Ayan Makoii is one of New Zealand’s most in-demand faces. The model has an impressive portfolio, worked with some of New Zealand’s biggest designers including Karen Walker, Huffer and Stolen Girlfriends Club. Represented by N Management, Makoii is a regular at New Zealand Fashion Week and has appeared in dozens of high-profile campaigns.
The Last Fashion Bible sat down with Makoii in Auckland to talk about her path to becoming a model, the best advice she’s received and whether diversity means inclusivity.
Tell us a little about your background.
I was born in Ethiopia, in Gambella Refugee Camp. My parents were originally from South Sudan. We moved to New Zealand, in 2003. I was about two and a half when we moved here — just a little baby. We were in Auckland for a little bit while we waited to find out where we were going to be placed. We were placed in Wellington, so, I was in Wellington for about 17 years. I moved to Auckland about seven months ago for modelling.
Do you ever go back to Ethiopia or South Sudan?
No, I’ve never been back. I could go back to South Sudan, but it’s like civil war, so I wouldn’t be able to go back. I have eight siblings plus me and my parents. I think if we went back, they’d have to take all of us… I don’t think they’d want me to go by myself. I’ve just been in New Zealand the whole time. But that’s OK. I like it here.
How did you become a model?
When I was 15, I used to go to church and there was this lady who was like, ‘There’s this uni student that wants to do a shoot with you’. Her name was Constance, I did a shoot with her for her final year at uni. After I did that, I just did a whole bunch of stuff with uni students.
I think it was that year, as well, Imogen from the Others agency found me on Instagram. I had beads in my hair. She said, ‘I’m doing this shoot’ and they were affiliated with Tyler, the Creator. I was like, ‘Yup, I’ll do it — count me in!’ At the time, Unique wanted to sign me, but I wasn’t sure so I signed with the Others in 2016.
Do you have a favourite local designer?
Karen Walker. She’s amazing. Last year, I had a lot of self-doubts because I’m young, one of only a few black models and being the youngest, I was like, ‘Woah! Do they want me for me?’ A lot of that was happening in my head. But Karen Walker, she would always ring me up when I was doing the online stuff, and then I did the eyewear campaign. Every time I saw her, she was nice to me — it was good, genuine conversation. That’s what helped me a lot. Shooting for them. Just being like, ‘OK, there are people who do want to shoot me for who I am.’
What’s your favourite thing about being a model?
Probably just meeting everyone. It plays a big part in life. You’re always encountering different types of people, in different age brackets, different walks of life, which I think is very important. You’re not always with the same age group, like in high school when you’re always with the same year group. So, where are you being introduced to other people? That’s one of the things I’m most grateful for. Now, I’m able to talk to different people from different backgrounds.
Also, I love food and I love it when food is on set.
What designers would you love to work with?
I would love to do a campaign for Virgil Abloh or Fendi. I’d cry before the shoot… and when it ended I’d be crying again.
When you’re shooting, do you prefer in the studio or on location?
I used to hate studios, to be honest. I’ve grown on them since I’ve been doing a lot of them. Location is fun. Probably location, ‘cause you get to go there. I just did a beach shoot, which was really cool, out west. I’d like to tell you the name. It was a black sand beach, where there’s this big outside rock wall. It looks like Mars. It’s kind of cool.
Do you have a favourite campaign?
My first Karen Walker campaign. Also the recent Stolen Girlfriends campaign.
How would you describe your off-duty style?
My style’s always the same. It’s just streetwear, I guess? I don’t really dress up for castings, I just go as I am. Because you already know how I look, you’ve got my measurements. That’s what I think, anyways. I don’t see the point of going into fittings wearing something I normally wouldn’t wear.
The first casting I went to, I wore a tracksuit. You’ve got to be comfy. It was a stylish tracksuit, like Mango. I feel like they get to see more of you with what you’re wearing. You get the best photos, you don’t feel nervous. When you walk, you own it… you know what you’re wearing.
Diversity is a long-overdue hot topic in fashion right now. As a model, have you had any examples of diversity not equalling inclusivity?
Oh yes! A big local designer wanted me for her look book. When I went to the casting, she was like, ‘Oh, we’ve been looking for someone to diversify the range.’ I was like, ‘OK, cool. Thank you so much for having me.’ Then, I did the editorial. Everything started off fine. I brought my own makeup. Then it got to my hair and they were like, ‘What can you do with your hair?’ I was like, ‘What do you mean? Is there no hairstylist here?’ I had already styled my hair how I was instructed before arriving. ‘That’s what I’d been communicated to do with my hair before the shoot.’ She replied, ‘Is there anything else you can do?’ I was like, ‘That’s not my job. But I can brush it out if you want?’ So after that, I was angry.
I did a runway show recently and nobody knew my name. I had my braids and they were like, ‘The girl with the dreadlocks.’ I was like, ‘Wait… what?’ I don’t know if they just thought I wasn’t listening. But I definitely heard what they said and these are definitely not dreadlocks. I just stood there. They came back and asked me, ‘What’s your name again?’
Then, we went backstage and the designer said, ‘Oh, wow, your hair’s so lovely.’ Then she said to me, ‘Do you live in New Zealand?’ I feel like that’s a thing I get a lot. People assume I’m an international model. No, I’ve been here for a long time and I’ve been working, so it really frustrates me. It’s the lack of… you know… excuses, them not knowing.
So, I had this dress to wear for the runway show and the designer commented, ‘Oh, wow, you look so African in this.’ I was like, ‘What? What does that mean?’ I don’t know. I couldn’t really react because the backroom was so small. But that had a big effect on my whole mood and my walk, I just wanted to get it over and done with. As soon as the show finished, I left straight away. Just because, from then, I was like ‘I’m just here for diversity’. I don’ t know if that’s the intention, but it’s the way it was put across. I feel like people just need to be aware of what they’re saying.
Do you ever have any issues with makeup artists and hairstylists?
I just feel like the big thing is, makeup artists and hairstylists should know if there’s going to be a person of colour on your set. At Fashion Week, I was doing my own hair. Why should I have to do my own hair when all the other models are getting their hair done? Or, like, someone else is doing it. And why do I have to bring my own makeup?
That was a thing I had decided last year. Because at my first Fashion Week, they didn’t have my foundation shade. They were just mixing colours and I was like, ‘What are you doing? Surely you knew I was going to be here. Surely you knew the colours you had?’ From then on, I decided I was just going to bring my own. Last year, my friend gave me some Fenty foundation which I brought to Fashion Week because it works really well. I’m like, I’ll be more comfortable if I use this. I’d rather have my face looking good.
It’s definitely frustrating. I guess being young, as well… it’s hard to voice my opinion. Sometimes I’m scared, if I say this, will I get in trouble? If I say something, what’s going to happen? I remember one of the shows I did last year, the makeup was terrible. It did not match, at all. They ended up using my foundation. To get them to use my foundation I had to go to one of the designers. I said, ‘Hey, look what they have done to my face.’ She said to her own staff, ‘Why would you do that?’
I remember, last year, I bought my foundation to one of the shows and said, ‘Hey, here’s what I have, please use this.’ The makeup artist said, ‘No, we have to use a specific brand.’ Why would you use that if you don’t have my colour? It doesn’t make sense. You want me to feel and look good, right? So she just did what she wanted. I looked at it and I was like, ‘No, this is not good.’ I remember going to the bathroom and crying. I shouldn’t have to go to the bathroom and have a cry because they don’t have my shade [of foundation]. If you want everything to run smooth, if you want me to feel good and if you have every other models’ shade, you should have mine.
That also plays a big part in when you don’t see your shade. Like, should I be here? Why am I here?
The industry might be diverse, but is it inclusive?
Sometimes it doesn’t feel inclusive. It just comes back to, if you’re a makeup artist, you should know. This is your job. Or if you’re a designer, and you’ve cast this model, you should know how to be prepared. Hopefully, 2020 is different. Just being aware that I will be there. Or any other dark-skinned model will be there. Be prepared.
It’s one thing to say, ‘Oh, we love you, we want you,’ and then when I get there and they’re not even prepared. They don’t have the products, they don’t know how to work with you, they don’t know what to do with you. It should be something they think about. I get that the fashion industry in New Zealand is pretty small. It’s not as diverse as some bigger industry events in other countries. But people of colour are around. We are here. We do exist. We are doing shoots. We are walking shows. If you know that, you should learn because that’s your job.
What’s the best advice you’ve been given?
Probably from stylist Chloe Hill. She said, ‘If you have questions, just ask. If you someone has said something to you that you don’t like – communicate.’
What advice would you give to anyone aspiring to be a model?
Don’t feel like you have to change your appearance or look. And that’s it’s OK to say no to shoots you don’t want to do.
Where can we follow you?
What don’t you leave the house without?
Lip balm, pens and a notebook and my earbuds.
Keep an eye out for Ayan Makoii in more local and international campaigns.