Sunday, 18 October 2009


Her career boasts one of the most famous ‘discovery’ stories in modern modelling history. Born 3 August 1990, Jourdan Dunn was found by a model scout whilst out shopping with her friend at the Hammersmith branch of Primark.

She was approached by an agent from top agency Storm, the same agency that is also responsible for launching Kate Moss’ career, and Jourdan signed with them in 2006.

In February 2007, Jourdan made her runway debut at the Autumn / Winter shows for Marc Jacobs, Ralph Lauren and Salvatore Ferragamo in New York and Milan. In September, Vogue named her a ‘rising star’.

Jourdan’s success continued, with runway appearances for Alexander McQueen and Hermes in Paris, and in February 2008, Dunn got the attention of the mainstream press when she became the first black model to walk for Prada in over ten years. The last black model to do so was Naomi Campbell.

The year continued to bring new honours, including accompanying designer Peter Som to the Costume Institute Gala in May, scoring her first Italian Vogue cover in July and also undertaking an ad campaign with British high-street giant, Topshop.

The cool, street-wise series of images, shot by Emma Summerton, launched Jourdan into the big-time: every fashion-conscious teenager now knew her name and face.

The lucrative professional relationship between Dunn and Summerton continued with editorials in Italian Vogue, and in November, a cover of British Vogue, with Dunn appearing alongside Eden Clark and Rosie Huntington.

In November 2008, Jourdan was nominated for and won ‘Model of the Year’, as voted for by the British Fashion Council. She topped the year off with a cover of French Elle. In February 2009, she opened the Autumn / Winter collection for Jason Wu, plus appearing in shows for Oscar de la Renta and Vivienne Westwood. She also had the honour of closing shows for Betty Jackson, Issa, Thakoon and Twenty8Twelve.

This brief summary of Jourdan’s career to date (temporarily on hiatus due to a pregnancy announced in July this year, with the baby due in December), shows that designers are definitely willing to hire (and re-hire) a black model.

Race in fashion is a contentious issue – even more so than weight. It has been said with alarming regularity that fashion, as a whole, is racist – deep down to its very core. It is true that even a cursory glance over a variety of fashion publications that the editorial balance is skewed in favour of white models, both in terms of editorial content and ad campaigns.

But the astonishing rate, at which Jourdan’s career blossomed, belies this idea. How can fashion be racist and still rave over beauties like Dunn? Jourdan herself was interviewed by iD magazine and refuted the notion that the industry will only hire a small number of black models at any one time. A brief scan of Jourdan’s friends within the industry also questions this commonly-accepted idea: Emanuela de Paula (Brazil-born), Sessilee Lopez (America), Honorine Uwera (Rwanda) and Arlenis Sosa (Dominican Republic). This is not a roll-call of an industry only interested in promoting a blonde, blue-eyed template of beauty.

These names are not necessarily well-known outside the immediate fashion industry, but Jourdan has certainly not been alone on her rise through the fashion ranks. Chanel Iman has also scored much press coverage as well. The fashion industry thrives on finding new faces – and ethnicity doesn’t seem to be the primary decider in whether a model gets signed by an agency.
By choosing to focus on Iman and Dunn almost exclusively, the press have been omitting other girls who are making a name for themselves. Models like Emma Pei and Toni Garr may not be household names, but they are well-respected and making a handsome living.

So Jourdan is right to challenge the idea of only a few black models working at any one time – we have ample evidence to the contrary. What is more puzzling, and perhaps more unsettling, is the question of why these girls aren’t better known? Is there a cap on success in the fashion industry if you are not white?

We all know that modelling is basically a sales pitch in heels. Whatever is being modelled, sells not just the thing itself, but an aspiration, an idea attached to it that if you buy this dress / bag / tube of lipstick, you will become more beautiful by association.

A quick glance of Jourdan’s CV throws up something troubling. She has had plenty of success on the runways and in landing high-profile editorials and covers, but aside from affiliations with high-street stores Benetton and Topshop, Dunn has no other campaigns to her name. True, Jourdan hasn’t been working that long, but if you compare her CV to that of peer Karlie Kloss , who has already landed a coveted fragrance contract with Marc Jacobs, you can’t help but think that something else is going on here.

We consider ourselves to be living in a multi-cultural society, but the facts do not compare well when we look a little closer at the wider fashion world, beyond the runways and the editorials of high-fashion. If fashion truly does reflect what is going on in society today, then why was Jourdan the first black model to walk for Prada in over a decade?

Many fashion insiders are reluctant to get drawn into the racism debate, not necessarily because they have something to hide, but because with this issue, there are no easy answers.

Casting agents for the big cosmetic firms hire faces on one key component: sell-ability. The controversial, but indisputable fact, when unit sales are directly compared, is that a white / non-ethnic model will sell more tubes of mascara than a black model. This then creates a vicious circle: cosmetic companies may want to go with someone more ethnically-diverse like Jourdan or Chanel, but if a white model sells more products, they have to make a decision based on economics, not aesthetics. By not using a black model, the cosmetic company are then continuing the self-fulfilling prophecy that a white model sells more units, and are then even less likely to use a black model for their next campaign. Consumers then only see white faces in beauty campaigns, and subconsciously make the semantic leap that a paler face is to be interpreted as inherently beautiful. They then respond by buying the tube of mascara, again fulfilling the prophecy that in terms of sales, a white model is a more profitable signing.

This leads back to one question. Why are cosmetic companies using white models so much in the first place? Is it because the public can’t see a black model as being beautiful, and by implication, aspirational? Does the problem lie with the cosmetic companies, or with us, the consumers? Are they in fact only following the agenda that we have set out for them? Who really decides what is beautiful? The problem appears to lie not with reality, but with perception.

For centuries, the template of beauty was not predominantly, but exclusively, white. Beauty was built around European features: big, child-like eyes, small noses and chins. The differing facial proportions on faces outside Europe – Africa, India and Asia – were not considered beautiful because they did not match the European ideal.

The preference for petite features is of course grounded in issues not just of race, but of power and inequality. Those who had the lion’s share of the power set the terms of what was considered beautiful. If you did not match the ideal, you were not beautiful – even if in reality you were actually better looking than your European counterparts: reality and perception – very different things.

The uncomfortable truth is this template has been clearly internalised by all of us. Why else would sales of a magazine cover featuring a black model perform so badly in comparison to those featuring a white model? Even now, it appears the struggle for equal and comparative pegging in the modelling industry is lagging behind the times. If lighter skin and features that lean towards European proportions are still seen as preferable, is there any hope for the industry at all?

The fact that the race issue is being discussed so openly means that there has been a revival of interest on diverse kinds of beauty within the modelling industry. Jourdan Dunn, Chanel Iman, Devon Aoki, Alek Wek, Arlenis Sosa and Emma Pei are proof that the fashion industry is more than willing to employ ethnically-diverse models – not as a gimmick, but because these models are extremely good at what they do.

While this is a debate that will continue to spark discussion, what is good news for models entering the industry today, is that the fashion world itself has no qualms about hiring new faces from around the world.

Part of this has to do with new designers such as Peter Som, Derek Lam and Thakoon coming from diverse backgrounds themselves. Their own history and personal understanding of the race issue makes them in turn more aware – and awareness is the key to breaking down barriers.

American designer Jason Wu used an array of black models for his recent Autumn / Winter and Spring / Summer runways to prove this point. To say that fashion does not regard ethnically –diverse models as being beautiful is simply not true. The problem is with perception: and that problem is centred squarely on consumers’ shoulders. We are the ones not buying it; we still prefer a magazine with a white model on the cover and vote with our cash accordingly. Cosmetic companies choose primarily European models not because of some hidden agenda, but because it is what sells. If we really are serious about wanting to see a more even representation of models out there, on the catwalk, in magazines and campaigns, a conscious effort is required to make it happen.

This changing of attitudes will take time, but there is definitely cause for optimism. The flourishing success of Jourdan Dunn’s career shows how high-fashion is willing to embrace new talent. There is no easy solution to the race issue, but while designers and editors continue to explore the wealth of diverse modelling talent available, there is hope that perception will eventually follow reality. The whole point of beauty is that it is beyond definition.

Fashion likes to think of itself as cosmopolitan and part of that attitude is its openness to new kinds of beauty from around the world. But it will take the continued efforts of high fliers such as Jourdan Dunn to keep reminding us that fairness and equality are always in fashion.


Sunday, 11 October 2009


Described by Karl Lagerfeld as ‘one of the best models in the world’, Erin O’Connor brought a very English sensibility to the Parisian world of haute couture.

Born in Walsall on the 9th of February 1978, Erin O’Connor was born into an ordinary, working-class family and growing up, had her sights set on becoming a school teacher.

This all changed when Erin and her classmates were taken on a school trip to Clothes Show Live in Birmingham. Taking its lead from the iconic 80’s television show, the live event is a yearly trade show with top names from fashion, hair and beauty coming together to exhibit and promote their latest products. The event is also routinely attended by scouts from the top modelling agencies, hoping to find someone who has modelling potential.

This is exactly what happened to Erin: already grazing 6ft tall (without heels), the 17-yr-old stood head and shoulders above the crowd. Scouting agent Fiona Ellis from Models 1 spotted Erin immediately and knew she had found something special. She approached Erin, and with a little persuasion, she was signed up and began the business of becoming a model.

Erin had all the raw materials – angular, androgynous features, phenomenal height and a body built to showcase fashion. But it wasn’t until a photo-shoot in Brazil when Erin had her hair chopped off by master-stylist Guido (often seen working on contestants on ‘America’s Next Top Model’), that things began to happen – and happen rather quickly. Erin’s new, super-cool look grabbed attention from Paris, the home of haute couture.

Where Erin found her home was with Chanel. Walking the ready-to-wear runway for the label in early 1997, and then progressing to Chanel Couture in July the same year, O’Connor had found her niche. That editorial awkwardness, with the help of a confidence boost from booking shows with Fendi and Gucci, transformed into insouciant glamour that was perfect for couture.

Catapulted from her discovery at Clothes Show Live to the very top of the fashion industry, her strong features and faultless posture made haute couture the natural choice for O’Connor.
Possessing an unusual face, Erin lacked the poster girl prettiness of Niki Taylor or Kate Moss, herself just hitting the big time. Erin’s high-fashion, aristocratic bearing whispered of sophisticated, Wallis Simpson-style glamour. Erin had more in common with the Dior couture models of the 1950’s than her own peers: she wasn’t able to rely on perfectly-set features, but for couture this wasn’t necessary. However, a cast-iron self belief would prove essential.

Couture is the most difficult branch of fashion modelling to master, simply because the clothing demands so much of the model. Avant-garde and theatrical, couture demands a powerful performance on the runway: even a hint of self-doubt will show on a model’s face and the illusion is lost. Couture requires nothing less than 100% self-confidence, or it will overpower the model wearing it. Ideally the outfit and the model should work together to create a dream-like state of beauty and elegance which is what sells couture to its tiny but wildly affluent customer-base. They want to see the clothes at their most powerful, persuasive and most seductive, and only a good couture model can deliver that.

O’Connor’s unconventional, swan-like quality made her the ideal candidate for selling a $50,000 gown. In an interview with The Telegraph, Erin admitted that she never saw herself as the type of model who excels at modelling lingerie or swimwear. She was more of a specialist look, and had to tailor her career aspirations accordingly. Not being that classic all-rounder did her no harm whatsoever. By leaning on her strengths, O’Connor made her name by recognising her limits. She would never be anyone’s idea of a lingerie model, and that was just fine with her.

Her career, after the early triumphs of Paris, went on to even greater heights. She won ‘Model of the Year’ at the 1999 Elle Style Awards, and the year after that, signed a fragrance contract with Jean Paul Gaultier. The perfume, ‘Fragile’ played up to Erin’s image as the face of high fashion and even scored her a guest role on sitcom ‘Absolutely Fabulous’ in 2001.

Erin continued, for the next five years, to walk ready-to-wear and couture runway shows, even opening the Valentino Couture show in 2005, and closing the Christian Dior Couture show the same year. Erin’s affiliation with the world of couture was firmly set.

Britain doesn’t have a strong track record of producing great couture models, and Erin was not only a working-class heroine to aspiring models, but a tall, proud vision of what Britain had to offer the fashion industry. During the Nineties, the British fashion scene was not on such firm ground as it is now. A few standout names commanded respect, but otherwise it played second fiddle to New York, Paris and Milan. Good, but not quite good enough.

The arrival on the scene of not just a passable couture model, but a truly great one, could have not been more fortuitous. Erin O’Connor showed the fashion world that Brits were not just about avant-garde: they could do sophistication too. Ten years on from her discovery at Clothes Show Live, Erin was still an active presence in haute couture: opening and closing shows not as a ‘former name’, but as a working and bookable model.

With the recent celebrations surrounding London Fashion Week’s 25th anniversary, it is clear how far British fashion has come, and how differently it is regarded by the world’s fashion press. Names such as Christopher Kane, Richard Nicoll and Gareth Pugh are at the fore-front of modern fashion. London will always have an avant-garde flavour, but what has happened over the past five years is that it has acquired a level of polish that simply wasn’t there ten years ago.

If Erin’s career finished here, there would be plenty to be proud of. But Erin’s career took an unexpected turn in 2006, when she was invited to take part in a televised ad campaign for British high-street favourite, Marks and Spencer. A hallmark brand, M&S has been a highly visible presence on the high street for 125 years. But with sales falling dramatically, its image needed a drastic overhaul.

Using the best of British modelling talent, the campaign featured Erin alongside Twiggy and Laura Bailey. Loosely based on a ‘James Bond’ theme, the tongue-in-cheek approach won over customers immediately. Glamorous but fun, there was Twiggy flying the flag for the over-50’s, Laura Bailey’s chocolate-box prettiness and Erin’s unique brand of high-fashion, off-centre beauty. The intention was self-evident: the more people M&S could appeal to, the better.
Known chiefly for selling reliable, dependable basics, M&S had no option but to modernise itself and its stock. People’s expectations of fashion stores were evolving rapidly and in order to keep up, M&S had to give the people what they wanted: clothes that were fashion-relevant, fun and good value for money.

The public responded to the advert with immediate effect. Erin’s profile went through the roof. From the rarefied world of Parisian couture, to one of the most recognisable names on the high street, Erin had now done it all. Modelling the revamped high street designs, Erin applied that same couture sensibility to a £99 coat, giving the merchandise a high-fashion gloss that reintroduced the brand to women under 35, a demographic that had previously turned its back on the store. With Erin’s couture cache, M&S made major bank. It was the marketing strategy that saved the store from extinction.

It did Erin’s career no harm either. Applying everything she had learned from haute couture to M&S was a smart move. It gave the store major fashion points for having the guts to hire her in the first place, and made Erin a star. She was no longer the ‘weird-looking’ fashion girl – she had proved that her unconventional look could also take her to the very heart of mainstream fashion. In itself, it was a staggering achievement, but furthermore, was evidence of how fashion had evolved.

Fashion was at last ready to think of modelling in lateral terms: if one of the most successful couture models could sell sweaters to middle-class England, then the idea of segregating models was surely just limiting their potential. The idea of a high-fashion model being unable to do more commercial projects is now a thing of the past.

In 2007, Erin’s career again took a different path. Never afraid to try new things, O’Connor signed on to be Vogue’s blogger. She would write about her own experiences, new projects and offer a true insider’s glimpse into the fashion world.

Two years on, a fashion blog is nothing new. But where Erin’s writing differs from the thousands of commentators out there is that she has lived and breathed the experience. Erin offers a unique viewpoint, and presents a real coup for the Vogue website. In a week where fashion editors have acknowledged that networking site Twitter provided the best running coverage of the Spring / Summer 2010 runway shows, the link between fashion and technology looks set to grow even closer. Those on the inside are well-placed to push fashion further into the digital age as it grapples with survival both now and beyond the recession.

Erin O’Connor’s career has taken her from high-rise to haute couture. Her chance encounter with model scout Fiona Ellis in 1995 took a working-class girl right to the heart of the modelling industry. Erin showed Paris that British girls could master the poise required for couture modelling, and that an aristocratic swagger was not necessarily reliant on a double-barrelled surname.

Defying expectations has been the business of Erin O’Connor’s life. By side-stepping convention, she built a career based on her strengths. Erin surpassed the limitations of her unusual look, and found a home working for the very best designers in contemporary fashion. Doing all this while keeping a cool head is no easy task, but Erin did it. Scour Google for past and present interviews, and time after time, journalists enthuse about a talent that hasn’t lost the will or ability to be nice.

Erin reached those giddy heights in her career precisely because she stayed grounded. By staying true to herself, inside and out, Erin wised up to the fact long ago that nice girls don’t always have to finish last – and just look at where it took her.