Five women of colour speak up about hidden racism and how to create an equal playing field within the fashion and beauty industry.
Things may be changing – British Vogue has both an editor and publisher who are Black, while the British Fashion Council has just named four POC board directors to push inclusivity to the forefront – but those of us who’ve worked in the gilded, white-washed world of fashion and beauty know that a few high-profile appointments are far from the full picture.
The truth is that many WOC, including myself, continue to face barriers that our white counterparts simply do not. I was born in Hong Kong, have attended international school and English is my first language. As a journalist, I’ve worked across Asia and Europe, but truly faced racism in the UK. I’ve been referred to as ‘too Asian’ when pitching ideas or ‘being too foreign to string a sentence together’ – an assumption, I presume, made solely on my name. Yes, it’s damaged my self-esteem, and made me question my own abilities. And if my story, and those of the women in this feature, are the microcosm of the situation, then here’s the macro – in the UK, 11% of BIPoC people hold roles in the creative industries. To take this point further, only 15 of 495 CFDA members (Council of Fashion Designers of America) are Black.
Here, five women give a global perspective…
Mei Kawajiri, 37
Nail Artist with a client list that includes Gigi Hadid, Dua Lipa and Marc Jacobs
“I knew my calling was to make unique and dynamic nails a reality,” says Kawajiri, who moved from her home city of Tokyo to New York in 2012 to pursue her dream of being an international nail artist. Despite gaining recognition quickly in the US, she experienced people mocking her accent on set. “I had to learn English because I only spoke Japanese and people would copy how I say things and be like, 'Speak English!’”, she says. “I don’t take their comments seriously because I know they can’t do my job as well as I can."
Rather than fully assimilating to an American aesthetic or approach, Kawajiri has embraced her own heritage. “I’m so proud to be Japanese because it’s taught me how to patient. So I do can a detailed job really well,” she says.
My one piece of advice to WOC would be: “Embrace the values from your background because they give you an edge over other people. Sometimes being the odd one out can help you flourish.”
Aanchal Wadhwani, 28
Photographer, Art Director, Model & Entrepreneur
After being frustrated by the lack of representation within the fashion industry in Hong Kong, serial entrepreneur Wadhwani was motivated to set up her own agency.
“When I started Stage Creatives, the main aim was to push diverse talent in all facets of the industry – from modelling to art direction,” she says. There are so still many inequalities within the industry, which she noticed from a young age. “Being an expat is great if you’re Caucasian, but if you’re not, it can be quite difficult to get projects when you start out. It’s not about your skill, but it’s your race that actually throws people off,” she says.
The overall prejudice stems from the unrealistic and narrow-minded beauty standards in society. “It’s hard for me to get clients to start thinking about more than a specific Chinese and Caucasian look. With my agency, I’m really trying to get people to see that even though these talents look ‘different’, they are still beautiful and good at what they do.”
My one piece of advice for WOC would be: “Even though there are fewer opportunities out there for you, be prepared to create them for yourself. Make sure you don’t pay attention to what people think of you and do lots of test shoots to learn your craft thoroughly.”
Trishna Daswaney, 28
Director & Founder of inclusive and disability-friendly beauty brand, Kohl Kreatives
The award-winning entrepreneur’s brand is founded on the idea of tackling inequality and making the beauty industry more inclusive globally. After being bullied at school for her appearance because of her Indian heritage, Daswaney’s mum taught her how to apply make-up at the age of 12.
“When I realised how good make-up made me feel, I knew this was a passion I had to share with the world,” she says. This was the catalyst for starting Kohl Kreatives and the trained make-up artist now carries out free workshops for underserved communities to help people feel comfortable in their own skin.
Amid her successes, there have been struggles about being taken seriously by some of her peers. “I feel that people have been put off by my full name because I’m a minority in a leadership position," she says. "People have acted surprised or pulled faces in front of me. It’s embarrassing because it shouldn’t be this way."
My one piece of advice to WOC would be: “Don’t change yourself for the industry, be the change in the industry. Make sure to be true to yourself and use that to create waves.”
Lauren Nicole Coppin-Campbell, 22
Plus Size Model, Content Creator & Founder of e-zine Fashion Killer
Once she started modelling, Coppin-Campbell quickly realised the lack of representation within the industry - from both a shade and size perspective. “On certain shoots, I’ve definitely been hired as the acceptable showcase of Blackness because of my lighter skin tone and longer hair. It’s almost like my actual talent comes in second and I really have to prove myself,” she says. “It’s difficult because I feel like a white model never has to think about these things. I start to feel uncomfortable when I notice that I’m there on set to tick a box because there’s no one else who looks like me."
She has felt her ‘otherness’ when the camera has stopped shooting too. “It’s upsetting and disheartening on a personal level. I’ve felt that at times on shoots the other models will group together and not make an effort to include me into their circle,” she adds.
My one piece of advice to WOC would be: “We have to work 10 times harder in all aspects of fashion, so create a seat at the table for yourself. Make the change from an institutional perspective to see it trickle down into all aspects of the process.”
Ayisha Onuorah, 30
Fashion Stylist & Casting Director with editorials in BBC, Matches Fashion and Vogue
“In the fashion industry, I feel like some people like to keep doors closed for others and that’s not cool – there’s enough room for everyone,” says Onuorah.
From starting off her career as a child model to working as a stylist, she’s seen racial biases within the industry from a young age. “Tokenism is dominant in the modelling world and this topic is never-ending, to be honest. But it’s something that I’ve learned to live with on the peripheral – finding my own coping mechanisms over the years,” she says.
But there’s another issue bubbling under the surface. “Classism and nepotism is really prevalent especially for us [WOC]. Unpaid internships can make it quite an exclusive career choice and quite honestly a lot of people don’t know where to start,” she says. “There are plenty of people who haven’t had the opportunity to get their foot into the door because they weren’t able to get the right guidance.”
My best piece of advice to WOC would be: “Follow your instincts and be relentless in your pursuit of what it is that you really want. Try not to be intimidated or dazzled by big names and brands because they’re all regular people, too.”