By Haylee Thorson
White, tall, and unbelievably skinny—the ultimate standard of beauty in the world of fashion. For years, we have been conditioned to believe that traditionally European features and stick thin bodies are the only two things that make a person beautiful. In the ‘90s, supermodels like Kate Moss, Cindy Crawford, and Christy Turlington were idolized for their pale skin, long limbs, and dainty features. They dominated every runway, adorned every magazine, and acquired enormous amounts of wealth on behalf of their appearance. While models like Naomi Campbell and Tyra Banks were also internationally recognized at the time, they were two of the very few models who weren’t Caucasian. In an industry that has always rewarded unhealthy bodies and light skin tones, true diversity has been unable to exist on the runway. Luckily, things are beginning to change. Models of all colors, shapes, and sizes have made their mark in ways that seemed virtually impossible in the past. While the fashion industry still has a long way to go in terms of full inclusivity, here are eight incredible models that are changing the runway for the better.
1. Halima Aden
Halima Aden has made fashion history in more ways than one. This Somali American model was the first to ever wear a hijab and burkini on the cover of Sports Illustrated. She was also the first model to ever wear a hijab on a catwalk at New York Fashion Week, debuting her look at the Fall 2017 Yeezy show. “Young girls who wear a hijab should have women they look up to in any and every industry,” she said once in an interview with BBC. And she’s doing just that.
2. Noah Carlos
Social media guru turned international sensation, Noah Carlos is the gender non-conforming supermodel of our dreams. While growing up queer and Filipino had its own set of challenges for Carlos, they (Noah’s preferred pronouns are they/them) garnered quite the cult following online due to their thrifty clothing finds and witty personality. Shortly after their social media took off, they were scouted by IMG models and have walked in numerous NYFW shows and appeared in magazines like Vogue and Dazed.
3. Paloma Elsesser
Paloma Elsesser had always struggled with her weight. Growing up in LA was hard, but when she was discovered by Pat McGrath on social media—everything changed. After she became one of McGrath’s Instagram muses, she quickly gained notoriety in the world of fashion. Elsesser went on to book magazine covers and reputable campaigns for years and was one of the few plus-sized models to walk in several shows for Milan Fashion Week and Paris Fashion Week.
4. Adut Akech
Awarded “Model of the Year” in 2019, South Sudanese model Adut Akech has truly made a name for herself in the fashion industry. Raised in a refugee camp in northwestern Kenya, she really didn’t know much about fashion until she moved to Australia with her family. Once there, Akech began strutting down runways at just 13 years old. Her career quickly took off after she made her fashion week debut in Paris at the Saint Laurent show in 2017.
5. Adwoa Aboah
Aside from being one of the most well-known British fashion models, Adwoa Aboah is an activist, role model, and downright inspiration. Founder of the nonprofit organization, Gurls Talk, Aboah has made it her mission to provide young girls with a platform to discuss issues related to sexuality, mental health, race, and everything in between. Aside from that, she has also appeared on several Vogue covers and was even named “Model of the Year” in 2017.
6. Liu Wen
As China’s first supermodel ever, Liu Wen is a pioneer when it comes to fashion. Discovered in Beijing in 2006, Wen was immediately offered a modeling contract and was soon walking for high-profile designers in New York, Paris, and Milan. She was also the first Asian spokeswoman to be offered an international cosmetics contract when she became the face of Estée Lauder. Not only that, but she was the first Asian model to make Forbes’ list of Highest Earning Models.
7. Andreja Pejić
The first transgender woman to ever be featured in American Vogue, Andreja Pejic changed the fashion world forever back in 2015. As a war refugee from Yugoslavia, Pejić and her family were forced to flee to Australia. It was there, where she was discovered in a McDonald’s and went on to become the first model to successfully walk the runway in menswear and womenswear. She also was the first trans woman to ever land a high-profile cosmetics campaign.
8. Jillian Mercado
As a Latina woman with muscular dystrophy, Jillian Mercado had a difficult time breaking into the modeling industry. However, after graduating from the Fashion Institute of Technology and completing an internship with Allure, she signed up for an ad campaign with Diesel jeans and got it. From there, she signed with IMG models and went on to grace the covers of magazines like Teen Vogue, and even became the face of Olay’s “Face Anything” campaign.
Haylee Thorson is an editorial writer who specializes in beauty, culture, and travel. Follow her on Instagram.