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How many swallows?

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Sinem Bilen-Onabanjo


While in the northern hemisphere we are slowly plodding through one of the hottest summers on record, in the world of fashion it is September already. And of course the talk has turned to September covers, the most prestigious print real estate in fashion.

This September sees not one, not two, but seven black cover women on covers. Rihanna with throwback skinny eyebrows on the cover of British Vogue, Beyonce sporting her floral crown on the cover of US Vogue, Lupita N’yongo looking positively new season on the cover of Porter, Slick Woods unveiling her baby bump on the cover of ELLE UK, Tracee Ellis Ross exuding joy on the cover of ELLE Canada, Zendaya serving hotness in animal print on the cover of American Marie Claire and Tiffany Haddish wearing the rainbow on American Glamour.

Many have taken this as a sign of changing times and the harbinger of a diverse future when we will get to see more black women on the covers of fashion magazines, the erstwhile bastions of white excellence.

Since taking the helm at the 102-year British Vogue in November, Edward Enninful has championed #blackgirlmagic featuring Oprah Winfrey and Gugu Mbatha-Raw, as well as models Adwoa Aboah, Adut Akech, and Selena Forrest on covers. His latest cover is another milestone for the publication in that Rihanna is the first black woman ever to cover the magazine’s September issue.

It wasn’t that long ago that the British Vogue was wary of the very diversity the current editor-in-chief seems to celebrate edition after edition. Last November, former Alexandra Shulman told The Guardian the reason only eight Black women covered the magazine during her 25-year tenure was “people have to recognize the person who you’re putting on the cover.” According to The Guardian, “if she put a Black face on the cover who was not instantly recognizable,” Shulman says the magazine “would sell fewer copies. It’s as simple as that.”

Despite Enninful’s single-handed efforts and an evident turn of the tide, does one swallow a summer make?After all, haven’t we seen this trend on the runways of New York, London, Milan, Paris? One season there is that one black girl who books all the shows and all next season’s campaigns. Then almost overnight she disappears. Or there is a flock of girls who rule the runway back to back in all the fashion capitals, then sit out the next five seasons on the bench. What about what most Western designer consider the quintessential African girl look? Short natural hair, chiselled features, burgundy complexion, long limbs… Once they reach the quota of two ‘quintessentially’ African girls amidst a sea of 35 Caucasian ones, that’s it. Good luck to the next black girl.

In a world where Oprah has become one of the most valued personal brands, Beyonce one of the biggest pop icons of our time, Rihanna is set to topple Kylie Jenner’s throne as the top celebrity turned beauty entrepreneur, why is it that black girl covers are still a rarity to celebrate as we bulk buy them of the shelves, double tap them all over Instagram and churn out think piece after think piece?

In the year 2018, 53 years since Donyale Lun became the first black woman to cover a magazine (Harper’s Bazaar in 1965), 102 years since the first ever edition of British Vogue are we really celebrating the first ever black September cover girl of British Vogue or the first ever black photographer (Tyler Mitchell endorsed by Queen Bey) to get a cover commission in the American Vogue’s 126-year history?

Meanwhile it was only a couple of months ago the talk of Vogue Africa was revived and served up again like cold porridge when Naomi Campbell reignited a popular petition to bring Vogue Magazine to Africa.

According to an article published in Teen Vouge in April, the apparent hesitancy to introduce Vogue to Africa could be a result of widespread misconceptions that suggests Africa lack’s an adequate luxury market, or as Naomi cites, the false narrative that Africa does not have the appropriate infrastructure and staff to properly maintain luxury institutions. “Africa has never had the opportunity to be out there and their fabrics and their materials and their designs be accepted on the global platform. It shouldn’t be that way,” Naomi told Reuters. “People have come to realise it is not about the colour of your skin to define if you can do the job or not.”

Meanwhile, there is a fast emerging middle class in Africa and in its diaspora, hungry to celebrate #blackgirlmagic whether it is Fenty beauty outselling all of the Kardashians put together, or Lupita Nyong’o, Danai Gurira and Letitita Wright taking on the world in Black Panther, Shonda Rhimes and Amma Asante weaving black narratives on the small and big screens.As the new generation gets more ‘woke’, #blacklivesmatter more, black dollar gains leverage, the fashion and beauty world will wake up to the selling power of melanin. And I guarantee you it won’t take another century. When it does though, are we still going to celebrate the very establishments that denied us diversity for decades?


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Sinem Bilen-Onabanjo
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