie Harlow, and Precious Lee.
As New York Fashion Week kicks off, here are some of the most important — some already established and some up-and-coming — black models working in the industry today.
Winnie Harlow is one of the most famous and recognizable models working in the industry today.
Harlow’s career began on “America’s Next Top Model” in 2014. After being eliminated, she started working professionally in the industry, appearing in several magazines, including Glamour, Cosmopolitan, and Ebony. The model also appeared in the Victoria’s Secret Fashion Show in 2018.
She is also famous for being outspoken about her skin condition, vitiligo.
“We have to keep educating people,” Harlow wrote in Glamour. “When the Evening Standard ran a picture of me with a caption describing me as a vitiligo ‘sufferer,’ it tore me to shreds. I said to my agent, ‘WTF. Again? Is this a joke?’ That’s how I feel every single time I see that word placed beside my name. It’s something I see often, so I felt like I should say something. Just because you see someone with whatever it is, even a pimple, you don’t get to say that they are suffering. It’s very rude for anyone to describe me as a sufferer, and it takes away from everything else — I’m 100 percent excelling in everything I do.”
Lineisy Montero is known for her natural Afro hair in the fashion world.
Montero was discovered at an amusement park in the Dominican Republic, and she was quickly signed to a modeling agency. She first walked in a Prada show, and her career took off from there. She’s worked with Alexander Wang, Versace, and Miu Miu, all while sporting her trademark Afro.
“I didn’t expect this impact. I am just Lineisy Montero, a young girl from Santo Domingo,” Montero told i-D. “My hair has never been a question — it’s always been natural. I didn’t do anything special except walking in the shows. I see now that is a big thing for the fashion industry so I am proud of it. If it changes the mentality in the business for models like me, I would be very happy.”
Jourdan Dunn made headlines in 2015 when she became the first black woman in 10 years to be featured solo on the cover of Vogue UK.
Dunn was discovered at just 15 years old in a Primark store in London. She became an in-demand model, walking in shows for Dior and Louis Vuitton. Most notably, she was the first black woman to walk Prada’s runway in 10 years. Dunn was also featured in Beyoncé’s music videos.
“Not even just for young girls, but for women in general, we have to stop comparing ourselves to other people, to celebrities, to our friends, to sisters, whoever, and just embrace you and remember that there’s only one you,” Dunn told Wonderland. “The things you can’t change, learn to love and embrace, and the things that you can change — if that’s going to make you feel good — then change. Accept all your flaws, then no one then can use them against you. Turn the negatives into positives, that’s what I’ve done.”
Duckie Thot is the face of Rihanna’s makeup line.
Nyadak “Duckie” Thot started her career in 2013 when she finished in third place on “Australia’s Next Top Model.” Since then, the South Sudanese model worked for Pirelli in 2018, and she walked in Victoria’s Secret Fashion Show. Recently, Thot became the face of Rihanna’s makeup line, Fenty, and worked for L’Oréal Paris.
“When we talk about diversity in fashion and beauty, we often don’t talk about what that means behind the scenes: stylists, photographers, makeup artists,” Thot told Allure. “I’m often the only black woman on set. I’ll remember doing the Pirelli calendar [shoot] with an all-black cast — RuPaul, Lupita Nyong’o — for the rest of my life.”
Broderick Hunter was once the face of Ralph Lauren.
Hunter turned to modeling after injuring himself as an athlete in college. He started modeling on Instagram but eventually worked for Ralph Lauren, starred in Ciara’s music videos, and even earned himself a spot on HBO’s “Insecure.” In 2014, Business Insider named Hunter one of “the sexiest Instagram stars alive.”
“When you’re a black boy in modeling, you have to be the cream of the crop. They’re only signing you if they see the star in you and think you’re definitely going to blow up,” he told Teen Vogue. “It was really really difficult to get into the door. Not even getting in. Once you’re in the door, you still have to fight to maximize the limited space you’ve been given.”
Diandra Forrest is the first female model with albinism to be signed to a modeling agency.
Diandra Forrest is a groundbreaking model in the fashion industry. Born to African-American parents, she has white skin and blonde hair because of her albinism. That didn’t stop her from signing with a major modeling agency, Elite Models NY, and later Krush Model Management NY. Since then, she has appeared in magazines like Ebony and in music videos for Beyoncé and Kanye West.
“It is not easy being a person with albinism because of the lack of understanding of what the condition is, even in the modeling industry where I have been working for the past few years,” Forrest said. “People with albinism are looked at as something that is maybe extra-terrestrial, an odd beauty, not just a regular beauty, whatever that is. It can be fun and entertaining but it should not be a freak show.”
Slick Woods made a name for herself in the world of fashion because of her buzzed head, gap teeth, and tattoos.
Woods became famous in the fashion world in 2018 when she walked the Savage X Fenty show in lingerie while nine months pregnant. Beyond that moment, Woods has walked the runways for Fendi, Calvin Klein, Marc Jacobs, and Miu Miu. She’s also appeared in the pages of Vogue, while sporting her signature buzzed-hair look.
“My goals are very in-real-time,” Woods told the Guardian. “My goal is just to be very happy and live every day exactly how I want to do it.”
Adonis Bosso may be known as the father of Slick Woods’ baby, but he’s also a successful model in his own right.
Bosso’s modeling career began when he accompanied an ex-girlfriend to a modeling agency and was immediately signed. Since then, he has modeled for Dolce & Gabbana and Todd Snyder. In the modeling world, he is known for his signature septum piercing.
“Over time I’ve begun to see how important visibility is, especially as a black model,” Bosso told Vogue. “I want to represent something more instead of being boxed into the pre-existing stereotypes. I don’t want to be shown as being a thug; that isn’t who I am, and those images are already overly prevalent. I try to make my mom proud when I walk out of the house.”
Adut Akech Bior went from a South Sudanese child refugee to one of the most sought-after models in the industry.
Akech Bior began her modeling career in 2016 when she walked for Saint Laurent. Since then, the model has become highly sought after, accompanying Valentino’s Pierpaolo Piccioli to the Met Gala, and Karl Lagerfeld had her open and close several Chanel shows. She’s also worked with Miu Miu, Versace, and Prada.
“I don’t want to just be known as Adut Akech the model. I want to build a legacy,” she told Allure. “I don’t feel like I only represent black girls; I want to represent anyone who started from nothing and had to work their way up. I want to inspire.”
Jillian Mercado is one of the few models in the fashion industry who is differently abled.
In 2014, Mercado was featured in a modeling campaign for Diesel, which led to her signing with IMG the following year. Since then, Mercado has been in campaigns for Nordstrom, Target, and even Beyoncé’s merch.
With her new-found fame, Mercado has been open about her muscular dystrophy.
“Working with IMG, my goal is to make it so that I am not the model in the wheelchair and I’m just the model,” Mercado told Vogue. “If I can do big shows like Alexander Wang or Chanel and not be seen as the token girl, that goes a long way toward challenging perceptions. There is still so much change that needs to happen, but I want to make way for whoever has that mindset that I had when I was younger. I want the people who were hesitant in pursuing fashion because of the way that people might perceive them to know there is a place for them.”
Staniel Ferreira has become a popular runway and cover model.
Although it took Ferreira five years to sign with an agency, he eventually booked a gig for a Lady Gaga campaign. Since then, he has appeared in Paper Magazine and Stark Magazine. Ferreira also walked the runway for The Blonds show in 2016.
“Our industry is still working towards accepting cultural differences. In fashion they’re starting to realize that money doesn’t have a color,” he told Models.com. “Everyone from all cultures will purchase things.”
Precious Lee was the first black, plus-size model to appear in Vogue.
Lee was discovered at an open casting call in Atlanta, Georgia, at 18 years old. Since then, she has worked with famous brands like Target, Lane Bryant, Saks Fifth Avenue, and Nordstrom. Lee was also the first black, plus-sized woman to be featured in Sports Illustrated and Vogue.
“I think the focus should be less on trying to figure out how we feel about our bodies,” Lee told Harper’s Bazaar. “I went through this phase where I had to wear certain designers on red carpets just to prove them wrong. I’m a naturally fashionable person. I’m not afraid to mix and match and do high-lows from price points to colors to prints, but it’s important to remain within my truth and wear things that I want to wear without focusing on trying to convince designers that curvy women are worthy enough for their product.”
Corey Baptiste is one of the most sought-after male models in the industry.
Baptiste jumped into the world of modeling at 19 and immediately signed a deal with DKNY. He later worked with Banana Republic, Ralph Lauren, and Benetton. Out magazine calls him a “money guy,” which is a group of male models that rake in large amounts of money. Baptiste is the only black model in that elite group.
“During Milan Fashion Week about two years ago, a casting director stood up and told me in front of everyone that they weren’t looking for a model of color at the time,” he told Out. “Every day I wake up, I may think of giving up or that my time is done because African Americans have a limited number of jobs in this business. But I see the door opening a little bit, and I’m here to knock it down.”
Maria Borges was the first model to walk in Victoria Secret’s Fashion Show with her natural hair.
In Borges’ first season in the modeling industry, she booked 17 shows during New York Fashion Week, launching her into stardom. Since then, she developed a special bond with Givenchy’s Riccardo Tisci and became exclusive for that fashion house. The Angolan model also worked with Tom Ford, Ralph Lauren, and Marc Jacobs.
“I have so many goals for myself in my career, so many,” Borges told Vogue. “Obviously I’d love a Vogue cover, and it’s important to me in the future to do charity work in Africa, where I’m from.”
Valentine Rontez is also known for modeling for several high-end brands.
Over the course of his modeling career, Rontez has walked the runways for Balmain, Versace, and Philipp Plein. He has appeared in V magazine and Elle, while also working with Nautica and Ralph Lauren for marketing campaigns.
“I feel like it all depends on your perspective on things. Regardless of my color from the outside, I’m a human being, we should all be looked at and respected the same,” Rontez told Models.com. “Change is happening everyday. America is equality, all forms of life together. Every culture has something to offer. We’re all united. We’re here to make a statement that we need each other to survive.”