Supermodel Joan Smalls has been bringing attention to long-standing racial injustice in the fashion industry with her voice and through action. Smalls was the first Afro-Latina woman to be the face of Estee Lauder and while the model and activist has been forging her own career, walking in Paris Fashion Week shows from Givenchy, Valentino, Hermès to Fendi, Dior, and Tom Ford, she hasn’t forgotten to bring to light the need for wider change within the fashion industry.
Most recently, Smalls took to partnering with civil-rights group Color Of Change, IMG, and the Black in Fashion Council to create a new initiative, #ChangeFashion, that focuses on fighting racism in the fashion industry. These industry leaders are working to improve talent representation, create creative and digital strategies that are inclusive, as well as sales and marketing practices for minorities. (Color of Change has a similar entertainment-focused initiative, #ChangeHollywood, in partnership with actor Michael B. Jordan, WME and Endeavor.)
For Smalls and many other Black models, they are very aware of how fashion profits from Black culture, taking inspiration from their music and their images to use for industry visuals, all while tiptoeing around issues related to the lack of Black inclusion in the industry.
“It’s a point where you get frustrated, where you give your body, mind, and time to an industry and you feel like, ‘Can you now support us, we’ve been the pioneers of your creativity, of your artistry, and of your inspiration so give us the platform and the voice that we need in order to continue,” Smalls tells The Hollywood Reporter. Since the Black Lives Matter movement took off last summer, the model has sought to call out this cycle that perpetuates, as she calls, “these conscious behaviors.”
After completing college in Puerto Rico, Smalls, pursusing her modeling career, has had her fair share of non-inclusive experiences. “When I started I would go to 10-15 castings a day in Paris,” recalls Smalls. “Some people were nice and some wouldn’t even look at my portfolio, or, they would tell me to model walk knowing they weren’t going to hire me, and they still wouldn’t look at me walk. Doing this for seven days in each city, do you know what that does to a human being? I remember calling my dad on the Champs Elysees in Paris, breaking down in tears, and I’m really a strong person and hate crying in front of people, but my dad encouraged me to keep going through the rejection.”
She’s contended with brands who’ve wanted to lowball her on pay and who don’t consider her versatile enough to do various types of campaigns. And she’s been frustrated that the fashion world continues to position her with the same pulled-back hair looks in shoots.
“It’s the micro-aggression and people in the industry don’t see it,” says Smalls. “This is why girls in the industry have many problems and little by little they start hating who they are, not knowing the complexity of what people are feeling.”
As for her take on how diverse and emerging designers can break onto Hollywood’s red carpets, where events are dominated by major brands, Smalls doesn’t see much opportunity for these designers. “If there’s more allowance to how stylists can recreate a look, it opens the door for up-and-coming designers to get showcased,” she notes.
Smalls, Color of Change, IMG and the Black in Fashion Council are working to turn things around by creating an industry-specific roadmap which champions representation of Black individuals at photoshoots and events, and having diverse photographers, crew, set designers, stylists and other creatives behind the camera.
“We’re really excited to be working with all the companies and people like Joan Smalls that are already partnering with Color of Change,” share Lindsay Peoples Wagner and Sandrine Charles, founders of the Black in Fashion Council, in a statement to THR. “We’re making a full circle moment in trying to make sure that whatever companies or brands that we’re working with, whether that be front facing or back facing initiatives, that everything is really consistent.”
#ChangeFashion has also developed inclusive content for creative consumption and marketing by explicitly recognizing Black creatives and fashion trends in Black culture. The initiative also is engaging more openly and effectively with Black communities by creating an ecosystem of maintaining supplier diversity, investing in Black talent, creating stronger talent pipelines to entering fashion, and taking a stand on issues that affect Black people.
A year ago, Smalls also founded the online donation site donatemywage.org, where a portion of her salary and that of anyone else who wants to participate will go towards causes that help promote diversity. Last month, the platform added nine new organizations to the list of groups it supports, Black Girls Smile, Black Trans Advocacy Coalition, Black Voters Matter, Black Women for Wellness, Black Women’s Health Imperative, GYRL WONDER, Integrate NYC, National Police Accountability Project, and Woke Vote.
The groups, she says, represent “various causes that I believe in from education, the LGBTQ community, scholarships, injustice in incarceration, women’s empowerment, and anything related to Black Lives Matter. In order for us to see change there has to be movement. Everything I do is about bringing more inclusion into the fashion industry. Today I’m just continuing to donate when I can and having my friends doing the same, as well as speaking up where I can.”