This summer, Adesuwa Aighewi took a month and a half out of her hectic modelling schedule—which has so far this year seen her star in a Chanel campaign, front the cover of Vogue Thailand and walk for the likes of Dior, Chloé and Fendi—to travel around Africa. The 27-year-old visited Ghana and Nigeria where she grew up until the age of 13, when her brother died and the family moved back to the States. Born in America and of Chinese-Thai-Nigerian descent, Aighewi says that her father instilled African values in his children. “In Nigeria I was never aware of racism, you don’t have all these categories like in America,” she explains. “That’s why I had to go home to Africa this summer, I was tired of being black in a white world.”
Vogue met Aighewi in Lagos—she was in town for GT Bank Fashion Weekend, to give a masterclass on the realities of being a model. From the outset, since she was scouted almost a decade ago, Aighewi has campaigned for better representation in the fashion industry and the safeguarding of African culture. In 2017, she wrote a personal essay in The Guardian about the politics of dreadlocks; last year she released her directorial debut Spring in Harlem—a short film exploring a group of Muslim girls’ relationship with the hijab; and in April, moments before stepping onto the runway of the Dior SS20 cruise show in Marrakech, she insisted on speaking with Maria Grazia Chiuri about her reasons for integrating African artisanship into the collection, posting a video of their conversation on Instagram the following day.
Now she is preparing to launch Legacy Project, an online marketplace where artists and designers from around the world will be able to trade at a fair price. Ahead of the Fashion Awards on 2 December, Aighewi—nominated as Model of the Year—discusses her latest venture and the motivation behind it.
You’ve spoken vehemently about the lack of racial diversity in the fashion industry. Why do you think it’s so slow to change?
When people say that there aren’t enough black models on the runway, it’s not because there aren’t any beautiful black models roaming around, it’s because of demand and supply. Modelling isn’t about you [as an individual], modelling is about selling, it’s about marketing.
Luxury brands are white-owned; the majority of top designers are white and so they cast white models to walk their shows because they are selling to a white demographic. The system simply isn’t made for black models, so when we try to fit into these spaces it’s extremely difficult and takes a lot of mental and physical work—everyone’s trying to fit into a box that the first person made, when we should be making more boxes.
The SS20 runways were the most racially diverse on record (41.5 per cent of castings for major shows went to models of colour according to a study by Fashionspot). Do you think black models are still held to unequal standards and if so, what do you think we can do to change that?
I’m tired of the ‘poor me’ narrative. If we want more black models on the runway then, in Africa, we need need to praise our own people by putting them on the runway—if we don’t do that then how can we expect the rest of the world to respect us? We have to push our own narrative—we, black models, are ambassadors for our race.
There’s a quote by Toni Morrison where she says: ‘The function, the very serious function of racism is a distraction. It keeps you from doing your work.’ People will tell you you’re not smart enough and so you spend your whole life trying to be smarter. I think that if you’re a black model overseas, you have to be the most disciplined; you have to show up to set on time; you have to make sure your hair is in good condition; you have to make sure you’re in shape; you have to be a nice person – that’s very important, you can’t be a diva. That only works for Naomi.
I want to bring out all these constructs—racism is about power.
You were offered an internship at NASA and your younger brother and sister study engineering and biochemistry respectively. Why is it important for you to maintain such interests alongside modelling?
When I was full-time modelling and not doing anything alongside it I felt empty. I came back to Nigeria for the first time in 13 years last year; the same pothole that my father’s car used to get stuck in is still there, my old school has hardly any chalk for the board, there was a kid that fell in the gutter and the water was so high he drowned—this makes no sense, there is no reason for the gutter be that big or for there to be no consistent [supplies]. I went from this, directly into fashion week, smiling for 10,000 cameras and pretending everything is OK, but it’s not something you can ignore. All of my hopes and dreams reside in Nigeria.
So, what are you working on away from the runway right now?
Legacy Project is coming soon, it’s really stressful and a lot harder than I ever thought, but I’ve grown so much. The objective is to eliminate the middleman, so that the money from the clothes and accessories we sell goes straight back to the people who made them. African artists, designers and craftspeople have been ripped off by the West—where a lot of things are machine made – for so long; they steal ideas and don’t give anything back.
Here in Nigeria and the rest of Africa there are many traditions, but they’re dying out because they’re not in demand. I’m working with artisans to help modify the designs to make them more desirable. For example, if a basket weaver is making the same tiny baskets the same way they have been made in their village for 100 years, we’ll look at updating the design and the skills used to make them. [We’re creating] hypebeast products, African design to appeal to younger buyers, because that’s where real change comes from.
We’ll photograph them beautifully and sell them at market value on the website—the whole world will have access to their goods; they aren’t just waiting for a tourist to walk by and buy them.”
How do you anticipate Legacy Project will look?
It’s not a charity, it’s me using fashion to address issues and start a conversation on things that need to be talked about. Charity for Africa isn’t working; we don’t see where the money goes, if we did then we would have enough doctors, we wouldn’t have to go and fetch water with a bucket and all of the other problems we face.
What I want to promote is self sufficiency and [economic] sustainability. Africans are some of the most hardworking people, but we need to work smarter. There’s no need for Africa to be suffering at all, every sector needs help and we all have a duty to contribute.
“The plan is to shoot everything in Africa with African photographers. I want us to take charge of our narrative and change the world’s perception of the continent.
What do you hope to achieve through Legacy?
Legacy is about collaboration, I don’t want it to be my narrative, I don’t want it to just be the African narrative (I’m currently designing jewellery with a silversmith from Sri Lanka)—it’s a fusion of ideas and a conversation starter, so we integrate these people in the process and promote admiration and respect for their craft. I think that’s the best way of getting inside people’s heads and getting them to listen, rather than shouting. At this point we are a global village—the sea levels are rising so we’re all neighbors—and we need to think collectively rather than being territorial.