A report by Jihan Forbes for Allure.
Regge and dancehall music, Usain Bolt, and now, models. Jamaica is an island nation of just under three million people with a cultural reach that goes so far beyond its borders, it’s positively global. Last October, as I was walking down Kamala beach in Phuket, Thailand, well on the other side of the world, I stumbled upon Bob’s Restaurant & Bar, a Bob Marley–themed beachside eatery, complete with plenty of images of the reggae legend. And let’s not even talk about the past few Olympics, where Jamaicans have consistently asserted their dominance as some of the world’s fastest runners.
But if Dewight Peters has anything to say about it, Jamaica will also be known for having some serious modeling talent. The island held its annual Style Week in Kingston at the end of May, and it was just as much of a showcase of Jamaica’s designers as it was their models. Peters, who founded the Saint International modeling agency, cast the shows with his roster of guys and girls whose catwalk experience goes far beyond the city Bob Marley used to call home.
Twirling in threads from local designers the rest of the world has yet to discover, were alums of Chanel, Balmain, Saint Laurent, Ralph Lauren, Dolce & Gabbana, Prada, and Burberry runways — to name just a handful. For these models, who are signed both locally and internationally with firms like Elite New York, Storm London, Why Not in Milan, and more, walking to showcase local talent feels like a homecoming.
“To walk that runway, to represent your own country, it’s the best,” Kai Newman, who made Vogue Italia’s top 50 black models list in 2016, told Allure. “Overseas, runways are just like straight on walking, here, you have a little vibe, little dancing, a touch of everything.” Indeed, fashion shows in Jamaica are quite a lively affair, and the models completely embrace it. What’s most noticeable is the sporadic cheering, improved by the melodic lilt of the island’s unique patois. Whether they were stepping out in a particularly popular outfit, or stomping with cool authority, if someone was working that runway, the audience would let you know.
But it’s a far different world for these models when they’re on the road, working in Paris, Milan, and countries all over the world. “We hardly see each other,” Tami Williams, who’s appeared in the pages of Vogue, Teen Vogue, W, and more said backstage at Style Week Jamaica’s final showcase. “We have like a lunch or dinner or something [when we do].” As I chatted with Williams, it was clear that even at home, fashion shows can be just as hectic. It was late, past midnight when she was just wrapping up. She couldn’t locate one of her phones, and she had a flight to Japan to catch in a few short hours. Even in a place like Jamaica, where the general vibe has that easygoing, “soon come” feeling, you can’t escape the occasional stress that comes with modeling. But Williams, who has runway credits with houses like Valentino, Giorgio Armani, and Prabal Gurung, handled it like an industry vet.
When the models do get a little downtime together, Kai Newman, who you’ve seen in the pages of Allure, Elle, and Vogue is cooking for everyone. But don’t expect her to whip up a plate of ackee and saltfish, one of the country’s national dishes. “Fried chicken with fries, sometimes like with vegetables,” is what’s on her menu. “I always have my salad on the side, though.”
In an industry that still struggles with diversity, seeing their fellow Jamaicans working abroad is something this group cherishes. “It makes the show much more like comfortable and relaxing because you know you have someone from your hometown,” Brad Allen, who has posed for Polo Ralph Lauren and DSquared2 told us. “It makes you feel good that it’s not just you and there’s more of your kind outside.”
“When you walk on the runway you have maybe five Russian [girls], but it’s always like, one African or one Jamaican [girl],” Newman explained. Still, she says she is starting to see a change. “It’s getting so popular for us black girls, and for Jamaicans, especially, to walk. To see girls like me, Tami, Naki [Depass], Tiffany [Johnson], Aneita [Moore], Christina [Knight], walking that runway, it’s like the best thing.”
“It makes us feel much more welcome,” Allen said. There is still a long way to go when it comes to the fashion industry fully embracing black beauty and black features, but if you ask Allen, the change is happening, and he’s happy to see Jamaica representing for a new generation of black models. He suspects his island’s cultural exports aren’t hurting the cause. “Now we are being more noticed than we were ever before, because of our track team and our music is taking off. It’s really good. And now, our models are even taking off.”
Of course, these models still have hurdles in the industry to face, but they were built island strong. Tevin Steele, a model whose career is just getting started, was a roadside coconut vendor before making his runway debut with Saint Laurent. To go from selling fruits to luxury threads from a storied French fashion house sounds like something out of a fairytale, but for more and more of Jamaica’s genetically blessed, one within reach.