Black models to boycott Melbourne Fashion Week in racism row

Their claims include the use of racial slurs, pay disparity, and ‘tokenism’

Maanya Sachdeva
Thursday 26 October 2023 08:47 BST
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Black models to boycott Melbourne Fashion Week in racism row

More than a dozen Black models are boycotting Melbourne Fashion Week in response to what they claim is industry-wide racism.

The group of 13 performers are refusing to walk for runway shows or participate in casting calls in order to shine a light on the discrimination they face in Australia, which they say wouldn’t be allowed in Europe or the US.

They say the discrimination includes being paid significantly less than their white counterparts, the alleged use of racial slurs, as well as hairdressers talking derogatively about African hair.

“Black models doing Australian fashion is a form of self-destruction”, said Sydney-based Awar Malek, 24, 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.”

South Sudanese-born model Nylow Ajing added: “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.”

The idea for a boycott came after a group of 13 models formed a private group chat to exchange stories and support each other earlier this year.

Nyaluak Leth relocated to the UK where ‘Black models are valued’

“We never wanted to resort to this but there is only so much we can take,” 30-year-old Jeffrey Kissubi told the newspaper. “Maybe the industry will care about our experiences when it comes from a group rather than one individual that they can quickly silence or just ignore.”

They accused brands of “tokenism”, alleging they hire “plenty of Black models” during fashion weeks when they can pay them less.

“It’s the only time they hire black models in numbers, and honestly, it’s because we are the cheapest at this time. It’s good PR for them. It looks like ‘wow, these campaigns are really inclusive’, but the next week and the next month, we have no work, and they go back to whitewashing fashion,” Malek added.

The casting of models at fashion weeks is decided by exhibiting label, and not festival organisers.

A spokesperson for the City of Melbourne said all models participating in the fashion week receive equal pay “with the exception of some higher profile models – including those from diverse backgrounds”.

Leth ‘called out’ the industry in an Instragram post

“We were not aware of any concerns relating to diversity or race involving Melbourne Fashion Week. Discrimination of any kind is not tolerated,” a statement to the BBC read.

Other grievances raised include a lack of diversity across hair and makeup artists, casting agencies, and photographers.

Nyaluak Leth, who relocated to the UK where “Black models are celebrated and valued”, said: “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.”

The models boycotting not just MFW, but the larger industry, have said they’re speaking out despite fears for their career in a bid to bring reform.

“I don’t want to speak out, but I have to, or nothing will change,” Kissubi said.

The chief executive of the Australian Fashion Council, Leila Naja Hibri told the Sydney Morning Herald: “The Australian fashion industry is uniquely placed to actively engage in equitable, diverse and inclusive responsible practice. The Australian Fashion Council is not involved in the running of fashion weeks or brand marketing events, but we do require all AFC Members to abide by our code of conduct.

“This stipulates that we do not tolerate any form of discrimination or inappropriate conduct towards others based on gender, race, or national or ethnic origin. ”

The Independent has contacted representatives for the City of Melbourne for comment.

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