Paris fashion week is in full swing, with one face emerging to define the spring/summer of 2016. Lineisy Montero, the 19-year-old model from the Dominican Republic, has walked in all the most significant shows this season, from Balmain to Balenciaga. She is being hailed as an example that the catwalk, which is traditionally dominated by thin, blonde white models, is finally embracing diversity.
Montero has featured in more than 50 shows since mid-September, and is instantly recognisable for her short afro. While she can be seen as part of a wider rise of black faces on the catwalk – ranging from Binx Walton and Joan Smalls to Malaika Firth and Jourdan Dunn – it is this hairstyle, in contrast to the longer tresses of these other models, that sets her apart. In March, Montero’s debut on the Prada catwalk – her first runway show – saw a social media storm, and brought the afro, so associated with 1970s Black Panthers and civil rights activists such as Angela Davis, back into the fashion conversation. There are now several other models with afros, including Karly Loyce. Montero, however, remains the poster girl for natural afro hair in fashion, with her popularity this Paris fashion week a case in point.
In August, she covered Teen Vogue with the quote “I just like being me.” It is this sense of authenticity that has caught fashion’s attention. “Black hair is considered to be quite hard to work with if not relaxed,” says Marie Claire’s senior style editor Des Lewis. “Last season, we saw hairstylists embracing the beauty of natural afro hair and not changing their hairstyle to suit the show hair. Instead, they’re now ‘keeping it real.’”
Elle UK’s acting content director Kenya Hunt believes this shows fashion representing wider society more. “We’re just living in a time where we’re finally starting to see media reflect its audience in a meaningful, non-tokenistic way,” she says. “I was in New York last week and walked past a news stand that had black women on the covers of seven different magazines. I’ve never seen that before.” Katy Moseley, a spokeswoman for Montero’s agency Next, believes the model represents this change. “Her universal appeal is refreshing,” she says, “bringing diversity into the mainstay of the show season and campaigns of the future.”
This increase in diversity goes beyond skin tone. Fashion this season has moved on from the so-called “cookie cutter” model, where each girl out on the catwalk looks like the one before, to embracing individuality. This can be seen in the success this season of shaven-headed models Ruth Bell and Kris Gottschalk and pint-sized actress Zoë Kravitz walking in the Balenciaga show alongside models, and Beth Ditto walking for Marc Jacobs in New York. Lewis credits social media, an anything goes platform, for playing a part in this. Hunt hopes it is an actual shift, rather than a fad. “It’s not just about promoting diversity of race or skin tone, but really showing the full breadth of womanhood – we’re seeing this with models ranging in not just race, but size and age,” she says. “Fashion loves a rotating trend but I’m hopeful that this change we’re seeing is more than that.”
We may still be some distance from a situation where diversity is a given rather than an exception on the catwalks. Major shows like Christian Dior still only featured one black girl, and Montero’s afro has been covered up at shows including Balmain, where her hair was styled in the ponytail that all of the models wore. “Each season there will be one or two non-white girls that break through but there is still a long way to go before it is a level playing field,” says Lewis. “I look forward to the day when a model’s skin colour is invisible because it becomes the norm.”