Demystifying the “Exoticness” of the African Fashion Model

by Uduak Oduok

If she takes the lingerie assignment, then she has compromised her values and shamed her people as she is viewed as promoting “pornography” by her “naked” pictures and “prostituting” herself for money. Yet, if she rejects the deal, she might severely limit future assignments and her career potential.

The above complex issues are further aggravated by the title of “exoticness”. Being dubbed “exotic” creates a love hate relationship for the African Model. While her “exoticness” sells, it pigeonholes her into the “African look” or the constant pressure to fabricate or tell her over-told tragic story. Iman, when she first emerged, fabricated a story of being from the wild jungles of Somalia when she was in fact an educated daughter of a diplomat.

Agbani Darego
AgbaniThe “African look” created by the industry, permits it to continue to treat the African Model as a fad. Like a fad, she is chosen for her tragic story or extreme looks and quickly becomes an overnight sensation. Shortly after, her popularity goes down the tube as the industry pronounces her dead and informs her of the obvious, “you don’t resonate with the average American woman, black or white. You are too “African.” The industry then reverts to the status quo, blonde hair and blue eyes.

Needless to say, the treatment of the African Model as a fad, a caricature or a charity case is negative and offensive. Further, the continued gambling against the African Model is a huge risk and bad economics for the industry.

Contrary to its stereotypes, the African Model is a national and global economic force to be reckoned with. As such, like her white counterparts, the industry must quickly wise up and reflect a variety of African beauties or else, face loss of billions of dollars in a fierce rapidly evolving national and globally diverse fashion market.

Within the USA, the economic force of the African Model can be seen in three key areas. First, her so called “exoticness” sells. As Leslie Asfour, a Fashion Expert and Instructor at Stockton’s Delta College in Stockton California, puts it, “Fashion follows the money.”

In today’s American fashion industry, the cult of American celebrity worship both nationally and internationally has made the American fashion model almost obsolete. Hollywood celebrity actresses and musicians have effectively bummed fashion models off covers of fashion magazines, advertising campaigns, billboards and so forth. However, the designer who puts the “exotic” African model on the runway, catalog or commercial knows that her tragic story and/or exotic look sells in the sensational driven American media, thus allowing her to share the spotlight with these Hollywood celebrities. So, while the “exotic” African Model might have a short run, she is an effective marketing tool to brand the designer’s line, gain media recognition, and/or revive an otherwise dead fashion house.

Hawa Diawara
HawaShe has the ability to harness the potential spending power of the growing American ethnic market as they can resonate with her experience as an immigrant and minority in the USA. For example, in 2000 the U.S. Department of Commerce conducted
a study titled, “Minority Purchasing Power: 2000-2045.” The study showed that minorities [Blacks, Latinos and Asians] in the USA had expanded their purchasing power by 47 percent over the past 15 years. As of 2000, ethnic consumers averaged $1.3 trillion in purchasing power. It projected that by 2015 that number will exceed $2 trillion and ultimately reach $3 trillion between 2030 and 2045.

She is also able to market to a niche but economically relevant group, Africans in the USA. Contrary to the dominant images of Africans on television: wild monkeys hanging off trees or malnourished AIDS stricken children with rotunda like stomachs and flat butts, the U.S. Census Bureau 2000 and the American Community Survey 2002 show that Africans in the USA are the most educated groups within the country, even surpassing Asians.

Further, they are urban and earn high incomes. As of 2004, the Bureau, among others, reports that Africans in the USA sent over $1billion to Africa, surpassing America’s current aid to Africa. Africans in the USA are young [60.8% are 20-49years of age] and majority live in metropolitan areas making them easily accessible for fashion creators to market their products and services.

Globally, the African Model is the link that can help the industry profit from a largely ignored but relevant market, Africa.

Independent of its strong oil reservoirs, the infiltration of technology in Africa is gaining momentum and foreign investments in Africa. Asia, Europe and American companies like MTV are grabbing a big stake in Africa’s technology and entertainment industries.

The African Fashion Industry itself is in on the revolution. The 2000 US-Africa Growth and Opportunity Act [AGOA], which offers tangible incentives for African countries to continue their efforts to open their economies and build free markets, has helped propel the African fashion industry forward.

Using the continent’s rich textiles and fabrics, innovative and exceptional fashion creators such as South Africa’s Stone Cherie, Nigeria’s Deola Sagoe, and Senegal’s Oumou Sy, among others, through the help of the African Model’s Hollywood type celebrity status, within and outside Africa and her following of loyal fans, have renegotiated a new identity of the African as urban yet cosmopolitan; and in so doing, secured Africa a place on the world’s fashion map.

America’s Fashion Industry can gain the loyalty of the African model fan base and other urban Africans by using her, as middle woman and a fashion influential, to diffuse fashion to the more than 600,000,000 in Africa and as such rake in dollars in mind blowing proportions. To do so, however, means that the industry MUST demystify and redefine the “exotic” definition of the African Model to include respectful, positive and variety images that resonate with Americans and Africans alike.

You may also like


Tony Ekpo October 18, 2010 - 1:47 pm

Ud, this is simply amazing. this an educative series our people back home should be informd of. I wish to publish this in our soft fashion magazine, plesae do permite me.

Andrani July 20, 2010 - 7:00 am

To Sandra:

As a naturally tall and thin woman, this is a very offensive statement:”Real women have curves. Not the bodies of over grown 10 year old boys.” It’s hypocritical. Thick women don’t like being called fat but have no problem calling thin women names. But the same way they can’t help being the way they are, we can’t either. Not all thin women are anorexic and we don’t all starve ourselves. It’s in out genes, metabolism, etc, and no matter what we eat. .we don’t put on pounds. To be insulted for something we can’t help is just wrong. Just because we’re in the minority doesn’t make it OK to bash us.

Other than that I loved the article and wholeheartedly agree. Good job.

Sandra July 22, 2009 - 12:10 am

You are right! They do look alike!

Sandra July 22, 2009 - 12:09 am

Wow, this is a great article. To be quite honest I don’t believe models exsist to reflect women of any part of the world because most women are not 5ft 8+ and 110lbs. Real women have curves. Not the bodies of over grown 10 year old boys. I don’t mean to sound too harsh, but there are more women all over the world with ‘meat on thier bones’ and are curvy. But these women are considered plus size models when infact they are more true to women. Curves are beautiful, it doesn’t matter if you are from America, Africa, Asia, Europe…etc. Besides, the clothes models strut are made for the runway and the models who show them.

folabi arogundade February 6, 2009 - 10:19 am

Ms Uduok combines beauty and a keen intellect, a not too common combination

delabique December 26, 2007 - 8:04 pm

uduak, you are simply amazing, thought provoking writing. Well doe. You make me so proud to be a nigerian

Commentartor December 10, 2006 - 11:54 am

This is extremely well written!

Anonymous December 10, 2006 - 4:50 am

the problem faced by African models is that they have to compete with a global view of what beauty is. Thats why in my view almost all models look alike!

Peter December 9, 2006 - 6:53 pm

Enlightening- Very enlightening.

Anonymous December 9, 2006 - 4:16 pm

Outstanding view and write-up

Rosie December 8, 2006 - 4:44 pm

Impressive writing. Thought-provoking argument.


Leave a Comment