Next month at fashion week, keep your eyes peeled for Maria Borges. STEP Models noticed the Luanda, Angola-native after she placed second at a local competition as a teen; now, age 20, she’s represented by Supreme Management in New York, Women in Paris and Milan, and Premier in London. In many ways, Borges’s story resembles a fairy tale – and we’re not ones for clichés: She was raised by her older sister and brother amid her home country’s civil war, which ended in 2002, and she refers to her biggest supporters in the fashion industry (Riccardo Tisci, James Scully, and Katie Grand) as her “godfathers” and “godmothers.”
We recently sat down with Borges and her Supreme agent, Paulo Santos, to discuss her multiple Givenchy exclusives, posing semi-nude for CR Fashion Book, and being a model of color–one of the six who walked in the latest Dior show. Santos, on hand to translate Borges’s Portuguese, also shared some of his own insights into the industry.
Fashionista: You signed with Supreme at the beginning of last year and then you went right into fashion week a month later.
Borges: I couldn’t believe it. I booked seventeen shows my first season, and it’s not only shows; there’s a lot of castings! But for my second season, I was a Givenchy exclusive. Riccardo Tisci is my godfather. He was the first one who believed in me. I did couture, the first exclusive, then another exclusive as well, and only last season could I walk in other shows.
What is Riccardo like to work with one-on-one?
Borges: He looks serious, but he’s a very down-to-earth person. He’s always happy and polite, and he treats people kindly. It’s a privilege to watch so much creativity happen because I knew the history of and the luxury surrounding the label. I recently walked in the Givenchy menswear show – it was four other female models and me. It was a great experience because I never thought I would walk in a menswear show! I was confirmed a week beforehand and I wasn’t expecting it at all since I didn’t go to a casting.
Going back to your womenswear season, you also walked for Marc Jacobs.
Borges: It was my dream to be in that show. I was nervous because it’s not an easy one to book. You have to go to a few castings before you’re confirmed. For the show, it’s an early call time. For most of the other shows, models can arrive two hours ahead of time, but with Marc Jacobs, you can’t. The show is at 8 p.m., the call time is at 1 p.m., and you have to be there at 1 p.m. The energy is still peaceful, maybe a bit stricter. It’s also so perfect in many ways: how the clothes are tailored to the body and fitting the type of beauty for the collection. Katie Grand is the person who put me in front of Marc, and she also cast me for the shows she does in London and in Milan, but I didn’t do Louis Vuitton in Paris.
Last month, you walked for Dior Haute Couture and it was the first time Raf Simons used models of color during his time at the house.
Borges: I was just happy to be a part of it. The collection was inspired by four different continents, and it was such a global perspective.
Santos: I don’t think that there’s a designer who never, ever picks a black girl. Yes, sometimes it’s only one girl, but she’s still there. I realize that this is something that is so hurtful, because the models feel excluded from the group, but Maria was so happy to be a part of the Dior show. She doesn’t have the sort of competition feeling yet; she won’t come to me and say, “I was the only black girl in the show.” She feels like she’s part of the mix.
It seems as though, at some point in time, every black model is compared to Naomi Campbell. Is that frustrating for you?
Borges: No, I love it. I’m a big fan of Naomi Campbell. Of course, I want to have my own reputation, but Naomi was the first one to really reach a high level of fame. I want to be as successful as she is.
I know you also want to talk about Tom Ford. You were in his “real” runway show last season.
Borges: It was thanks to [casting director] James Scully, another one of my godfathers. To be honest, I didn’t know I was in Tom Ford’s runway comeback. One thing I’ve learned in this business is that when I’m walking, I need to be an actress. I need to incorporate the designer’s idea for the woman behind his or her collection. And walking for Tom Ford was especially amazing because I feel that I really became the woman he was asking for.
Tell me about your editorial work. Is there anything that stands out in your mind?
Borges: I recently did one for Carine Roitfeld…
Santos: … And she is semi-nude. It was the first time she was shooting nude, and I called her before we booked it to ask how she felt about it, whether she would be comfortable with it. And the day after the shoot, we talked about it and she was laughing. When we saw the pictures, they were stunning. She looks so gorgeous.
Borges: Paulo made me feel better because I was already prepared for it when I arrived at the shoot. If he hadn’t prepared me, I would have freaked out.
So, what is it like when you go home to Angola?
Borges: When I go home, I take advantage of working and seeing my family. I walked in Angola Fashion Week in June. It’s three days of shows, with six designers per day–so a total of 18 designers–however, each designer makes two collections: one that’s more high fashion and one that’s commercial. The modeling scene in Angola is growing, but there’s still prejudice in terms of parents who aren’t well-educated about the business today. It’s not every father who will allow his daughter to be a model because of human trafficking. I had to have a conversation with my family to let them know that modeling was something I was choosing as my career.
Santos: I remember one of the concerns her family had–and they spoke directly to me–was that they worked really hard to give Maria an education and they were afraid she wouldn’t continue with it. So one of the conditions with her signing at Supreme was she had to continue going to school. Now, she’s taking English classes at a city college, then she’ll apply for her TOEFL (Test of English as a Foreign Language), and our goal is for her to be accepted at a university here.
Borges: I want to study science, but I’m not sure exactly what I want to do in the field.
If you could meet anyone, who would it be?
Borges: Michelle Obama! And Barack Obama. I was in Angola when he was elected for the first time, and I always loved the USA, so when I saw the country with a black president, the Obamas grew on me quickly.
Lastly, tell me the back story of your tattoo. It reads, “Step by step.”
Borges: I did it in New York after I arrived, because when I was leaving home someone told me, “Be patient; take it step-by-step.” Passo a passo.