ACSA fashion show challenges the fashion industry’s lack of diversity

A model in the African and Caribbean Students Association’s fashion show tells her story.

By Tomi Obaro

The Chicago Cubs will never win the World Series. High fashion lacks diversity. These are two facts. But you go to a game anyway, just to say you went, just like you flip through the pages of Vogue at the airport just to say you know the latest trends. Though there have been a few gimmicky outliers, like 2008’s all -black Italian Vogue issue and this year’s all-Asian model casting for Givenchy at Paris Fashion Week, the fashion world has made it clear that a gamine figure and porcelain skin are the ideal. However, a few local Chicago designers have been quietly eschewing this standard for some time now. Their work was showcased at Afro Flair, the African and Caribbean Students Association’s (ACSA) second annual fashion show held in Ida Noyes Hall on Friday, April 1. I was lucky enough to participate as a model.

Well, at first I didn’t think I was particularly lucky. I was tired and hungry and irritable when I walked into the Cloister Club that Friday afternoon. The discovery that the runway didn’t look anything like it had when we had rehearsed earlier in the week only added to my irritability, as did the fact that the room was as empty as Jesus’ tomb, utterly devoid of the noise and bustle I expected only a few hours before a fashion show. I calmly reminded myself that this is how most exciting events startwith a long period of interminable inactivity, followed by incremental moments of adrenaline-fuelled panic, the rush of the few brief minutes on stage, and then the long, happy afterglow of an event well done.

When I arrived at the dance studio, where the models were sequestered, things were starting to look livelier. The designers had come with their entourages. The amount of “Topes,” “Fopes,” and “Ades” on the name tags of these bodacious women, with their three inch pumps, alternating flowing weaves and pinned up natural hair, assured me that the Nigerians were, in typical Naija fashion, representing hard. One model had hooked up her laptop to the dance studio’s sound equipment, and driving African hip-hop began to play. I began to dig it.

A grad student volunteer on hair duty offered her services. She, my friend, my sister and I began taking out my hastily-done twists. We talked about our backgrounds and career goals, as she pinned my hair up in a style that I have since tried (and failed) to replicate. Meanwhile, student volunteers were coming down with plates of jollof rice and plantains for the models, satiating both our hunger and our vanity. Volunteer make-up artists began to work their magic, rendering blemishes away, highlighting cheekbones and bringing out the warm overtones of each model’s skin. We were starting to look jaw-droppingly beautiful. We stopped each other and said, “Wow!” got over our inhibitions and stared unabashedly at ourselves in the full-length mirrors, marveling at how good we looked. “Black is beautiful” may be a phrase loaded with defensiveness, but that day it was really evident. Our diversity in skin color alonefrom onyx to mocha to milk chocolatewas the kind of thing that simultaneously thrilled and angered me. “We are so beautiful,” I thought to myself. Yet it was maddening to think that this beauty was not often recognized, that the sole representatives of ‘our beauty’ were frequently left to the likes of Rihanna and Beyonce.

We began putting on our outfits. Because all the designers were professional, the clothes we wore were truly breathtaking, expertly made and wonderfully creative. Featuring the sartorial talents of Aliti Fashions, Simply Elegant Jewelry, Kwabena Klassics and Temi Ade Designs, Afro Flair was meant to be an extravagant showcase of the best and brightest (literally) of local African designers. And indeed, these designers were skilled; they adeptly used African fabrics like Ankara to craft western-style clothing with a distinct African flavor. Outfits ranged from elegant formal wear to custom-made tank tops and professional blazers. When I first stepped onto the runway, wearing a deep red dress, with an accompanying shoulder accoutrement, I felt immensely proud of the culture and talent I was representing. “Suck on that, Anna Wintour!” I wanted to say. “You too, Carine Roitfield with your inexplicable penchant for blackface!” We walked down the runway looking gorgeous, happy and confident, walking with a grace our school is not famous for.

In addition to the fashion show itself, there were musical performances by the Muntu dancers and local rapper Pmartt, as well as an act by Nigerian stand-up comic Solomon, and a dance by a Belizean dancing troupe. We could only see these acts through the curtain-covered windows behind the stage, but the audience applause, especially after the Muntu dancers, implied that they went well. Of course, there was also lots of good foodfrom njera to jerk chicken, to my old staple: jollof rice and plantains. University students and lots of curious Chicagolanders, who stopped models afterwards to take pictures of their favorite outfits and bought items that the designers put on display after the show, filled the Cloister Club.

Afro Flair was a heartening celebration of African culturethough hardly comprehensive, naturally. It was a great reminder of our diversity and most importantly, damning proof that fashion really is for everyone.