When you think of African fashion, you think of bold prints, bright colors, and statement pieces — a contrast from what you may find in fashion hubs like Paris or Milan, but a welcome change all the same. While many African models find themselves flocking to cities like New York and London to jumpstart their careers, many still incorporate their African roots into their style, mixing traditional garb with modern trends to create show-stopping, unique looks.
Of course, it’s not always easy for African models to succeed in the fashion industry, which has been known in the past to be discriminatory and even racist at times. Women like Nyadak Thot and Alek Wek had to endure plenty of hardship based on their skin color alone as they climbed their way to the top, but by defying industry standards and succeeding beyond measure, they’ve become role models for generations of black women who often lacked representation in the fashion world.
We’ve compiled a list of our favorite African models — ones who have single-handedly influenced modern fashion, who have fought against discrimination in the industry, who have succeeded beyond measure and have opened the doors for other women who look like themselves. These women aren’t just redefining beauty standards, they’re leading a revolution.
Here are some of the leading African models in today’s fashion industry:
Nyadak Thot, who often goes by the name “Duckie” for pronunciation reasons, is an African model who grew up in Australia as a South Sudanese refugee. She was introduced to the modeling world through her sister, Nikki Perkins, who is also a model. Her sister would drive her to photoshoots and encouraged her to audition for the cycle 8 of Australia’s Next Top Model, where she finished third. Despite her success on the show, Nyadak had difficulty booking jobs in Australia due to her darker complexion and soon decided to move to New York, where she believed she might find more success as a model. It turns out, Duckie was right — she has since done campaigns for Fenty x Puma, Fenty Beauty, Moschino, and Oscar de la Renta.
Adesuwa Aighewi was born in Minnesota, but spent half her childhood in Nigeria with her parents, who are environmental scientists. Before she began her career as an African model, she studied chemistry at the University of Maryland at the young age of 15. It was there that she was discovered by an agent while on-campus. Adesuwa now has an illustrious career walking for Alexander Wang, Louis Vuitton, and Kate Spade, among other influential and legendary designers. Adesuwa also appeared in several Childish Gambino music videos and is currently ranked on models.com’s Hot List.
Before Fatima Siad became an African model, she lived through plenty of hardships in her home country of Somalia. After her two sisters were killed by the Somali army during the civil war, her mother took her, then 13, and fled to the United States. She garnered international fame after she competed in cycle 10 of America’s Next Top Model, where she placed third. After her TV breakthrough, Fatima was featured in Vogue, Elle, Marie Claire, and Cosmopolitan. She has walked for some of the world’s biggest designers, including Armani and Ralph Lauren, and has worked in campaigns for Marc Jacobs and Tiffany & Co. In 2015, Cosmopolitan named Fatima one of the most successful models to come from the Top Model franchise.
In 1995, several years after fleeing the conflict in South Sudan for England, 16-year-old Alek Wek was discovered by a talent agent in a marketplace in Crystal Palace, London. Her career grew quickly, and by 1997, she had won the title of “Model of the Year” from MTV and became the first African model to grace the cover of Elle that year. Soon, Alek was modeling for the biggest players in the fashion industry, including Chanel, Fendi, Yves Saint Laurent, and Givenchy, and redefining beauty standards with every job she took. Alek has been credited as one of the first darker skinned models to achieve mainstream success in the fashion industry, and was considered the first black model that didn’t conform to the Caucasian aesthetic. High-profile celebrities from Oprah to Lupita Nyong’o have praised Alek for giving black woman a role model in a time when there seemed to be so few.
Maria Borges was discovered in 2010 after she placed second in the Angolian edition of the Elite Model Look competition. Two years later she debuted in her first fashion week, walking 17 runways total, and was named Forbes Africa’s Magazine‘s Top Model of 2013. In 2017, Maria appeared on the cover of ELLE, making her the first African model to grace the cover of the magazine since Alek Wek’s appearance in 1997. Maria has walked in every single Victoria’s Secret Fashion Show since 2013 and has walked in shows for Dior, Versace, and Marc Jacobs.
Before Flaviana Matata was an African model, she was an electrical engineering student, though her whole life changed course after she won the first edition of the Miss Universe Tanzania pageant in 2007. That same year, Flaviana went on to become the first contestant from Tanzania to compete at the Miss Universe pageant, where she eventually placed sixth. She moved to New York to pursue her career and has since become named one of the top 10 black models by Essence magazine and one of the top 7 models with the highest income in Africa from Forbes Africa.
Agbani Darego has seen more success in her 35 years that some have seen in their entire lifetime. In 2001, she was crowned the Most Beautiful Girl in Nigeria, and a few months later she competed as a contestant at Miss Universe, becoming the first Nigerian contestant to place among the 10 semi-finalists and eventually placing seventh overall. Later that year, she went on to become the first native African model to win the crown at the Miss World competition. About a year later, she signed a three-year contract with L’Oréal, making her the second Black model to do so, and appeared in some of the highest-acclaimed fashion magazines. In 2010, she launched a Nigerian style and fashion reality show, Stylogenic, and three years later announced her fashion line, AD by Agbani Darego.
Ajak Deng may enjoy the life of a successful African model now, but that isn’t always where she saw herself in the future. In fact, Ajak is a former South Sudanese refugee who originally wanted to join the army until her career adviser said she should give modeling a try instead. She went home to her family, suddenly inspired to give modeling try, and took a two-week masterclass to learn how to walk in heels. She’s appeared in a variety of fashion magazines, including i-D, L’Officiel, but despite her success, she quit the industry due to discrimination and racism. However, she returned to modeling less than a week later after she began receiving messages from devastated fans.
Liya Kebede was discovered when a film director spotted her at the French school she attended in Ethiopia and soon moved to France to pursue modeling. She got her big break in 2000 when she landed an exclusive contract for Gucci’s Fall/Winter show; two years later, she appeared on the May cover of Vogue Paris in an issue dedicated entirely to her. By 2003, she was ranked #1 on models.com and became the newest face of Estee Lauder cosmetics, becoming the only Ethiopian to serve as a representative in the company’s entire history. In 2007, Forbes named her the eleventh highest paid top model in the world, and in 2008 she launched her own clothing line, Lemlem. Liya has also acted in several critically acclaimed films, including Desert Flower and The Good Shepherd.
Halima Aden is a Somali-American model who’s best known for being the first woman to wear a hijab and a burkini at the Miss Minnesota USA competition in 2016, garnering a lot of media attention and earning her a spot as a semi-finalist. Afterwards, she signed on as a full-time model and made her debut in 2017 at New York Fashion Week for Yeezy Season 5. But the Miss Minnesota USA competition wasn’t the only time she defied industry standards and became a trailblazer — she also became the first hijab-wearing model to walk international runways and to be signed to a major agency, as well as the first hijab-wearing model to grace the covers of Vogue Arabia and Allure.
After watching an episode of “The Modeling Agency,” Malaika Firth’s mother encouraged her to try out modeling, and after her first open casting call, she was immediately signed to an agency. Her career officially began at 17, and she soon started modeling internationally, making her runway debut at New York Fashion Week and gaining even more attention when she starred in the Prada fall 2013 campaign, becoming the first black model in 19 years to score a Prada campaign. She now walks in the Victoria’s Secret Fashion Show and represents Dolce & Gabbana and Marc Jacobs, among other designers.