The Chinese-Nigerian beauty has already walked for the likes of Coach, Gucci, and Chanel, but has her sights set on an even bigger future
Open any magazine or survey the runway shots from any major fashion show, and it’s highly likely it won’t be too long until you stumble across Adesuwa Aighewi, the striking Chinese-Nigerian model with glowing, clean skin and dreadlocked hair. She has the kind of face that makes you stop in your tracks – and, chances are, if you follow her on social media, a voice that you’ll want to stop and listen to, too.
Aighewi was born in Minnesota and grew up in Benin City, the capital of Nigeria’s Edo State, but enjoyed a peripatetic upbringing, courtesy of her Chinese mother and Nigerian father’s jobs as environmental scientists. Discovered on campus while undertaking a chemistry degree at Prince George’s County, Maryland, she put modelling on hold in order to finish her studies, before eventually decamping to Los Angeles to focus on her burgeoning career in fashion.
“I’ve learned a lot about myself and the world to a certain extent; I went from getting recognition (for) my intellect to a heavy focus on the physical and it really did my head in,” she says. “I never cared about the way I looked, but being in fashion that’s all there is. I had to learn how to carry and present myself to the world visually and conduct myself as such.”
In an industry built upon unattainable beauty standards, Aighewi is carrying that weight well. Doing things on her own terms, she refuses to compromise herself for her job, and last year decided to dreadlock her hair against the advice of her agency. Warned that some brands may find it too extreme, and that hairdressers may not be experienced in working with it, the model did it anyway. Not only was she booked to open Coach’s 2018 Cruise show, she also walked for the likes of Dior, Gucci, and Chanel over the course of the last year as well as securing a spot on the Dazed 100, with the acceptance – and embracement – of her hair signalling a wider cultural shift towards greater diversity on the fashion landscape.
“In the past, fashion liked black girls to have really long weaves, or really straight hair to emulate white women and ‘fit in’,” she wrote in an op-ed for The Guardian last year. “It’s something that affects female models far more than men. But more recently, black women have been saying, ‘No, I’m not going to straighten my hair.’ There is a growing sense of pride in African Americans and it’s having a trickle-down effect into fashion.”
For the current generation of fashion models, social media has become as much a part of their job as photo shoots or catwalk shows. Many of them now even have their social following listed on their modelling cards. While many have spoken out about how it can limit their success, others have championed it as a way to share stories and call out inappropriate behaviour. Aighewi is positive about social media, pointing out that it gives models a voice and a platform – and autonomy as a result.
“It’s a lovely thing really,” she says of social media. “It lets the model know that they themselves aren’t just objects to be used and discarded. Models also platforms which could reach millions, so why not use it for something?”
It’s this attitude that has been crucial to her success, which has come at a time when diversity and identity politics are taking centre stage on the fashion stage and beyond. Aighewi’s inimitable presence on the catwalk demonstrates that perhaps the industry is finally ready to move away from the Western ideals of beauty that currently dominate towards something more inclusive altogether.
“I want all the covers, all the jobs and, all the exposure. Then I can travel the world and create art – not art for art’s sake, but educational propaganda dressed as beautiful art” – Adesuwa Aighewi
Something that’s hugely important to Aighewi is using her increasingly high profile to “change negative narratives of my people and those like me, and to collaborate with like-minded people to instigate change,” and recently outlined plans for a series in which she travelled across Africa in a bid to alter perceptions of the country. “In today’s day and age, the fastest way to affect change is through media,” she adds.
Despite the transient nature of her job, she is ambitious as ever. “I want all the covers, all the jobs and, all the exposure,” she says. “Then I can travel the world and create art – not art for art’s sake, but educational propaganda dressed as beautiful art.” Indeed, she looks up to inspirational Africans such as Kofi Annan and Patrick Loch Otieno Lumumba (the Kenyan lawyer who served as the Director of Kenya Anti-Corruption Commission), as well as her mother and fellow models Daria Werbowy and Liya Kebede. “They have become more than models,” she explains. “(They are) outliers in the industry and I think that’s something special.”
There’s little doubt that Aighewi is keen dancing to the beat of her own drum. “There is no order or singular path in terms of a girl’s career or a guidebook for said model,” she reflects. Anything can happen but that’s life, you know. I think I’ve got a hold of it now.”