New York Fashion Week Spring 2017 appeared to be more inclusive than ever to many critics, as women and men of all shades, sizes, ages, and backgrounds were spotted on the runways.
One of the models who caught our attention this season was Kelly Gervais, a 5-foot-8-inch New Jersey native. She not only walked in six shows (including Pyer Moss), but also did so while sporting an Afro.
“I started modeling when I was about 13 years old, though I didn’t start professionally [until] I was about 15,” Gervais told Yahoo Beauty. “I actually started in Mexico. I lived with one of my cousins who had her own boutique agency. I started assisting her, and one day she said she wanted to do a photo shoot with me.”
This was a surprise to Gervais, given her tomboyish ways and not classifying herself as an “ideal beauty.”
“They did my hair and makeup, and I remember how that made me feel,” she said. “I didn’t even want to take my makeup off. I think I slept with my makeup on so my face was beat the next day!”
A year later, her mother got hold of the photos and instantly supported her daughter’s dream to model. Gervais said, “She asked me was this something I wanted to do. If I could do something and there was an opportunity, I wanted to do it. So my mom went online, looked up the top 20 modeling agencies and shipped my photos out. And that’s how I got signed.”
It was actually Gervais’s mother who exposed her to beauty in all shades, creating a special book with her daughter dedicated to black models.
“I look up to Liya Kebede. She was one of the first models I would look at when I first got started in modeling. Yasmin Warsame, I admired her beauty. Iman, of course. Beverly Johnson. The iconic black models,” she said. “A lot of times you look at these high fashion magazines and you don’t see many of us, and my mom thought it was important to see that as I was developing as a model and finding my own. I [finally] had women that kind of looked like me to assure me that I wasn’t an anomaly and I could learn from the greats. We still have the beauty book, and I show it to my friends. It’s good memories because I remember creating it with my mom.”
Gervais’s parents played a huge role in building her self-esteem, which prepared her for the challenges she’d face as a woman of color in the fashion industry.
“My parents are very proud of who they are and where they come from. I grew up in a small town in New Jersey, but I’m Haitian; my father was born in Haiti, and my mom is Cherokee, African-American. We didn’t always talk about [race], but they made sure they did what they could to instill that pride into me,” she said.
For this season of New York Fashion Week, Gervais decided to try something unconventional to much of her modeling past and sport her natural hair.
“I always had [my hair] long, straight, or in extensions. I’ve done great shows and have had success with that look, but I felt like I was blending in with everyone else and not standing out,” she said. “When I lived in London for about a year, I didn’t have anyone to do my hair, so my hair just started doing its own thing. People responded to it so positively, and I actually got even more work with my natural hair. So when I came back to New York, I thought, ‘OK, let me see if I can rock my natural hair and they’ll be as accepting.'”
When she returned to the U.S., Gervais was met with adversity from her previous booker, who told her that though her hair was beautiful, she wasn’t dark enough to pull off the look.
She said, “I didn’t even know how to take that or understand that. I’m a Haitian woman with Haitian hair. You can’t expect that just because I’m light-skinned, I’m going to have a Spanish curl. This is me and my natural essence, and why can’t people just be OK with that and not try to alter me to their standards of beauty?”
At the Pyer Moss show, where she modeled a white tee that read “Nothing to Say,” Gervais showed that her skin, and even her hair, is an act of rebellion.
“I had never worked with Pyer Moss before, so booking [this] show and finding out he was a Haitian designer made it very personal for me. I was the tester for the braids used [in the show]. Then I found out they didn’t want me in braids; they wanted to use my Afro! They did my hair to perfection. The ladies made me feel so comfortable, especially with having ethnic hair. A lot of times, people don’t know how to handle it. Basically, there’s nothing to say, just as the T-shirt says. I’m here, in my own presence in this very moment as a black woman, like it or not.”
Though she believes that the industry has improved when it comes to embracing black models, Gervais still has some skepticism.
“I think people are becoming more expectant on seeing black girls rock their natural hair. But sometimes I worry if it’s really genuine, or if people are just following the trend. I hope it stays this way and it’s not just because everyone else is doing it,” she said.
Gervais also uses her coils to educate others. “When people ask questions and want to educate themselves on ethnic hair, I help, because if I can help them make another woman of color comfortable when she sits in their chair, then I know that I did my part in helping pave the way and encouraging other models of color to be comfortable in their own skin,” she said.
Gervais believes it’s all about being unapologetically yourself and supporting one another.
“If you are chasing your dreams, trying to establish and make a name for yourself, be you. Always stay true to yourself, and the right people will come knocking on your door. The right doors will open,” she said. “We must all support and encourage each other as women and women of color. I don’t even look at this from a competitive nature anymore. When one of us makes it, all of us make it. We are beautiful the way we are. We’re just sprinkling a little bit of our magic in the industry.”