Vanessa Umugabekazi – Tell her no, but this model will do it anyway

On Monday independent model and creative Vanessa Umugabekazi walked in the opening show for New Zealand Fashion Week 2018 – but she very easily might not have: it was only after she protested her right as an independent model to be able to attend castings.

Initially told she’d need an agent to be considered for official castings, she was firm she didn’t want one due to negative past experiences with them. When she did have one, she felt done with being told ‘You’re too short, you can only do commercial modelling, you won’t get booked’, add in extra issues with not being paid properly, she was determined to stand strong in her conviction – she wanted to represent herself. Being the thoughtful, creative writer she is too, she expressed her frustration of not being able to attend NZFW castings as an independent model on Instagram, despite having walked in NZFW before, this time she just didn’t have an agent. Her followers were shocked, in an age where the internet makes self-management logical, they themselves tagged @nzfashionwk in support of Vanessa.

Fashion Week replied:

“Hi Vanessa. Thank you for your reply. We appreciate your passion for casting as an independent model for NZ Fashion Week and will consider your request for next year’s event. As we’ve mentioned, you are welcome to approach designers directly and we wish you all the very best should you choose to do so. Kind regards the team at NZFW.”

Vanessa wrote back:

“We professional independent models don’t lack anything agency represented models do besides not being managed by someone else. We pay our taxes too. NZFW opening up their casting to professional independent models would be a big step in the NZ Fashion and modelling industry recognising and respecting the work of freelancers. I hope the opportunity is offered to us.”

Auckland based designer Turet Knuefermann caught wind of the post and called her in for a casting. A few hours after that she was booked. Knuefermann was the recipient of this year’s Mercedes-Benz Presents Award and officially opened the seven day event.

“It’s funny now being able to model for certain brands or being in certain shows people thought you won’t be able to do – or being the first African girl in a certain show or competition – it’s cool to break all those barriers” – Vanessa Umugabekazi

The current pop culture market celebrates diversity, talks about inclusion and why representation matters. Hash tags like #blackgirlmagic show a global pride and hefty efforts worldwide to create a movement intent on reversing the narrative that fashion is for stick thin, 6ft out-of-this-world rare looking beast women of a lighter complexion. Because #staywoke #woc and online movements for young people of colour, the world of social media makes the terrain look different, but confusingly – social realities still feel the same. This makes modelling a tough place to be for a young woman of colour trying to navigate through castings especially when your face, skin and body is what you’re trading.

“Before I used to chemically straighten my hair and that was easy for hairdressers to deal with my hair at fashion shows or photo shoots then I decided I would go natural and rock my afro. I’d show up to photo shoots or runway shows and hairdressers would look absolutely shocked like what do I do with this – and then they’d just leave me and not do anything to my hair and I’d sit there and think what’s going on.”

“I feel like it’s so important to be more open and to say, ‘Hey, I’ve never worked with an afro before but this is the style we’re planning to do with your hair, could you show me how you would treat your hair?’ Or I’m gonna start and just let me know if I’m doing something wrong or it’s uncomfortable – something as easy as that but yeah, a lot of people are just shocked and just decide to leave it.”

When one steps out from behind the scenes the imagery of black women selling MAC, Gucci, Burgers, Puma, music, high heels, fizzy drinks is all over the world. It seems great – a perfect revolution where women of colour get to play too. It isn’t, quite, not yet. Identity is a big deal to women who tick the ‘other’ box on the census. It has been since they were born, certainly existing before it was trending. It feels like spiritual warfare and a task we all chip away at within our own realms. In Vanessa’s realm, she explores being a young woman of colour on her ‘other’ insta account @popcorngyal. If you scroll back far enough you’ll see that in October last year, she lost her younger sister Cynthia to cancer. Cynthia also modelled, they did it together, both walking in the same show for Wynn Hamlyn at NZFW 2016.

Photographer: Luke Foley-Martin @ NZFW 2016, Wynn Hamlyn

In her time Cynthia achieved a billboard in Auckland’s upmarket shopping hub Ponsonby for Lonely Lingerie and a published shoot in Vogue Italia. For Vanessa, a trip home to her motherland Rwanda seemed like the right thing to do in order to take a break and heal/replenish her soul.

“I went there with this mentality of I’m coming back home to my roots and I just wanted to feel like I’m at home, and I did feel like that, even though people would stare at me because of what I was wearing or my piercings or tattoos – it’s like they could tell I wasn’t raised there. It was cool because I realised why I do certain things the way I do them – like why I’m always late to everything!” She laughs, “But honestly back home it’s so relaxed like people don’t really watch time. Everything just happens as it does and it seems to just flow.”

Vanessa says growing up in New Zealand and going to school here was a beautiful experience; she had friends from all over the world and loved it. She noticed things like “I think Samoans say ‘Iesu’ for Jesus and in Swahili we say ‘Yesu’”.

She also experienced the same indigenous vs pakeha culture that debates whether you should look someone in the eye or not when speaking to them: “Things you do out of respect I’ve seen it in the Maori culture – they’re not allowed to look elders in the eye – same as us that’s rude. With Europeans if you don’t it’s like you’re being a bit dodgy.”

Then there’s the darker side of being an immigrant or in Vanessa’s case a refugee in New Zealand – being told to go back to your country. “That statement – it makes me laugh, it makes me angry – this universe, this earth is for all of us and when someone tells me to go back to my own country I’m like first of all this is my country – cause I’m human and I’m part of this earth – and I was raised here.”

“I don’t let people that say that get away with it easily – they have to be educated and they have to understand that’s not something that you should be throwing around loosely. Just because I’m a different shade to you or was born in a different country doesn’t mean that I don’t belong here – you don’t know my identity.”

Vanessa acknowledges there are extra tasks required as an independent model to book jobs, she’s dedicated to her career and hopeful New Zealand Fashion Week can open its doors to independent models at NZFW castings in the future.

*Follow Vanessa on Instagram

*Vanessa will also be walking in the NZFW 2018 Resene designer shows.

Cover photo by Photographer:

Will @ 35mmnz

MUA: Ruth Baron

Setup and blooms: Rose Rowan

BTS: S E R UM & Vanessa for RAQ APPAREL

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