Portrait | Nafisa Kaptownwala
Nafisa welcomes me into her apartment through an inconspicuous door next to her studio, a space she shares with 6 other women. “I’ve been up since 7:00 AM,” she says as she lets me in. There was trouble at a shoot where one of her models were cast so she had to wake up and problem solve. Unfortunately, the UK time difference doesn’t respect a lazy Sunday. As we chat back and forth, she is curled up on the couch across from me and though she answers questions casually, it’s very clear that she has a critical eye sharpened by her time spent in the highly divisive fashion industry. Nafisa knows what she is talking about.
Nafisa Kaptownwala is at the helm of Lorde Inc., a street-casting modelling agency she founded in London, UK. in an effort to challenge the lack of diversity in fashion. Though the agency was started in 2013, it has recently been receiving a tonne of buzz on popular media platforms like Dazed, Nylon, I-D, The Guardian, and Buzzfeed. “My aunt didn’t really recognize … how much ground I’ve managed to cover till the Buzzfeed article.” After moving from her hometown of Vancouver to Montreal, and from Montreal to London once she graduated, the Art History major becoming increasingly frustrated by the claims at attempted “diversity” from those working in the fashion industry around her. To counter the excuses she heard from photographers and casting agents alike, she created Lorde Inc. - a modelling agency with a pool of models representative of the community they lived in.
Abysmal statistics of representation and inadequate efforts at diversity are nothing new in mainstream fashion but we can applaud those trying to change things from the outside in. Nafisa credits up and coming brands in NYC like 69 US, Vejas, PHLEMUNS, and YT Infinity for having progressive campaigns and reaching out to Lorde Inc. for casting. Unfortunately, Canada has not been as welcoming. Upon moving to Toronto from London, Nafisa made the rounds visiting the city’s agencies to get familiar, “I kept hearing again and again and again, Canada ain’t ready for it.” Though not a forgiving landscape for adventurous fashion, that attitude is a self-fulfilling prophecy leading our industry into a vicious cycle. “If there were more brands and more clients, there would be more room for change or diversity. But there are so few of them as it is, that they are just sticking to the mold.” Nevertheless, Nafisa is optimistic, “… there are designers that are coming through and doing really exciting things. And for me, that’s where my head’s at, those are the people I want to work with and that’s the shit that I’m really excited about.”
Though she didn’t explicitly state a political motive when launching Lorde, the goal of the agency was immediately clear. “When I first put Lorde Inc. out there I didn’t make any inkling that it was a political project … [but] immediately people of colour got back to me like “Oh, we see whats happening here”. For better or for worse, Lorde Inc. stands out. As a result of the normalized European standard of beauty, media cast with bodies of colour are automatically seen as political in nature. “I just think that when you are a person of colour, when you are marginalized and occupy very little space and you put [visual media] out on a bigger platform, it's inherently political. Because your body is just a politicized body.” But Lorde Inc. represents a solution within itself. Increasing the proportional representation of people of colour in the media goes hand in hand with reducing stigma. A sentiment mirrored and likely inspired by Audre Lorde, the prolific poet whom the agency is named after, and her speech The Transformation of Silence Into Language and Action, “And that visibility which makes you most vulnerable is also our greatest strength”.
Though passionate about the creativity in fashion, Nafisa’s role is driven by an element of social justice. “I think for me what makes it the most exciting is when you have a beautiful item or object and it’s displayed beautifully, and the composition and the colouring and the lighting is on point, and on top of that it’s inclusive and politically correct and is representative of something that is important.” And that excitement is echoed by the audience they speak to. Lorde’s celebrated instagram or tumblr teaming with beautiful babes of colour accompanied by vibrant notes of appreciation, memes, GIFs and other internet relics that construct a shared narrative across their network of young, internet-savvy followers. Despite their successes, Nafisa urges people not to hail Lorde as the saviour in this realm, “I do definitely feel a responsibility and I'm trying to do the best that I can with what I'm working with, but I just really discourage anyone from putting this responsibility on me. We’re only human.”
To learn more about Lorde inc check their website. To see more of Nafisa check her instagram.