Diversity does not exist without inclusivity

During the age of social media, we see the same celebrities, TV shows, trends, and hot topics being pushed repetitively to the forefront of our screens. The constantly evolving algorithms play into our cognitive bias, displaying topics we are familiar with to ensure we’re a guaranteed click away. On the biggest catwalks, being chosen for an ad or runway no longer relies on the skill of the model, but the influence they hold.

Representation is a prevalent topic in the fashion industry that directly affects the modelling industry. Models must be self-aware in the image they present in their jobs and for ethnic minorities, this imagery matters most.

In a diverse city such as London, brands and agencies are responsible for levels of tokenism in the modelling industry. This happens when brands recruit a small number of people from underrepresented groups to give the appearance of sexual or racial equality.

Photographer: Mimi Kafilat

Marc Biakath, 24, and Divine Opare, 25, met on the outskirts of Leeds, where they both attended sixth form at Heckmondwike Grammar School.

Opare who was in the year above says: "With the number of Black kids being able to be counted by hand, it was only natural for us to notice each other."

Biakath and Opare now live together in South-East London, where they both model. The difference between them is that Opare is a freelance model and Biakath is signed to an agency.

Babajide Osikoya spoke to the pair about their similarities and differences regarding how they are represented in the modelling industry.

Marc, because of your race and sexuality, do you feel you must work harder as a signed model?

Marc Biakath: It took many odds for me to get into the industry and be the model that I am. Being Black, queer, and not 6'2 it's been a lot of hard work. Even now, it's not like everything just falls onto my lap.

How much control do you have in shaping your identity under your agency?

M: I have gotten into disagreements with my agency because I'm the type of person who likes to switch my look. I love dyeing my hair, I was doing that a lot, switching it up with braids and cornrows and I think it got too much for the clients.

There isn't enough representation in the industry as a Black male model. They push for one or two dark skin male models, and those are the ones you’ll see mostly.

Divine Opare: I agree with that. There isn’t a spectrum of representation that you’ll like to see.

You’d see the main Black model faces, and you’ll know them to be the main Black models, but when it comes to white models or the majority, you see a range. You get to see a plethora, the brunettes, the blondes, and whatnot.

M: For Black people, it's that one look and there's nothing different from that.

D: It’s the same for any sort of ethnic minority. I know one model, and I'm pretty sure he’s made to represent every Sikh just because he wears a turban.

Because he is a South Asian-looking guy does not mean every South Asian-looking guy is going to resonate with him.

Why do you think an agency would pass on you?

D: It's good and bad because you do have full control, and you get free range.

If I wanted braids, I could just have braids. I dye my hair a lot and I used to have dreads, but I don’t know if it’s to my detriment or not, but at least I can do what feels right to me.

M: That’s a good thing because you're able to free up your look. I'm pretty much stuck in this afro thing. I had an afro when they signed me, my agency wants me to keep it and not change it with too many colours.

As a signed Black male model, do you ever feel like a token, and you’re restricted to that token portrayal?

M: I wouldn't say I feel like a token. I think signing in London is very difficult for Black people. They're not opening the doors for as many Black people as they would for white people.

There are different kinds of Black guys, so there's still a lot more work to be done to represent all those types of Black people.

D: I think tokenism is the thing. They grab that one person and that's it. From what I've heard him say, it sounds like they have the intention of what they want to use them for.

M: They don't have enough Black people at the back to speak up for Black models. In my case, if they had Black people in the background if a client wants braids, then they can just get braids done at the shoot.

D: If you had Black bookers and agencies, you'd understand his hair could be easily amended.

M: It's not just representation for models, it's representation in the management as well.

What do you think needs to be done in terms of the representation of Black models in London?

D: As a freelancer, there needs to be more access to opportunities. The industry needs to increase accessibility and decrease gatekeeping. It can be very mean girl-ish.

M: There needs to be something to protect models. You don't have to be 17 or 18 to be abused or scammed. There needs to be some type of regulation for all agencies.

Where do you see the industry going?

D: A system that needs readdressing or refining is usually because it comes from an even worse place. The modelling industry reflects the society we live in. As society becomes better, the industry will become better. I'd say I'm hopeful.

M: I hope it opens itself up to the variety of representation for all people, not just Black people, to represent more of the masses.

This is from the Kindred. Identity issue, out now. Purchase the copy through the link here.