They say that there are two sides to every story. The story here is the story of Ajak Deng, a highly-successful and undeniably gorgeous Sudanese model who has been making waves on the fashion circuit for several seasons. However, despite her flawless skin, winning smile and model figure, Deng was apparently rejected by Balmain for (in her words) ‘being too black’. In a series of expletive-ridden tweets, (one of which was a rather brilliant “Fuck you and fuck you. Balmain.”) Deng also implied that this kind of mentality is still commonplace in the fashion industry, hinting that ‘a lot of other black models would rather kiss ass than be honest’. This statement was marvellously re-iterated when Balmain, unsurprisingly, refused to comment on the issue. The only way to reach a justified conclusion is to hear both sides of the story – so why is the fashion industry still silent on such an important issue?
|Ajak Deng for i-D magazine|
The Balmain show was not completely void of ethnic models - amongst the highest-profile women on the runway were fashion powerhouse Joan Smalls and London-born Jourdan Dunn, another model who has spoken out about her experiences with race in the industry. In an interview with Miss Vogue magazine, Dunn expressed her disgust at the fact that designers are applauded for incorporating one ‘token’ model of ethnicity into their shows; “I find it weird when agents say “you’re the only black model booked for the show, isn’t that great?!” Why is that great? I don’t know why people applaud designers for having only one ethnic model. It’s not like only one type of woman loves fashion”. Dunn and the other black girls in the show all had notably lighter skin than Deng, prompting many to comment that Deng probably just ‘didn’t match the vision’ of the girl that Rousteing had in mind.
|Joan Smalls backstage at Balmain A/W 2014|
It is true that every designer has a 'vision'. Every designer has a vision, but we live in society that has, for the most part, moved past the outdated ‘vision’ of traditional beauty, therefore the runway should no longer be a feast of Aryan beauty. Looking back in history, the majority of the world’s most successful models are successful for the simple fact that they don’t fit these beauty ideals. Alek Wek and Debra Shaw would have commonly been considered ‘too dark’ for the runway, whereas half-Japanese beauty Devon Aoki is similar to Kate Moss in the sense that they were both ‘too short’ for the runway. Even Cara DeLevingne is considered ‘too tomboy’ and Saskia de Brauw made a bold statement by shaving her head and, consequently, igniting her career. There are many models on the runway – there are hundreds of shows at each Fashion Week and hundreds of designers which show a range of models, but not all of these models are well-known. Most fade into a sea of anonymity, whereas the Devons and the Saskias of the industry make an impression by being notably different. These women represent the difference between a model and a supermodel – the element of difference which, in turn, makes them more human and more accessible.
|Devon Aoki - Chanel Couture 2008|
Overall, there is an element of progression. Puerto Rican model Joan Smalls is currently one of the most successful models in history, and even in gossip magazines the universal beauty of Lupita Nyong’o is earning her a reputation as one of the most beautiful (and fashionable – Nyong’o appears to be the new muse of Miuccia Prada) women in the world. Ajak Deng’s struggle with Balmain is a disappointing reminder that designers still use the crutch of their ‘artistic vision’ in order to justify excluding models of colour from their runways. Deng’s brilliantly fearless response and the subsequent controversy surrounding it has once again re-introduced the race debate into the fashion industry and, hopefully, given other black models the courage to react in the same way. Deng has shown personality and linked her name to the cause – the element of personality shows that she has the true makings of a supermodel.