Anok Yai’s career is a testament to the power of speaking up. The model—who last season walked for Hermès, Chanel, Mugler, Versace, and Tom Ford, to name a small selection—spoke at Vogue’s Forces of Fashion with Vogue Runway’s fashion news writer José Criales-Unzueta about her career and the ways in which she stood up for herself and forged her own path.
Everything comes back to a piece of advice her agent gave her, which is “know that you are the business. That was the best advice I ever received. At the end of the day, you are the business,” Yai says. That mindset empowered Yai to operate strategically as well as artistically, and to speak up and say no.
One crucial way she did say no was by only agreeing for a while to wear her hair in cornrows or as an Afro. “I got quite a hard pushback from the brands, but they noticed I was just standing my ground.” Other models took notice, appreciated Yai’s stance, and did the same. “There were signs backstage that were like ‘do not touch Anok’s hair,’ and other girls were like ‘how did you do that?’” Yai says. Saying no to harmful hairstyles came after Yai had what she describes as a “breakdown.” She recounts a harrowing story of a stylist who Youtubed a video of how to straighten natural hair while Yai was in the chair. “When I first started saying no, I was so scared. But what helped me is that I had a really strong team,” Yai says.
Hilariously, Yai also developed a habit of telling designers which looks she wanted to wear for the shows. Typically, the casting directors and designers assign the outfits to the models, but Yai didn’t know that when she first started modeling. “Every brand was saying yes,” she laughs. “But one day they called [my agent] and were like ‘what did you tell her?’” Sometimes, if you’re brazen enough to ask for what you want, you just might get it.
Lately, Yai has been developing another skill as well: that of visual artist. She completed the Black Rock Senegal residency, founded by Kehinde Wiley, and particularly loves to paint her friends. Her work as a model feeds her art, and vice versa. “I’m always focused on shape, texture, and how the fabric moves, and where the lighting is,” she says. Truly, the mark of a well-rounded supermodel.
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