Mar 1, 2021
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Model lives upended by Covid

Mar 1, 2021

"What fashion week?" says French model Christelle Yambayisa, only half-joking.

Normally, at this time of year, the world's fashionistas would have descended en masse on Paris for the latest womenswear collections.

Christian Dior - Spring-Summer2021 - Womenswear - Paris - © PixelFormula

Instead, the whole thing has been relegated to the internet once again due to the pandemic, and models are having to find new ways to keep their careers afloat.

Yambayisa managed to keep busy during the first lockdown a year ago, with brands sending her clothes and her boyfriend shooting the photos in their apartment.

"It was a bit scrappy, but it worked," she said.

Then, as things opened up temporarily over the summer, she found an unexpected advantage, since travel restrictions meant there were fewer black models around from the United States and Britain.

"I've worked a lot more, like all black models in Paris," she told AFP.

Designer Julien Fournie said he similarly had to find a French model at the last second for his haute couture film in Paris in January after a Belarussian was denied entry -- modelling being deemed "non-essential".

Even for those doing well, there is little rejoicing since all the energy and fun of fashion weeks have been obliterated by the pandemic -- and with that, the best opportunities to advance their careers in the longer term.

Fashion weeks were the pace-setters of a model's existence, with a build-up akin to sportsmen getting ready for game day.

"We would start training, getting to bed early, so that we'd be in shape when the castings started," said Yambayisa. "It's important to open or close a show, it raises your profile."

New stars would emerge often during a fashion week, and go on to dominate the rest of the year's events.

That has all changed with the new shift to pre-filmed videos, where it is trickier for models to get noticed.

"It's much harder to get recognised," said Yambayisa. "Even if I'm doing a video with a house like Hermes, I know I'm going to be lost in it."


There's also a major loss of income. Fashion week meant at least 4,000 euros, rising to 50,000 euros for the top stars.

For Turkish model Oyku Bastas, who found herself trapped in Istanbul by the travel restrictions, there was suddenly no income.

"I didn't get any work for six months," she told AFP. "I was in Turkey, all the borders closed, the consulates stopped working."

She previously earned up to 7,000 euros per fashion week in places like Paris and New York, enough to keep her studies going for three months when she returned.

Eventually, she was able to use her existing US visa to get to New York for photo shoots.

"But there's only one session per day and not every day, and the fees are not the same," she said.

There's also the obvious health risks for a profession where masks can really get in the way.

Health protocols have become much stricter in recent months. Bastas said she does two tests a week, while Yambayisa has racked up 39 in total.

But that is a recent phenomenon. Four models told AFP they caught Covid at Paris fashion week in September, which saw some live shows.

"The make-up artists certainly do not sterilise their hands like surgeons," said Ekaterina Ozhiganova, of a models rights organisation in Paris.

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