Looking at the models on Lorde Inc’s website, the first thing that strikes you is that these people are, to put it in Zoolander’s words, really, really good looking. Ornello has long plaits and a gap between her teeth. Mohammed is all chocolate eyes and wavy locks. And Urjii is cheekbones and expressive stare. The second thing? None of the models – about 60 in all – are white.
Lorde was set up in May 2014 as the first of its kind – an agency made up entirely of models of colour. It is the brainchild of Nafisa Kaptownwala, a 26-year-old Canadian art history graduate, who began to work on the fringes of fashion and noticed the lack of non-white models. Despite no experience in the modelling industry, she set up Lorde in London with a friend and “the next thing, people were contacting us”. A year on, and Lorde has worked with magazines including Dazed & Confused and i-D, and collaborated with London streetwear brand Cassette Playa.
Despite these relative triumphs, Kaptownwala is pessimistic about diversity in modelling in 2015. “There’s still not a massive demand because this is still a radical idea and people in fashion are not really ready for it,” she says. “How does that make me feel? In general I think, as a person of colour, you internalise. Creating this agency is a way to channel those feelings.”
If diversity – across age, race and size – is always a swirl of debate in fashion, there seems to be the signs of change, with Balmain’s Olivier Roustein (himself mixed race) championing a catwalk of all sorts of ethnicities, Rihanna becoming the first black woman in a Dior campaign and Lineisy Montero walking the Prada catwalkwith a visible afro. “Things are changing but in a minimal way,” acknowledges Kaptownwala. “But there were more models of colour on the catwalk in the 90s than there are now. It kind of goes in cycles.” She praises former model Bethan Hardison’s campaign to increase diversity on the catwalk at major brands but says “two models in a show of 30 models is not enough”.
The dominance of white faces in fashion means her job, compared to that of a model booker at a larger agency, is a lot harder. “They work with everyone and we are fulfilling a niche,” she says. “The beauty standards are that the European is the epitome of what’s marketable, and not just to European consumers. I have spoken to magazines in Japan who only use Japanese and European models.”
Kaptownwala believes the internet – and the culture of selfies – has a role to play in broadening what we think beautiful is, and has made an entire generation comfortable in front of the camera. “People are posing in their own ways, creating their own photo shoots,” she says. “It redefines beauty, opens things up and allows people to say ‘I want to be part of this.’”