Rachel Parker caught up with Norman Busigu, model and winner of Face of Fashion4Africa UK 2018, to discuss Afrocentrism, self-confidence and balancing modelling with a career in law.
How did you first get into modelling?
It’s a funny story. Firstly, it was my interest in arts generally, especially spoken word. When I was at university studying law I used to perform poetry at mic nights and also showcase at universities, so through that I got used to the idea of being on the stage and performing. That’s one side of how I got into modelling. In October 2017 I had just started working in a private investment firm, but I knew that I wanted to continue my attachment to the arts world. Around that time a friend of mine who is one of the founders of Made in Africa London Apparel, which is a brand that debuted at Africa Fashion Week this year, brought me to my first show. I went down and there was just something about seeing the runway, seeing people wearing the clothes, and the excitement and energy—I was like ”I want to do this”. At this point I had only done one photoshoot, through a friend of mine who got me a voucher to go and get pictures done. I had my first shoot in January and it was kind of like a roll-on thing. In July I had three runway shows, and then I won Fashion4Africa in September. So that’s how I got started really.
How did you find out about Fashion4Africa?
It was my friend—we started modelling around the same time and he just sent me a poster and told me I should go to it. I met Anna, who’s the director of Fashion4Africa, at the casting and I could tell she was very serious from the way she was talking. I could tell she knew what she was talking about in the industry. So yeah, that’s how I got involved. Can you tell us a bit more about Fashion4Africa and what it’s about? Anna is great in the sense that she puts a lot of focus on talent in product of the diaspora. I’m first generation British-African in the sense that my parents migrated from Uganda in the 90s, and there’s a whole generation of people like me whose parents came over to the UK in the 90s or the 80s. I think Fashion4Africa is embracing creativity, black excellence and Afrocentrism. If you look at what’s happening in pop culture and society in general, there are a lot more conversations about diversity. If you look at people in London they’re wearing a lot more head wraps, a lot more African-inspired apparel, and I think Fashion4Africa is all about bringing that connect between Africa and Western fashion. Things here are still to some extent Eurocentric in terms of how we look at beauty and fashion, but there’s this growing focus on diversity. Why do you think it’s important to celebrate African models and designers? It’s so important because I think we need to shed light on what is happening. I’m very fortunate in that I’ve been to Africa four times now. I’m from Uganda and I went to Uganda in 2007, 2011 and 2015. In 2015 I went to do legal work out there, and I went to Ghana in 2016 to do legal work. I had the opportunity to see things first-hand on the ground, whereas a lot of people haven’t. I think if you haven’t been to Africa it might be hard to find that connect. If you live in London all your life, fashion can be an amazing way to plug that disconnect between us and them, because you feel like “This came from there”. Visually I think it’s so important to have that.
On a global platform as well, I think the fact that it was exclusively Africaninspired apparel makes it more authentic and more believable.
What was it like to win?
First of all, I didn’t expect it, because fashion was always just a hobby for me and an external release. I find photoshoots to be very calming for me, as is runway, it’s just so much fun. So to win was crazy. I didn’t really know what winning meant—Anna did keep telling me ”It’s going to be crazy” but I didn’t really think about it too much. I thought I might get some endorsements and some clothes but when I won on Friday 14th September, I got home at 4 am and was in Central London the next day as a runner at a Julian McDonald London Fashion Week show. I know runners typically don’t do that much but there were only four of us and we were hands on for everything, backstage with all the DJs and designers—I was standing right next to Jimmy Choo. I was seeing how high-end fashion really works at that level. I’ve also been invited to parliament with the Uganda UK Health Alliance and Uganda High Commission to talk about contentious issues going on in Uganda and what we can be doing to help young talent over there and just focus on health initiatives over there, and start-ups and NGOs.
Was that something you wanted to promote specifically if you won?
Yeah, in the promotional video I did in the lead-up to Fashion4Africa I spoke about how it would be a great opportunity for me to educate people more about Ugandan culture because it is so rich. It’s the pearl of Africa, it’s got the source of the Nile and a very rich history and culture. People go there and say it’s one of the best countries in East Africa to visit. I’m very proud of it and my parents have instilled that in me. I think having had the privilege of going there so many times I feel a sort of responsibility to educate people on our culture and fashion. East Africa is still emerging, economically and in terms of pop culture, whereas I would say West Africa is more advanced. Beyond that I just want to celebrate Afrocentrism, black excellence and creativity with the amazing platform Fashion4Africa has given me.
What do you think are the main problems facing the modelling industry at the moment?
I think there’s a perception that you can’t get in. When I started people were like ”Norman you’re crazy, you’re going to embarrass yourself”. When I said I wanted to be a model everyone laughed, nobody understood. But I work full-time in the legal industry and for me it was an artistic endeavour, so even if it didn’t work out it would just be something I had tried, and I didn’t really have anything to lose. But now that I’ve sort of crossed over to the other side and been signed, I can see that the perception that it’s hard to break into the fashion industry is so superficial. Some female friends have said to me “When I was sixteen I wanted to be a model and I went to an agency, but they said I wasn’t the right kind of look, so I gave up there and then.” I think with anything you have to have a sort of DIY approach to it. It’s not like a regular job interview where you can learn the nuances of what to say, fashion is different. To a certain extent it’s about luck, but it’s also about having the right energy and gravitas and developing as you’re going along.
You can make your own portfolio and connect with photographers— it’s pure networking. I think that one of the biggest issues in the fashion world is accessibility, but one thing I’m learning as I get deeper in is that beauty is subjective, so one casting director might think “He’s the right fit” whereas the next person might not. But even though they might disagree on who’s beautiful, they always look at your technique. The person with technique can get you the shot, and showcase the clothes on the runway perfectly, and they’re more likely to go with that person. More could be done to express the fact that anyone can get in, it’s just about how you approach it and how you look at it.
Do you think that’s a good way to gain self-confidence, by looking at modelling as something technical?
Yes, I think so.
So how do you deal with the rejection that comes with modelling?
I’m happy I’ve come into it at the age of 22, especially when I am working as well. I think it’s important to come into fashion with a sense of self. I know people do it from very young ages, but I couldn’t imagine myself doing it at 16 because you are faced with so much criticism. Because I have that experience from law of not taking things personally, I know it’s not personal, it’s just business. You get constructive criticism at work or during an appraisal, and it’s not an attack on you, it’s just your technique or how you are performing. Having that same mentality in modelling means that I view it as work, so that if I go to a casting and I’m having an off day I know that it’s not a personal attack on me but rather a judgement on how I am performing.
I know some people have felt it’s about them or their look, but I think you have to be quite emotionally detached from it. You have to be invested but you can’t let it consume you. Especially with the arts, where you are essentially putting yourself out there as a canvas to the world. If you take every single comment deeply it will affect you badly.
Can you tell us a bit about your personal style?
I think there are three components to it. Firstly, there’s the Afrocentrism, which growing up was important to my family, especially my mum. If you come to my house there’s lots of oldschool photo albums and looking through those pictures at my grandparents when they first came to the UK or family gettogethers in the 90s, everyone is dressed in traditional clothing and I think “Wow, that’s so cool”. That culture has always been embraced in my family and that’s definitely rubbed off on me, so I try and wear it as much as possible. Then there’s urban hiphop style; I love my rap and my hip-hop, so I love street style and the reality of what’s going on around you. Then the other element is more smart-casual, which has come about since I’ve been working in the City. We’ve got dress-down Fridays, but even though my idea of dressing down is street style I can’t really wear that to work. I’ve had to learn what real smart-casual looks like, and I am growing to like it more and more.
How do you find the interplay between the two sides of what you do?
It’s interesting. I have won awards like the Miranda Brawn Diversity Leadership Scholarship, and in that area the fashion is becoming almost an extension of my character. There’s nothing contentious on my portfolio and I’m using modelling as a platform to speak on certain issues and help bring about positive change in society.. I gave a speech at the University of Law as part of the Miranda Brawn Diversity Leadership Scholarship and I was talking about my experiences working in the white-collar world, but also how in my free time I do fashion. I think it’s important to have different facets to yourself, to avoid burning out and to keep the mind working in different ways. Things I have learned from work, such as maintaining relationships with clients and being professional, have been useful to bring into modelling. So I think the interplay is very interesting, and the deeper I get with this the more overlap I think there is. When you bring in my legal work in Africa and then Fashion4Africa, it’s sort of like through no control of my own it’s all tying itself together.
Which designers do you think are doing great things right now?
One of my favourites is Virgil Abloh, the creative director for Louis Vuitton menswear. He’s got very strong connections to Kanye West, and everyone knows Kanye, love him or hate him. I think someone like Virgil is one of the most important individuals in fashion, or just in the world. He’s important because Louis Vuitton is one of those top brands and fashion at that level is so removed from the average person, and I think by him being there and coming from his background and having the affiliations he has, and just the kind of things he represents in terms of black creativity, he’s opening a realm of understanding for people. I think it’s really important to have someone like him in fashion and that’s why he’s one of the most important designers right now.
How do you feel as a male model in terms of the role of masculinity in fashion?
When I first started, for a guy to say they are an aspiring model, I think people questioned my ego. I think for a guy it’s harder because until you get to a certain threshold, in terms of getting signed or getting some kind of recognition, you are always going to be looked at in a kind of shaky way and it’s kind of frowned upon. On the other hand, when I would have rehearsals for fashion shows, the choreographers would always talk about masculinity and say that to be a male model, it’s all about believing you’re the best and inner confidence. You feel very bare and people are always analysing every element of you, like how your hands are positioned and how your head is tilted and whether your shoulders are held forward or back. The most minute things are judged, and I think to model is an amazing feat because you have to have a confidence in who you are.
What are the biggest challenges you’ve faced?
One of the biggest things is time. Compared to some of my friends who have more time in the week and aren’t tied down because they’re working flexi-time or part time, I can’t go to as many castings and do as many shoots. But I always knew that was an issue I would face, negotiating the role this plays in my life alongside working full-time. It’s not really an issue per se because I am happy with my working arrangements and I truly like the profession I am in.
How do you make the time and keep focus?
It’s a sacrifice. It has impacted my social life, because even though I am at events all the time the people there aren’t my friends exactly. My social life has been cut, so if I have choice between a fashion show on a Friday night or going out for a burger, I will go for the fashion opportunity. It’s about prioritisation, so you just have to think about the cost and value. Do you do something that has more intrinsic value or something that will give you more short-term enjoyment? Because my time is so short anyway because of the way I work, I like my free time to be as jam-packed and enriching as possible. The energy for fashion comes because I enjoy it, pure and simple.
Having said that, I’m not perfect by any means, and am always trying to strike the right balance. Though sacrifice is important, I am also working on finding the medium between work and play – it’s a real challenge.
I think that’s the main issue for a lot of people trying to make it in fashion, just trying to make the time and stay committed to it. Do you have any advice for models just starting out?
Just go straight in. Do loads of practice shoots but try not to pay for shoots—there are loads of photographers who will do it for free. Networks are everything, as in any industry, so build those connections. Go to shows, which will often be free or only around £10. That’s what I did at the start, I went to two shows and connected with brands I ended up working with. Just see what a runway looks like, talk to models who are doing this and understand what you have to do. Just do your homework really, and I think that’s the best way to do it. Don’t be afraid of what your peers will say, because as with any kind of art people will look at you and think “What are they doing?”. Set yourself some benchmarks, so for example I decided that within six months I wanted to do ten shoots, work with eight brands and do one runway. I smashed all those, but I think having the benchmarks gave me a degree of focus. Just try and be as creative as possible, so take inspiration from what’s out there but try not to recycle what has been done.
I think one issue is that in the era of social media people are able to blow up and excel very quickly, but are they around after two or three years? I think as millennials we are in the microwave era where things blow up very quickly and come back down very quickly, but we don’t look at staying power or persistence. With the modelling world, especially with Instagram, people think it’s possible to make it after five pictures or to become a star overnight, but that’s an illusion.
What’s next for you?
Fashion4Africa has kept me very busy, but I know I need to keep developing my modelling abilities as far as going to rehearsals and training is concerned. One of my goals is to get on Africa Fashion Week London, so if I can do that next year I feel like I can do many more things. I want to do a few more shoots abroad, so I have got my eyes on France next. I’m already scheming on that and hopefully within the next few months that will come to fruition. So yeah, doing more shoots and runways.
And longer term, what ambitions do you have for your career?
I want to be doing runway abroad, and even other pageants. I know there are a few other titles that I might try my hand at competing for. Maybe, if I can, getting signed to a very big agency. What do you think your biggest achievement has been so far? I think the biggest one isn’t winning or being signed, it’s just actually being around for this long and having staying power. I have seen a lot of people come and go, and one of the things I say to people is a little acronym PAC, which stands for persistence, authenticity and consistency. I feel like I’ve had all of those things throughout the year. So that’s my biggest achievement, not backing out after three months and thinking that I don’t know what I’m doing. I’m still in the game and still progressing, I feel like I am not at a dead end. I’m just beyond the glass ceiling and I have a platform to do bigger things. That’s pretty cool.
Follow Norman on Instagram @norman.mdl
See more from Rachel at twitter.com/rachelfrances_
Images via @kraiziekat