Philomena Kwao is a bright spot on the modeling horizon. In an industry that still has a long way to go when it comes to embracing true diversity, Kwao is a plus-size, black, natural-hair-wearing model who has proven that those aspects make her an asset to brands. Her agent told Fashionista back in 2014 that Kwao "sells like crazy" when it comes to clothing, so it's no surprise that in the years since, she's worked with brands like Chromat, Torrid, Swimsuits For All, Lane Bryant and more. Along the way, she's also acquired a reputation for being outspoken about the ways that the fashion industry still needs to improve to become truly inclusive while somehow maintaining a decisively hopeful, upbeat attitude about it all.
Fashionista caught up with the British-Ghanaian model in the wake of her latest campaign for Lane Bryant featuring the brand's new blazer to hear her thoughts on her heritage, higher education and why she cares so passionately about healthcare.
Having lived in both places, would you say the narrative around plus-size or curvy fashion is different in the U.K. than in the U.S.?
Most definitely. Before I started modeling, I hadn't even heard the term plus-size. I grew up in London, and we didn't have many plus-sized companies. The ones we did have were geared toward older women and they sold frumpy clothes, usually through catalogs.
I started modeling and moved to the U.S. and realized there's an incredible market for fashionable clothes for all sizes, shapes and ages. Even to this day, that's not very present in the U.K. I think the U.K.'s quite good with racial diversity and natural hair textures on the straight-size front, but on the plus-size front they could be better.
You're British but you have Ghanaian heritage. Do you feel connected to that part of your family history?
Yes! I go to Ghana every year. I speak one of the main languages fluently and I embrace the different fabrics or prints in my clothes. I cook Ghanaian food almost exclusively.
Many people treat the continent of Africa as one country. They don't realize that there are so many different countries and we all have different languages and one country may have multiple languages. They just say "Africa." They don't really look at people's individual background. But I'm very in tune with my heritage.
A lot of models get scouted really young, and as a result some don't end up going to college, but you have both an undergrad and a graduate degree. Has your education impacted your life even though your job isn't related to what you studied?
I think having an educational background makes me a bit more balanced. It's not all about modeling; I have other interests as well. And that actually makes the job a little bit easier, because there's a lot of rejection that comes with modeling.
Do you see yourself sticking with modeling as long as you can?
High quality global healthcare has always been my primary love. It's been a priority for me since I was three years old. When I was a kid, I began noticing the differences in healthcare between the U.K. and Ghana. That's when I realized I wanted to make healthcare better for everyone around the world. I didn't understand why my family members [in Ghana] were dying from diseases that we were being vaccinated for [in the U.K.]. It was quite eye-opening.
I've always known I wanted to work in health, I'm just trying to figure out in what capacity. So I'll do this for awhile and see where it takes me, and see if my voice can impact change around the world. That's the ultimate goal.
Do you see a connection between being healthy and the appearance of your skin and hair?
I won't even lie: most of it is genetics. But when I travel a lot I do try to eat healthy and drink more water, and that does help.
Has being a black woman with natural hair presented any particular challenges as a model?
People don't understand black skin when it comes to makeup or photography lighting. They also don't understand black hair and what it can and cannot do. It's not like I can turn up to set one day and they can make my hair really curly. That takes a lot of prep. There just seems to be a general ignorance surrounding black skin and black hair, which is quite frustrating.
What are some of the most encouraging things you've seen in the fashion industry since you started modeling?
People's willingness to engage. It's ok to meet a stylist who's never dressed plus-size before when they're willing to sit down and have a conversation with you and learn. I had a really good experience where I met a makeup artist for the first time and he had never done black skin before, and when I came to work with him the following week he'd gone out and bought all the makeup products I'd recommended. That gives me hope.
Another example is how Lane Bryant, in creating this blazer, actually listened to their customers. Usually, blazers for plus-size women are quite shapeless, but this blazer actually tapers in at the waist and comes slightly out at the hips for a seamless silhouette. A lot of progression has happened because customers now have more of a voice. Before you had to write letters or call the head office. Now you can just get on Instagram or Twitter.
People often forget that with plus-size fashion, it's not just about creating a different line or creating another brand. Sometimes it's really about extending the sizes and making sure that if you can buy a white crop top, I can buy a white crop top, too. I want the same options that everybody else has.
It's people demanding change and brands listening and then moving forward. And it's models being more vocal and people like creative directors, makeup artists and hairstylists listening and paying attention. We're all learning together.
Are there other areas that you still want to see more progress in?
I think there's more room for diversity in the variation of body types and shapes and the color of plus-size models. Overwhelmingly most of the plus-size models are white and hourglass shaped. Increasing racial and shape diversity in plus-size modeling would be the next step.
Where do you see yourself in 10 years?
I see myself as an ambassador for an organization that works with maternal health in Ghana and West Africa. I want to be remembered as the model who used her platform to speak up.