Photographed by Mambu Bayoh.
[Interviewed by Akwaeke]
Aina Fadina is a fashion model based in New York City, as well as the founder and host of the webseries I Of Africa. She began I Of Africa in order to document trailblazers across different industries around the world who are inspired by Africa, from fashion and business to music and film. The series celebrates inspiration and individualism as it relates to the continent.
We sat down in New York over Thai food and hogged a restaurant table for three hours with the intent of getting to an interview. Our conversation took over instead, and we were discussing the topic of performing African identity when I decided I might as well just turn on the recorder. What followed was a discussion about the importance of creative community, insights into the modeling business and fashion industry, thoughts on Lagos, self-image, and what’s really important in life.
Akwaeke: [slides recorder gently onto table]
Aina Fadina: Are you recording this for real? Gosh.
A: [laughs] You were saying authenticity is everything.
Aina: It is everything. Because at the end of the day, you’re doing what you do, I’m doing what I’m doing. And I don’t think either of us are living fake. We might not know how we’re going to get there but at the end, there’s something that is driving you and it’s that sense of realness, of wanting to tell the real story of who you are and what you’re driven by.
A: None of it is a performance.
Aina: Who has time?
A: [laughs] Who has time.
Aina: I’m telling you! I perform enough at work as is. I have to stand there, deal with the designer and his assistant, you’re dealing with sales, you’re dealing with other models and you have to be excited about the collection or the season. You’re part of the team and you have to be part of the dream, illusion, and fantasy. When I’m with my friends, I just want to be myself and not feel like I’m being judged or on the clock. It’s too exhausting.
A: I think you’re right about what you were saying before, that we don’t let ourselves be great. When you find friends that do understand supporting your work, supporting your artistic vision- we need enough of us moving at the same time.
Aina: It’s a force.
A: Exactly. You’ll know the kind of people who have that mentality, because they are people who help each other. They understand that your success-
Aina: Is my success!
A: Yes. My success is your success.
Aina: Exactly! We’re doing it together. We have to find a way to encourage and support each other more. I’d like to believe that there is enough of the pie for all of us to eat. It’s interesting, the force of movement that’s happening in the creative area is quite impressive. But I think the problem is that some people just…I won’t say they want it for themselves, but they don’t trust each other enough. I think fundamentally, that’s the issue. For the most part, I was raised to trust so I was very trusting. I’m very much like- what you see is what you get, what you tell me is…[shrugs] I’ll take it for what it is.
A: I’ll believe what you tell me, I’ll believe what you show me.
Aina: Why should I have to think otherwise? But honestly speaking, as you get older you realize you have to reevaluate the ideologies you were taught growing up versus the reality of society
A: Eventually, someone will disabuse you of that notion with a quickness. So you realize- I have to restrict this. I have to trust people who have shown themselves first.
Aina: I think I’ve just learned to do that. Like you said, my success is your success. So if I give you something? Ah! More power to you. For me, it’s one of those things where I don’t know at what point in time I’m going to be paid back for what I’m doing. It may not even be by you, it may be by some random person. You just never know how the dots are going to connect. I am here by the kindness of humanity.
But if you feel like you’re being stripped all the time and no one is giving you anything, then you have to ask yourself- why am I doing what I’m doing? For once, you have to think about being, I won’t say selfish, but maybe a bit more self-serving.
Aina: With modeling, when people ask how long I’ve been doing it for and I say eight years, there’s a sense of ‘you’re still doing that?’ Like, what’s the next step?
A: Why? I know some people see modeling as a side gig, something you’d do for fun but really, it’s a legitimate profession. You’re proof of that.
Aina: Yes, but it’s been eight years of the same grind, year after year, all the hard work and commitment and learning from the school of hard knocks. At the end of the day, modeling is not based on how smart you are. No one really cares about that. It’s literally about the way you look. With wanting to move on to something else, my industry is the type where if they’re still booking you, what are you complaining about? You’ve had the same clients, they have trust in your ability to sell the clothes and understand their business. That’s the reason why they keep calling. Not that I’m the prettiest girl or I’m the skinniest girl but the fact of the matter is- when I put something on, their clients and editors love it and their clients buy it. That’s literally what it’s about. It’s also about the vision of what the designer wants in his head, how his clothes should look. It is about how the clothes hang on you; it is about how once you are in his clothes, you exude confidence, grace, style, and the ability of you transforming his vision and making it a reality. How have you, as a muse, brought their art to life? There’s a ‘science’ to it.
With in-house modeling, you work, get your paycheck, you go home. You’re not constantly going to castings or worrying about if you’ll book an editorial campaign. Your money is somewhat consistent- five times a year you’re working with a client doing their fits before the shows, then after the shows selling to the top luxury boutiques around the world for two weeks, one week, whatever it may be. You’re getting a 360-perspective of the creative and business process of the fashion business. Everyone’s portion in life is different and I have to keep doing what I’m doing until the wheels come off.
A: Like you said, it’s about the way you look. Does that play into how you see yourself?
Aina: You know, validation for who you are as a person is based off your job and your profession. Every day you go to a casting and wonder- am I good enough? But do you know how many no’s I’ve gotten in my career? If I use that no to validate who I am as a person, I’ll be on medication in a psych ward. It’s a lot to have to worry about, but sometimes you’re just not the right fit.
A: It’s not personal.
Aina: It’s not personal. I think that’s what a lot of girls get screwed up about. It’s not about you, it’s not even about the designer. It’s about who they’re selling their clothes to. People can love your stuff but if it’s not moving off the shelves, where’s the business?
Photographed by Mambu Bayoh.
A: You travel back home quite a lot. How do you find it?
Aina: People think they’re going to go back to Nigeria and not change. But when everybody is doing things around you, you have to have coping mechanisms to deal. And in that, you have to adjust.
A: For example, you can’t survive in Lagos without learning restraint and discretion.
Aina: And people there look at you and they’ll always ask “Who are you?”
A: Ha! You don’t need to know.
Aina: It’s the fake sense of self. It’s an illusion. My friend calls Lagos ‘The Eternal Sunshine Of The Spotless Mind”.
A: What? [laughs] I haven’t seen that movie.
Aina: You have to. It’s Lagos, it’s a mirage. It’s really about “What is your story? What do you have to offer me?” Then it’s like- “Oh, you’re a model. But I’ve never seen you anywhere before.”
A: Ha! So you’re not high profile in that ‘glamorous’ way that they expect models to be.
Aina: It’s because I’m behind the scenes. Runway is great, don’t get me wrong. But I’m in there when the show is about to go on the next day and we’re still making clothes and the stores are telling you nope nope nope and you’ve just made all these clothes and now it is about convincing the stores and editors to love the collection as much as you. That’s the real deal. We’re living the grime of what the fashion industry really is. That’s why I say Lagos is an illusion. You have teenage girls wearing clothes that grown women would wear to make them think they can look like that teenager who wore the clothes. False sense of reality. I’ve worked with some young girls who have no sense of who they are as women, but they’re supposed to sell clothes to women, for women.
Photographed by Mambu Bayoh.
A: So much of what we think is life is, like you said about Lagos, an illusion. Then the question becomes, what bits are real? What parts actually matter?
Aina: Life is really about experiences. But a lot of mentality makes it about how much can you acquire. Acquire, acquire, acquire. Fundamentally, are you happy? When I look at my New York experiences, what are the things that I valued? The relationships that I built, the friendship, the concerts, a random DJ spinning, going to this art show, this and that. Those are the things that make New York what it is.
It’s tricky. People in Naija are like- ehn, you guys worry too much. You guys are so stressed out. Why are you stressing out? It will happen. And I’m like- yo, dude! We need to move! But they do one activity a day and they’re fine. But for us- eh? You only did one thing today? Oh, that’s not good enough.
A: “You’re not productive enough.” It’s a production mindset here, you have to be churning out something, anything.
Aina: Turnaround, turnaround.
A: “What do you have to show for yourself?” You spend so much time trying to acquire stuff, you don’t have the experiences. People think- when I acquire all this stuff, I’ll be okay. I’ll have the experiences then. And the next thing you know, it’s fifteen years.
Aina: I moved to New York eight years ago, it feels like a decade. That’s life in general- we do things just to do things. We don’t really appreciate the experience and the process. But it’s tough, mehn. This life. People suck, that’s what my sister says. Once you have that, you’ll be okay. It’s a pessimistic way of looking at life, but at the end of the day, the world has shown you its true colors. Don’t get me wrong, people are people, but I’ve been blessed to have some amazing and pretty dope friends. I have been beyond blessed to have the most amazing and supportive family in the world. At the end of the day, the experiences and time with my loved ones are the most precious moments of my life.
It’s all about a fine balance.
A: True. What else should we put in this interview thing?
Aina: I don’t know. What’s the premise? Because this is all over the place. In fact, people suck. [laughs] That should be the heading.
A: [laughs] I’ll cut out the parts where you talk too much shit about the fashion industry. Sike.
Aina: Ah, please. I don’t want to get fired ohh. Just kidding. I have to say I actually love what I do. When you see the sketches, and you stand before the designer and the team as these pieces are being created, you’re just like…wow. I know it’s just clothes, but there’s an art to every stitch. I’m blessed and honored to have worked for all the labels I have worked for. This was meant to be a break between grad school and figuring out my life, and I’m still figuring it out, while learning and loving the journey. It takes time to realize certain things in life. It’s made me who I am, given me the courage to pursue my dreams and goals, and also inspired me to create I Of Africa to celebrates inspirational and individualism drawn from the continent. I want to show and highlight the stories and people behind the creative, artistic, and business world. Life is about connecting dots, getting lost, yet finding your way.