The fashion industry said my dreadlocks would stop me working. They were wrong

Theres a lot of politics tied up in black hair, says Miu Miu model Adesuwa Aighewi, but nothing should stop self-expression

When I got my hair dreadlocked ahead of New York fashion week, I had some pushback from people in the industry worried that I wouldnt get jobs the suggestion was that I might look too black. But I enjoy being different and standing out so I decided to keep them and take my chances.

Two days later, my agents in New York called to say Coach had cast me to open their spring/summer 2018 show at New York. I couldnt believe it Ive walked in other shows in the past, but this was a career-changer. I went on to walk for Miu Miu in Paris and Bottega Veneta in Milan, which is a classic Italian brand not known for using edgy models. I was thrilled a girl with dreads walking for brands like those, thats crazy.

Models Bella Hadid (left) and Kendall Jenner in the Marc Jacobs show at NYFW, September 2016. Photograph: Angela Weiss/AFP/Getty Images

Theres a lot of politics tied up in black hair. When Marc Jacobs sent a bunch of white girls down the runway with dreads and everyone cried racism, I didnt see it that way. Actions like his create normalcy, so now if we black girls want to wear dreads in the workplace, then white people arent going to call it ghetto. The labelling of Kim Kardashians cornrows as new and edgy boxer braids is a slightly different story it shows no respect for the hairstyles cultural heritage and people were right to be angry.

Dreads do still carry negative connotations in society, at least in America. Remember when actor and musician Zendaya had dreads and US TV host Giuliana Rancic said she looked like she smelled of marijuana? But just because some people assume having dreads means you must be a weed smoker which Im not it wasnt going to stop me getting them. Ive always been keen on changing up my look and my hair; for me its about self-expression.

In the past, fashion liked black girls to have really long weaves, or really straight hair to emulate white women and fit in. Its something that affects female models far more than men. But more recently, black women have been saying, No, Im not going to straighten my hair. There is a growing sense of pride in African Americans and its having a trickle-down effect into fashion.

Fashion doesnt create trends, it follows, so it makes sense that right now theyre casting more black and Asian models due to our buying power as a collective. But without many of us working at the shows, hairstylists sometimes struggled to know what to do with our hair. Its a catch-22: theyre hairstylists, so they should know how to work with black hair, but a lot of the time theyre scared because they dont want to be the one who messes up the black girls hair. Ive been backstage at a show where a stylist said to me, I dont want to do your hair. The other black girls and I were the last to have our hair done because no one would touch us.

Aighewi at the Coach show, NYFW September 2017. Photograph: Pixelformu/SIPA/REX/Shutterstock

But that was three years ago now, they dont have an option. And its been a joint effort, with casting directors like Ashley Brokaw and Anita Bitton, as well as stylists like Karl Templer and Katie Grand outliers in positions of power taking a chance by casting diverse models in what might typically be all-white shows.

Hairstylists are starting to think, Ive got to learn this or Im not going to get hired. Now, when I talk to stylists, theyre saying, What are the best products you use on your hair? I did a show this season in Milan and the stylist didnt have the right product. By the time I got to Paris, she had it. At Miu Miu, where over half the models were black, backstage they had all the right products.

But you have to meet the industry halfway. I always make sure my dreads are super-clean and neat, so in some ways they still look classic. I also got my dreads really long that way you can do lots of other styles with them. Even though Im pushing my agenda, Im giving them things to work with.

Thanks to social media, its easier for models to speak up. When I was signed, in 2010, my agents would tell me, You need to shut up and stand there and look pretty.

Now, with platforms like Instagram, where people have their own space to be vocal, its cool to be yourself. Agents encourage girls to have more personality; clients want that now. Just being pretty doesnt work any more. And now, Im having so much more success the industrys finally caught up to me, I actually make sense in it now.

Next year I suspect there are going to be more girls with dreads on the catwalk, with more of us saying: I like my hair this way, I like my hair curly. Theyre still going to cast you. If a girl is dope, a girl is dope. If you stand by who you are, the world has to take notice.

As told to Ellie Violet Bramley

Read more: