“Sorry, you don’t fit the brand’s profile”: Black model campaign “Pretos na Moda” (blacks in fashion) exposes racism in Brazil’s fashion industry
By Rosângela Espinossi and Marques Travae
When I first created this blog nearly nine years ago, the world of fashion was one of the industries I kept my eye on in terms of the opportunities available to Afro-Brazilians in the genre. One of the first articles I posted discussing fashion back in January of 2012 was the possibility of implementing a system of quotas to increase the number of pretos e pardos (blacks and browns) on the runways of Brazil’s top fashion shows, São Paulo Fashion Week and Fashion Rio. So few were the black models on these runways that they were being labeled “blackouts”.
In prior years and since then, black models had begun staging protests over the lack of opportunities in a country in which, at the time, about half of the population defined itself as non-white. But when you really look at it, this has been Brazil’s MO for decades. Promote the country as a harmonious multi-racial country while many, if not most of its industries present faces and bodies that would lead people to believe that Brazil was just an extension of Europe in the tropics. As I’ve known for two decades, it’s very typical of how Brazil gets down.
Fast forward to 2020 and, unfortunately, the issue remains the same, but the voices exposing it are getting stronger and bolder. And in an era of cancel culture and social media, the curtains are increasingly being pulled open to expose what goes on behinds the scenes in the fashion industry. Even with the whole Covid-19 pandemic still having an enormous influence on the lives we lead these days, Brazilian models and ex-designer employees have decided to reveal embarrassing situations that they experienced because of behaviors practiced by stylists and other professionals.
Brazil has very few well-known black top models, but along with the lesser known faces, these women have revealed how they have suffered for years in silence in order to advance in their careers. Besides shocking comments and twisted looks given by top designers, many report having constantly heard that black models “didn’t fit the profile” of a particular name brand. The racism wasn’t just on the part of the designers, but throughout the industry, from factory floor to editorial production, black models were constantly made aware of “their place” in the industry.
Laís Ribeiro may be a Victoria’s Secret top model today, but she had to deal with a lot to make it to where she is today just to keep working. In the beginning, the industry debated on how she should be marketed in terms of race. For some she was black, for others she was parda (brown) or indigenous. The issue was clearly a “Brazilian thing” as everywhere else in the world, Ribeiro was seen as black. Years later, Ribeiro has banded together with other models to expose the truth.
To address the issue directly, the Instagram profile “Moda Racista” (racist fashion), created by an anonymous author, along with movements such as the group “Pretos na Moda” (blacks in fashion), created by models Cindy Reis, Camila Simões, Natasha Soares and Thayná Santos, are exposing situations and putting names out there. Among the stylists cited are Glória Coelho and Reinaldo Lourenço.
Top model Gracie Carvalho, a former Victoria’s Secret model, took part in a recent live chat on “Elas no Tapete Vermelho” (them on the red carpet), in which she recalled an embarrassing episode in the beginning of her career, in which she was called “pretinha” (‘little black girl’) during a clothing shoot.
In a video exclusive to “Elas”, the top model said it was not possible, in the middle of 2020, to still see people dying because of their skin color. And made an appeal: “White people, study, think and take different attitudes. You can’t live in society like that anymore. It’s very unjust.”
Blacks in Fashion
According to Cindy Reis, 23 years old, born in Barra do Piraí in Rio de Janeiro state, the Pretos na Moda movement aims to combat structural racism and challenge the standardization of biotypes in the market, giving space to genuine and respectful diversity. Complaints are received by Instagram, with the hashtag #PretosNaModaBr.
The movement came naturally: “The need and the will for there to be any such initiative has always existed, but it is now that everything has come to the fore. I saw my friends in the profession reporting similar experiences they had lived, we started talking and decided to unite and fight together.”
In the profile “Moda Racista”, on Instagram, anonymous complaints, or not, reveal the cruel side of the fashion world, behind the aura of beautiful, well-finished clothes and dreams. The two main accused were Gloria and Reinaldo. The latter, not only in relation to blacks, but also in relation to the way he treats all the professionals involved.
Makeup artist Juliana Rakoza, who dreamed of becoming a stylist, but gave up after doing a job behind the scenes at Reinaldo, when she was a MAC employee, said she witnessed the stylist yelling at everyone. She also said that Gloria Coelho asked to always lighten the models’ skins.
This isn’t only complaint about Coelho. About a decade ago, she raised eyebrows when the issue of black models was being increasingly debated. Without batting an eye, Coelho said, “At (São Paulo) Fashion Week we already have black seamstresses, many of them with golden hands, making beautiful things, there are black assistants and sellers, why do they have to be on the runway?”
Post featured on the Moda Racista profile: “Ralph Choate, creative director of Riachuelo, has always avoided blacks in campaigns. “I’m gonna have to put a dwarf with vitiligo on in a minute.” When we ran a campaign in Curacao, it took them a while to understand casting. They only saw blacks as “a prop”, that is, as graphic support for the clothes. They wanted only dark-skinned black men, more as art direction and less as real representation.”
Maria do Carmo Paulino was one of the first black seamstresses with an educational background in design technique to make it on a national level. Like só many black Brazilians in various industries, Paulino was the only black woman in her class of industrial design in the 1990s, slowly ascending in the industry until she earned a place at the Ellus brand. It was there that she went through what she called the “worst experience” of her life.
Paulino remembers hearing the Nelson Alvarenga, founder of the Ellus brand, saying that “the whip will crack” if he didn’t like a particular piece. As we’ve learned through the years, 350 years of slavery in Brazil is still referred to in the present, another example of a sort of nostalgia in the country for the era of human bondage.
Post featured on the Moda Racista profile: “…and the worst part is that it’s not just the brands, the makeup artists too! how many times have I not seen black girls not getting their makeup done right in parades, showrooms, etc. because they said they had no base for black skin? They always leave them for last backstage of a parade because they don’t know how to deal with their hair and skin. And they stay there until the last minute and (then) do it any kind of way; they can expose all of them”
“I have a lot of respect for him, but I remember at the time those paintings of slaves in chains came to mind. I never said anything and only came to understand what had happened years later,” Paulino said.
Paulino’s response and understanding demonstrates the evolution of the Afro-Brazilian population in a land that always denied its racism. As with other clear examples of racist discourse and behavior that previously just slid by, black Brazilians are much more conscious of such ideologies and are also becoming bolder in their willingness to call it for what it is.
Unfortunately, Paulino was released shortly after the incident leading her to take he talents to other brands, but her reality would forever change from that point forward. Today, she is the owner of her own brand of beach apparel which she calls Duca Duca. As expected, the people over at Ellus had no comment on the accusation.
But the stories get even more absurd. Helder Dias has been the owner of an all-black modeling agency for many years and it should come as no surprise that he had stories to share on the topic. For example, he remembered the time in which his models were called to be positioned as the background scenery of a modeling event for all white models. Then there was the time in which his models were pointed to enter a fashion event of the Casa de Criadores (House of Creators) through the service elevator.
To put this into context, tens of thousands of buildings in Brazil have two types of elevators for users: the elevator for residents and the one next to it reserved for persons providing cleaning services in the apartments, hallways, etc. In Brazil, as class is associated with race, when black women enter middle-class apartment buildings, it is automatically assumed that they are “the help”.
“Blacks were never included. They earn a lot less than whites,” Dias said in reference to the pay difference between black and white models. We know that pay differences in Brazil are largely due to level of education and experience, but we also know that there are industries in which these factors have nothing to do with the sharp differences in salary.
The designer André Boffano, today in charge of the Modem brand, also revealed his story, when he was an intern at Lourenço. “He kept calling his employees dumb, ugly, poor and fat,” he wrote. In another anonymous post, there was a report that Lourenço asked the model to “make a boss face that beats the maid.” The profile also cites accusations against stylist Luis Fiod, against Ellus, Riachuelo, Fabiana Milazzo, among others.
Then there’s the makeup issue. When I first became aware of racial issues in Brazil back in 2000, one of the first articles I read after I learned a little Portuguese was about the rise of a small black middle class. The article showed that although some black Brazilians were joining the middle classes, they still didn’t have access to very basic necessities. For example, black women still had difficulty finding items such as panty hose and makeup that matched their skin tones.
In 2020, black women still have issues with makeup. If it’s not a tone skin tone issue, there’s an issue of products not being widely available or affordable when they are available. In the fashion industry, makeup professionals still don’t see the necessity of being able to makeup black models appropriately.
André Veloso, has doing makeup for Afro-Brazilian public figures for years, but over this period he says he made a habit of carrying makeup bases that he bought overseas in his baggage because it seemed that in Brazil, “nobody was interested in black beauty”.
Glória Coelho released a manifesto pledging to change her posture. In an excerpt from the text, the stylist, who was married to Reinaldo Lourenço, wrote: “I commit myself to include more Afro-descendant models in my fashion shows, in my apps, on the brand’s Instagram, in my campaigns and in my communications and to ensure that all girls have positive experiences in casting, clothing and photos.” In the latest posts on Gloria Coelho’s Instagram profile, the stylist posted several photos of Afro-descendant models and other ethnicities. Below is a response to the model Thayná Santos from Coelho.
First of all, congratulations on the work you are doing, amplifying such important voices. I’m very sorry that you or any other girl has felt underprivileged or without access to the same opportunities within my brand and fashion system. I recognize that for centuries fashion has privileged Eurocentrist standards of beauty, and that I or people in my team in the past may have been compact with that, or interpreted that way. I am here committing myself to be better, to ensure that my team is better. It is in our hands to dismantle systemic racism.”
The model Natasha Soares, in a live chat with Paulo Borges, creator of São Paulo Fashion Week, said that many blacks are called to work to manage crises. “When a brand or magazine does something racist, it invites a black person to have the ‘Palmares seal’, an anti-racist seal. When the crisis is over, the person is removed from there,” she said. Soares here makes a reference to the legendary 17th centry quilombo/maroon society, Palmares.
In the manifesto, Gloria adds: “An essential part of the Gloria Coelho brand mission from now on will be to strengthen the struggle to illuminate the Afro-descendant human journey in Brazil.” Until the closing of this article, Reinaldo Lourenço’s staff had not responded to the questions sent.
To Veja magazine, the stylist acknowledged that he was wrong and that “there was a lack of empathy and understanding in relation to black models and other professionals. “I will change, just as the fashion system will be forced to change too. I commit to promoting effective inclusion of black models on the catwalk and in the campaigns,”he said. May such “regrets” be transformed into truly effective actions and not just temporary solutions that, as Natasha Soares said, happen only in times of crisis.