The modelling agency that’s changing the game

The founder of the street casting agency Lorde Inc talks rebelling against fashion’s lack of diversity – and whether the world is ready for them yet

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Donnika, a streetcast model at Lorde Incvia Lorde Inc

When it comes to diversity in fashion, there’s still a long way to go. Despite the likes of Balmain creative director Olivier Rousteing taking a stand against majority white casting decisions (“What the fuck, you put just one black girl in to make sure you’ve ticked a box?” he told us last year) recent figures counted roughly eight out of ten models walking the Fashion Week runway as being white. Sure, progress is being made – see Rihanna’s recent appointment as the first black spokesperson for Dior – but these milestones can feel well overdue. The industry is still wide open for representation that doesn’t marginalise or exclude minorities.

Cue Lorde Inc – a London-based street casting modelling agency pushing models of colour to the forefront. Established in 2013 by arts history grad Nafisa Kaptownwala, the platform insists that mainstream fashion imagery reflect what’s really out there in society. Their roaster boasts young talents from across the world, championing features (thighs, armpit hair, acne scars…) that rarely escape the Photoshop wand – a by-product of scouting via cafés and Tumblr. Frustrated with the pervasiveness of all-white imagery, Lorde Inc looks ready to induce a paradigm shift in fashion thinking, where diverse casting evolves from tick-box criteria to second-nature. Here, Kaptownwala shares her thoughts on the current fashion climate, it’s politics and ridding the industry of ignorance. 

Carole White, founder of Premier Model Management, recently stated that diversity in fashion hasn’t improved much over the years. Why do you think models of colour are still absent from runways? 

Nafisa Kaptownwala: There are a lot of layers and issues that play into that. One part of it is casting agents feel like most models of colour don’t “suit their look”, which is just code for models of colour don’t offer diverse looks, or their look isn’t multifaceted. I once had a conversation with a casting agent and he was talking shit about Naomi Campbell and I brought up the fact that she has a point, that very few models of colour walk, and he responded with: “Because we need girls that actually know how to walk and these black girls aren’t cutting it”. Clearly, there is a pretty big issue here. People’s perception of race is completely skewed. Of course women of colour can walk, it has nothing to do with their ability to perform. All models are expected to adhere to a prototype, but this denies models of colour the ability to participate.

Would you put this ignorance down to lack of knowledge or just pure laziness? 

Nafisa Kaptownwala: Both. People lack knowledge cause they’re lazy. And people are lazy ’cause they benefit from certain privileges that never ask of them to peer into the perspectives of the disadvantaged. It comes up every fashion week. I feel like people are never not talking about it but no one really wants to challenge the status quo.

Is fashion always inherently political? How do you think fashion can be used as a kind of resistance? 

Nafisa Kaptownwala: I don’t think fashion is always political but it could be. Maybe it should be. I’d like to think it is, but I don’t think most people in fashion see it that way. Fashion is integral to reaching out to the masses though. Whatever we publish in magazines or throw down the runway has a pretty big social impact because everyone is watching, in a way that people aren’t watching the news. People turn to fashion or other forms of visual culture for relief from the heavy shit. I mean, some people in fashion choose to do something with their voice and some don’t. It’s all good though, it doesn’t have to be entirely political. But it does inherently represent our social climate, so maybe that’s a political act in itself.

In what ways is the internet changing ideas of what a model is and what a model can be? 

Nafisa Kaptownwala: I hope that through the Internet people all over the world are getting more acquainted with all types of people, faces and identities and starting to realise how insular fashion is. But also, people online are able to create pretty big followings for themselves and that gains the attention of fashion heads. Take someone like Hari Nef for example; she was big on Tumblr before I saw her on the cover of FRISCHE Magazine. And I’m not entirely sure what order it came in, but since Hari was able to cultivate a following for just being her, fashion started to recognise that. Now she’s everywhere, which is hella important cause it’s opening up the possibilities of who gets to participate in fashion.

Tumblr in particular is interesting – it’s saturated with white-hipster-girl images but has also created spaces for community and resistance (#blackout being an awesome retaliation against the platform’s whiteness)...

Nafisa Kaptownwala: Yeah, absolutely. Bless black Tumblr. They have such a massive presence on that website, it really shuts up a lot of fuckery. There is so much importance in community. I went to university in Montreal at a really white school. Often, I would be the only non-white person in my 100+ lecture halls and Tumblr was my saving grace. It’s such an essential place for other marginalised people to reach out to one another and establish a sense of solidarity and support for each other’s experiences and ideas. But also Tumblr puts people on blast when they’re slipping, fosters progressive thought, and gives you certain people’s insight that you may not have access to otherwise.

“I hope that through the Internet people all over the world are getting more acquainted with all types of people, faces and identities and starting to realise how insular fashion is” – Nafisa Kaptownwala

Do you feel the industry is feeling pressure from these spaces to change up the game?

Nafisa Kaptownwala: Totally. Like I said before, it’s a mixture of a lot of things. You’ll get your non-normative model types of people with massive followings, and people in the industry are connecting with them ’cause people are into them. I mean, if they aren’t feeling pressure to change up their game, they’re sleeping.

What do you look for in a model when you’re scouting? 

Nafisa Kaptownwala: I look for people that feel comfortable having their photo taken. Initially, I was motivated by friends of mine that take photos of people that aren’t conventional model types by any means, just in terms of being short or not thin, having acne or whatever – but they would exclusively shoot white people. I found it kind of weird, but never thought much more than ‘that’s pretty whack, but I guess fashion isn’t ever going to include people like me’. My friend Arvida Byström really opened me up to the idea that you don’t have to look like a conventional model to model and that’s not going to compromise the quality of the photo; it’ll still be just as beautiful. I always thought that maybe diversity wasn’t for fashion then realised, nah it could be – people just don’t want to challenge the norm. The point of our broad criteria is that there shouldn’t be criteria at all.

How has the industry responded to your agency so far?

Nafisa Kaptownwala: 
It’s hard to tell. People seem to be into us, but we mostly get love from socially conscious platforms. We’re always asked to participate in projects that have some social justice element, which is cool and we’re about that, but we also want our models to get work with mainstream projects too. I can’t tell if people are ready for us or not.

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