On Friday 20 October 2023, The Sydney Morning Herald reported that a group of 13 black models are refusing to walk any runway shows or participate in any casting calls for Melbourne Fashion Week, which is taking place between 23 and 29 October.
The models are participating in this strike to bring attention to the racial discrimination they have faced in the Australian fashion industry. This includes instances of racial slurs in their presence, receiving derogatory comments about their hair from hairdressers, and facing wage disparities when compared to other white models.
Some of these models even pointed out that they had not encountered discrimination this severe in other spaces, such as in the US or in Europe.
“In London, New York and Paris, you could not get away with what the fashion industry is doing here and how it treats Black models, but they don’t seem to care or want to change,” South Sudanese-born model Nylow Ajing told the newspaper.
As many of you already know, both the US and the UK are not exactly hallmarks of diversity, inclusivity, and the fair treatment of coloured models. In fact, models in both nations have voiced accusations of racism, abuse, and unfair practices, due to the industry, or the broader cultural climate.
These accusations came from figures as high up as British supermodel Naomi Campell, who once expressed her disappointment stating: “It’s disappointing to hear that models of colour are still encountering these same issues all these years later.” Consequently, it is shocking that more than a dozen Black models are portraying these fashion weeks as more tolerable in comparison to Melbourne.
“Black models doing Australian fashion is a form of self-destruction,” Sydney-based Awar Malek told The Sydney Morning Herald. “It is absolutely the most traumatising, and dehumanising, underpaying, and overall mentally draining week and I have no desire to continue to participate,” she continued.
One recurring topic in their statements is hair discrimination. This issue has also been a burning subject in the UK fashion industry, with models stating that they experience microaggressions due to their afros and are frequently encountered by hair stylists who do not know how to work them. As a result, many end up doing their own hair for shows.
South Sudanese model Nyaluak Leth stated: “In 2019 behind the scenes at Sydney Fashion Week, one of the Black models approached me and asked me to braid her hair and I said ‘but darling, there are so many empty seats in the hair section,’ but I could tell that she was really reluctant to even ask for help… Because she didn’t trust that anyone knew how to do her hair and she was definitely right.”
After the Black Lives Matter protests and multiple accusations of abuse, appropriation and exploitation that were hurled against industry titans, the fashion industry said it was committed to change. This change was regarded as necessary in a sector that prides itself on individuality, cultural exchanges that further innovation and creativity, and outperforming society to redefine culture and push the boundaries of progress.
These protests show that this change has not been accomplished yet.
29-year-old model Jeffrey Kissubi told the BBC that the idea for the boycott started a few months ago after a group of models shared their experiences of racism at another event.
“I felt like in the past when one of us has come forward to talk about our experience, it’s always been dismissed. But when a group of us comes forward, it has more impact,” Kissubi stated.
“We’ve come forward, we’ve broken this story not because it’s something we wanted to do—we had to do it because it can’t keep happening,” he concluded.