Face shields and masks were just one sign of the changing times during a recent fashion show in Halifax.
The presence of Black and brown models, a 62-year-old woman, and tattooed men served notice that things are changing in the city's fashion industry.
It's all by design for show organizer Solitha Shortte.
The businesswoman said she's making opportunities for others that are not always available for Black models in Halifax.
Discrimination 'broke me'
"When I started, photographers here didn't want to shoot Black models," Shortte told CBC News. "[Models] told me that, and it broke me."
Shortte, who hails from Saint Vincent and the Grenadines in the Caribbean, said that as a model she was often the only dark-skinned one in the room, an experience she remembered as "isolating."
She dealt with the disappointment by transitioning from the runway to the boardroom. Her firm, Soli Productions, is centred around runway, commercial and print modelling. More recently Shortte added casting services for film and television.
Her firm represents about 60 models of every shape, shade and size. Tattooed talent is welcome, and so are performers from a wide range of ages, from six year olds to people in their 60s.
Cathryn Tracy, 62, said she was surprised at Shortte's eagerness to sign her to a contact.
"I asked her at one point, 'Are you looking for mature models?' And she said, 'No'. I said you're not? And she says, 'No, I'm looking for talent.' And at that point I said where's the contract?"
But getting outside deals for the company has come with challenges, said chief operating officer Cindy MacNeil, who recalled tense boardroom experiences with her boss.
"You don't know how many meets we've gone to where she's the CEO — they start talking to me because my skin's lighter than hers and I go, 'Excuse me, that's the boss, you need to direct yourself here,'" said MacNeil, who is white.
She added that Soli Productions has a "much easier" time finding work for its white models than its models of colour. Her voice became choked with emotion as she lauded her boss's work to change perceptions in the industry.
"She's clearing the space for people that look like her so that all faces and all people are represented," said MacNeil. "We're just striving for change. We want things to be different."
Shortte said one way that Soli Productions operates differently is to take a hands-on approach to training and development. During the recent Halifax fashion show, which was held at a car dealership, she could be seen giving advice to models. She also offers runway coaching and weekly workshops.
Shortte plans to take her show on the road, once COVID-19 restrictions end, with plans to fly her models overseas to shows in Europe and the Caribbean.
"Diversity is such a key factor in how we change, how we how we move forward," she said. "If we're still focused on the way we look, then we're missing an opportunity to celebrate the beauty and the similarities that we have with each other."
For more stories about the experiences of Black Canadians — from anti-Black racism to success stories within the Black community — check out Being Black in Canada, a CBC project Black Canadians can be proud of. You can read more stories here.
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