In the latter half of 2013 a conversation reopened that has been raging on/off – depending on your viewpoint – for a number of years.
Jordan Dunn Tweeted of her removal from the Dior couture show stating, “I'm normally told I'm cancelled because I'm 'coloured'…”; activist and former model Bethann Hardinson sent letters to the governing bodies of the four big fashion weeks, accusing the industry of racism; Rick Owens used a group of predominantly black step-dancers in his SS14 womenswear show.
Subsequently Kenyan born Malaika Firth became the first black model to appear in a Prada advertising campaign since Naomi Campbell, almost 20 years ago; Cindy Bruna has since joined her, as last week’s SS14 campaign preview displayed.
But while they have so far been the mouthpiece for the campaign, the issue of racial diversity within the fashion industry goes further than female models.
Taking place during London Collections: Men, new exhibition ‘Dapper Gents’ looks at things differently, instead celebrating the diversity within British menswear by photographing black men with significant personal style.
“I realised how many amazing talented black men were around me and was frustrated about how it all seems to be all about the girls,” says the project’s founder and curator, Malcolm Mafara.
With a name stripped from streetstyle blogs – “#DGLDN makes a killer hashtag right?” – Mafara set about finding his guys, via, Google? “No, I’m kidding. I already had a few guys in mind when the idea formed but then I spoke to a few people who threw some names and I realised that I had actually worked with a few of the gents in the past. So I dropped them a line, and then as Tom and I shot the guys we got more suggestions.”
And people’s reactions when you approached them? “It was quite a mixed bag. At the beginning everyone thought I was being a bit naïve by trying to get all of this together within the space of a month, but it all seems to have come together. Some of the guys were a bit hesitant, others didn’t even respond, but the majority showed a lot of support and for that I am forever grateful.”
A young black man and himself a former model, Malcolm has worked in the industry for longer than his years would suggest; he’s still south of 20. Previously assisting, writing and styling at a fashion title, more recently his job role has been as a consultant for a model agency.
“I think it’s important because it illustrates to others (especially young people) that the industry can lead to a lot of success if you are a creative person,” he says of Dapper Gents. “Schools tend to give the impression that if you don’t do well in certain subjects then you’ll end up working in a bog standard job with no career path. But no, if you have the talent, support and right mindset you can go very far.”
Photographed by Thomas Oliver Betts, the black and white portraits include Agi Mdumulla of Agi & Sam and Adrien Sauvage, and reveal an honest account of how black men dress today, albeit a selective proportion.
Despite differing end results and varied intentions, the shared subject matter makes the project reminiscent – superficially at least – of Simon Foxton and Jason Evans’ ‘Strictly’ series, which first appeared in i-D magazine in 1991 and today hangs (partly) in the Tate’s permanent collection. “We were trying to break down stereotypes,” Evans has since noted.
On the subject of racial diversity, Mafara suggests business is the only real contender: “In my opinion, it all comes down to the consumers. It’s about what the general public reacts to and if a white model sells more then at the end of the day this is a business. But,” he clarifies, “Sometimes it’s about taking a chance and changing people’s perception of beauty.”
As for the girls making the initial stance, the Glaswegian reckons, “They’re hot, intelligent and want to stand up for what’s right, and for a while they have been the centre point of quite a bit of the discrimination. But as I have come to realise, a lot of the men have been championing the cause in their own way behind the scenes.”
Malcolm’s personal favourites include Agi, Angel Nokonoko, Cobbie Yates, KK Obi and O’Shea Robertson.
Growing up he says he forgo style icons for comfort (which today translates as skinny jeans and blazers), and his own understanding of the word dapper is “(for a man) neat and trim in dress and appearance.”
Words: Zoe Whitfield
‘Dapper Gents’ private view takes place on Wednesday 8th January; more information can be found at www.facebook.com/DapperGentsLDN.
Malcolm would like to thank Thomas Oliver Betts, Timothy Holloway, Greg Bartlett, FM London, Taylor Bloxham, Nokia and Doreen Mafara.