Meet the African models breaking barriers

Story highlights

  • 25% of models used in Spring/Summer 2017 fashion shows were non-white, the highest recorded
  • Getting booked as a black woman is still a challenge say emerging models

(CNN)Stepping onto the runway at Victoria's Secret Fashion Show with a tiny afro, Maria Borges made history and headlines in 2015.

It was the first time black natural hair would appear in the show's 20 year run.

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"I had to persuade them," recalls Borges. "I wanted to send a message out there. People think to be sexy you have to have long hair, no ... a lot of women around the world have hair texture like mine."
    When she returned to the show in 2016 models Herieth Paul and Jourdana Phillips followed her example.
    It was a departure from the long wavy locks Victoria's Secrets models were known for regardless of ethnicity.
    Borges is one of many now speaking out about diversity and race in the fashion industry.
    The 24-year-old grew up in Angola during civil war. From age 11, she was raised by her sister after their mother passed away.
    Becoming the newest face of L'Oréal Paris in February, "I believe in the beauty of diversity," she said in a statement.
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    "The empowering message that a girl who started from the bottom can be an international beauty symbol and be living proof that our dreams are valid, and the future ahead of us is bright."
    As well as starring in campaigns for L'Oréal, her new job allowed Borges to select one model to make her runway debut at Paris Fashion Week. She chose Olamide Ogundele from Nigeria.
    "It's very important," Borges told CNN, "for African women and for women around the world [to know] that you too can be included."

    Slow change, study shows

    Just three non-white women feature in the 20 world's highest paid models list of 2016 compiled by Forbes. For the first time in history, more than 25% of models used in the Spring/Summer 2017 season were non-white.
    This is according Fashion Spot's Diversity Report in which 299 shows and 8,832 model appearances from New York, London, Paris and Milan were examined.
    In SS17, 74.6% of the models were white and 25.4 percent were women of color, a small increase on last season where 75.3 percent of the models were white.
    Model Maria Borges from Angola during the 2015 Victoria's Secret Fashion Show in New York.
    Kanye West's Yeezy Season 4 was the most diverse sending 97 percent models of color down the runway. His controversial season 3 show featured entirely non-white models.
    This season New York had the highest diversity with 30.3 percent of castings featuring models of color, while Milan was the least diverse with only 20.9 percent.

    'Black models weren't in season'

    Models like Borges are paving the way for a more varied approach to fashion. Nykhor Paul, 28, is another determined to break barriers.
    Born in Sudan and raised in refugee camps in Ethiopia, Paul emigrated to the US aged 10 with help from the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees.
    "This past season has been the most diverse with many models sharing their experiences so let's hope it's not a trend but a breakthrough," Paul told CNN via email.
    "I've had challenges finding work in some countries because black models weren't in season at that time, my hair and finding makeup to match my complexion have been the most difficult."
    In a post on social media in 2015 addressed "Dear white people", the model slammed a makeup artist 'unprepared' for her darker skin tone.
    "Why do I have to bring my own makeup to a professional show when all the other white girls don't have to do anything but show up," she asked. "I'm definitely super tired of apologizing for my blackness," she further wrote.
    Scouted aged 15, Paul has modeled for Vivienne Westwood, and Louis Vuitton among others so far.
    Patricia Akello - "It's heart breaking going for show castings knowing that only one or two models of color might be selected."
    Fellow African Patricia Akello shares her frustrations. Born and raised in Uganda, and currently based in New York, the 24-year-old model hit the international runway circuit with designers in New York Fashion Week from Thom Browne to Naeem Khan.
    "I believe every model of color deserves an equal chance," said Akello via email.
    She believes there is gradual change in the industry. "At least each show had a model of color in it which is a baby step to achieving more diversity in the modeling world.
    "And maybe in the future they won't only consider using just one or two but with five out of 10."
    The model is hopeful that this can trickle through onto the catwalk. "It's heart breaking going for show castings knowing that only one or two models of color might be selected to walk in a show," she says.