An African in the City: Yomi Abiola
When thinking of models, speaking is not the first thing that comes to mind. In fact, some would rather they not speak at all. Such is not the case with London-born Nigerian model and social entrepreneur Yomi Abiola. Whether she’s speaking the Queen’s English, French, Italian, Russian or Yoruba, you find yourself wanting to hear what she has to say. For the past few years, that voice has been used to promote social responsibility within the fashion industry through a platform she founded called Stand Up For Fashion — STUFF.
The organization, she recently explained at a TedX event, was in part fueled by her experience of having the esteemed honor of being the international face of Maybelline cosmetics, while at the same time being called to limit her modeling aspirations because she is ‘black.’ Yomi didn’t give up on her catwalk dreams, however, she did get a degree in journalism from Columbia University and Sciences-Po Paris, which gave her the foundation she needed to create STUFF.
So whether covering Fashion Week in under-promoted emerging markets such as Nigeria, South Africa and Jamaica for Vogue Italia, flying to Bangladesh to visit victims and their families following the 2013 garment factory collapse, or advocating for more people of color in front of the camera and behind, Ms. Abiola is passionate about transforming the world through fashion and its reach.
We were able to catch up with Yomi recently to discuss other important issues, such as her favorite thing to do in the City, the unique relationship she has with African Americans, and her plans for the future.
Speak on Ms. Abiola!
TAC: How long have you lived in New York?
YOMI: Ten years, on and off.
TAC: What’s your favorite thing to do in the City?
YOMI: Eating out! (laughs) Also going to shows. The experiential shows in New York, you can’t find in other places.
TAC: What have you learned about yourself living in NYC?
YOMI: That my soul leads me here because I want to live in a large way. I feel like the people who do well in NYC are not afraid to live the largeness of themselves. When I first came here I remember seeing this woman on the train with this shower cap on her head, listening to music and dancing like she was in a nightclub, and I was horrified. Now I can see the beauty and freedom in it. It’s such a remembrance of something that I might have lost being socialized in England.
TAC: What about you is distinctly African that has helped you navigate city life?
YOMI: My manners. Growing up in a Nigerian household, there’s a respect that we have for elders that I think is very important. There is also appropriateness just in knowing how to navigate different situations. Sometimes it can be perceived as reserved, but I think it’s empowering. There is always something more to uncover and unleash.
TAC: What is your relationship like with African Americans?
YOMI: I have some very close African American friends. What happens when you travel, or for me anyway, is I innately look for home. And I look for that in people.
It’s about values at the end of the day; it’s about vibrations. If you see young African American and African kids dancing in the village, it’s the same. Home for me is that familiar vibration, and I’ve found that in African Americans. It’s so interesting that people look at the differences as opposed to the similarities.
TAC: Where is home?
YOMI: Home is where I find my people. It’s the people who make a place come alive.
TAC: What do you see yourself doing in the future?
YOMI: I’d rather show the vision as opposed to talking about it. I find that we live in an age where we don’t think before we communicate and then it’s out there in the world. So for me, it’s so important to be fully anchored in whatever it is that I’m doing. The only thing really guiding me is my commitment to women and cultural understanding. If I understand your culture and you understand mine then we can build bridges together.
Photos by Joanna Totolici and Ertug Azak