When Letoya Johnson walks into the room, you know Letoya has arrived; a trait that has probably been perfected by being in the fashion industry for 10 years. Started out as a model before branching into runway catwalk coaching and choreography, runway backstage management, photo-shoot directing and fashion styling; most recently joining the Parents Magazine team as an editorial stylist. What can we learn about the local modelling industry from this fashion heavy weight that has worked with the likes of Doris Hammond Kwaka and Naomi Campbell?
Some of the biggest productions and names you’ve worked with so far
Where do I even begin? I’ve worked with international award winning designer and the C.E.O and Founder of Aberdeenshire Fashion Week, Lydia Kemunto Cutler, based in Scotland. Locally, I’ve worked with FAFA backstage as a volunteer and I’m the official catwalk coach for Kenya Fashion Awards. Recently, I’ve just concluded Divalicious fashion show and exhibition by Vanita Bhatia at Villa Rosa Kempinski. Vanita Bhatia is the C.E.O and Founder of Divalicious fashion show and Exhibition. Apart from that, I’ve also worked with local fashion houses such as Evelyne Akinyi Odongo, Carole Kinoti, and Nato Design House just to mention a few.One of your key roles?
I train and groom models. I make sure they eat well and well informed about the fashion industry. I meet a lot of aspiring models who don’t really know what goes on in the modelling industry or what is expected of models. Then there’s the dark side of modelling where people use models in sexual choreography, pornography or even trafficking … it can even make you lose your life. Lots of people don’t get this kind of real information and that’s what I’m doing.
Any regulations in the high fashion industry?
Truth be told, the government really needs to set up legislation and start treating fashion as a business that brings in revenue. One of the most important things they need to do is to put a rate at which models should be paid because so many people are taking advantage of these models. Especially since a lot of the models are young fresh faces from the age of 13 to mid-twenties.13 years?
Yes, we don’t have the rules that say which ages can and can’t walk the runway. We even have some models who are above 26 who are really in demand here. But with the younger ones, I try as much as possible to educate them and their parents to understand the industry as it is at the moment. When I’m training the younger ones, I prefer to do so in the safety and comfort of their own homes.
Working with teenagers, you have to be extra careful about how you conduct yourself because an error from a fashion industry professional can cause damages in them for life. That’s why when I’m in charge of the backstage at fashion runways, it has to be professional throughout. I also take the time to teach them about the elements of sexual harassment in this industry.
Of course there is a lot of sexual harassment in the industry but no one wants to talk about it because they’re afraid of losing jobs.
So there is rampant Sexual harassment in the modelling industry?
Of course there is a lot of sexual harassment in the industry but no one wants to talk about it because they’re afraid of losing jobs. That’s why you’ll only see them posting about the glamorous side of modelling on social media. And it’s not just here, it’s also rampant in the international scene too, but you only find out about it when people have retired and are writing books.
Instead, they only gossip among themselves but they’d never admit it openly. It also happens in the pageantries. You’ll hear stories of model trainers fired for sleeping with the models or certain models winning because they gave sexual favours to certain judges. Another reason they don’t come forward is that if you don’t have some concrete evidence and you still go after them there is the possibility that they can sue you for defamation.
Any eating disorders in the industry?
Thank heavens that in Kenya I’ve never heard of anyone with an eating disorder from fashion. The only case I’ve heard of was one of our Kenyan models who relocated to Paris and was told to go and eat because her BMI was below the regulations. I also make sure that my models go for check-ups and are healthy. I don’t want people to meet skinny girls and think that is our standard of beauty. Beauty is relative and it really is only beauty when it’s relatable. The moment I get wind that a model is shopping in the kids’ isle because you refuse to eat or have signs of bulimia, I’m sorry I can’t work with you. This is someone who will faint on the runway and when we are travelling may influence the others to have an unhealthy relationship with food.
What are the current standards in the modelling industry?
A typical model’s measurements are 34’24’36’ (bust, waist and hips respectively) with more leeway on the bust inches and height wise they look for at least 5’8” for women and at least 6ft for men. However, we are really working with what the clients want according to their preferences. You’ll notice that most of our Kenyan designers don’t put great emphasis on measurements for the collections they showcase on runways. That’s why at fashion shows you’ll notice that their clothes are either too big or slightly smaller than the model.Another thing is that most designers may pick someone who is young and leave someone with interesting features, because most designers in this industry are so clouded by this thing called beauty. They go too commercial. On the other side they have a fixed idea in their head like the retouched images of Tyra Banks and they get frustrated when they don’t see that immediately they meet the models. They forget that they need a model that will help bring the vision to life, not steal the attention away from the clothes. If all people talk about after the show is the model, then the fashion show is a flop.
Personally, I like to break the rules, such as cast a 5’8” male model, if I’ve seen something very striking about them. That X-factor that will give those clothes a whole new dimension when they walk down the runway.
Oh, and designers need to stop working with the same faces on the runway year in year out. Right now, it seems only a handful have dominated the runway. People won’t be enthusiastic about a designer’s new show because it feels all too familiar… it should be new collection, new show, new models. Even the models complain that they get tired of modelling the same things that aren’t showing variety.
Are modelling classes necessary?
I highly recommend them because the days of being discovered on the street like Naomi Campbell and Tyra Banks are gone. Nowadays, it’s so competitive especially because of social media. Even the likes of Gigi Hadid were trained by the world’s best on what and what not to do before taking to the catwalk. The industry favours experience, connections and above all the actual ability to walk.I can’t tell you the number of girls I’ve received from agencies who are completely clueless about even the basics such as why a model never starts their runway walk with their right leg. [Their chances of falling are so high.] Even how they conduct themselves is confusing; are they really a model or are they trying to be a vixen and socialite?
Then there are those who are so conceited that they forget that it’s supposed to be about selling the clothes. If the runway coach has given specific choreography, this kind of model will strut down the runway and take creative licence to pop open their coat or add in a little spin. It makes me feel like running down the runway and yanking that model off.
Another reason why you need the courses is because no one has time for model’s who don’t understand their angles. They don’t want models that will give them the same two looks throughout. It is really tiresome. You need someone who will blow you away.
But that’s not all a model needs to know if they want to be on top. In part two of this article, Letoya shares tips and tricks that every fashion stylist, runway choreographer or show producer wishes every model knew. So you got the casting call, that’s great! But these tips will show you how to stand out as a professional brand in the world of modelling.