“Young black girls should love their natural hair and their dark skin and beautiful brown eyes. When one is comfortable in their own skin, there is no limit to what they can achieve.”
To Mala Bryan, representation matters. The former model looks back on her modelling career as “painful”, in part because she was told to just accept that she would receive fewer castings than her peers because she is black. Now a successful entrepreneur, Mala used those experiences as inspiration for Malaville Toys, her doll line that aims to give a face to those who are usually absent from fashion magazines and mainstream media coverage – black and brown women and girls.
We caught up with Mala ahead of the upcoming release of some new additions to her doll line to talk about diversity, being a woman of colour in the fashion industry, and what needs to be done to improve the representation of diversity in all its forms.
On her new line of dolls:
“My new line of dolls have a new face. I've designed a new head with a broader nose and thicker lips with a soft smile so children with such features can have a more relatable doll.
I've also added a few more shades of brown skin. The goal of Malaville is to try to include as many skin tones as possible. Because there has been such a lack of different shades of black and brown tones in the doll industry, I felt it was the perfect opportunity to introduce dolls with different shades of black and brown. It is about making children feel great about having a doll that resembles them.
With that I've added a red-haired afro with freckles, and a doll with albinism. In Malaville we believe in diversity in the toy world. In the real world, people with albinism exist so it was a no brainer – a doll with albinism was a must.
I also wanted to introduce some African goddesses to those who don't know about them. The first one to be released will be Oshun. The next one will be Yemaya.”
On the importance of representation for young girls:
“The dolls have had a huge impact around the world because there was such a need for young girls of color to have dolls that represent them. I believe that girls should have dolls that represent themselves and their friends. Sometimes during play, children tend to mimic real life situations, so there should be dolls available to represent everyone. Black dolls do exist but most black dolls that are available would have straight hair or if they had curly hair it would normally be a silky loose curl. Seeing that the majority of black people have very tight curls, I wanted to get a fiber close enough to the look and feel of "natural afro hair".
My dolls were able to make a bit of a statement because of the different [skin] tones and mainly for the hair texture. Positive self-esteem of young girls needs to be developed from an early age. Being accepted as they are and not for what society makes them think they should be. Young black girls should love their natural hair and their dark skin and beautiful brown eyes. Too often they are told that straightening their hair will make it easier and more manageable, or having lighter skin would make them more successful. When one is comfortable in their own skin, there is no limit to what they can achieve.”
On representation in the fashion and beauty industries:
“My experiences as a black model in the industry were a bit painful. When I started modeling I had a huge afro. I was advised by my agency to cut it all off, at the time most black models either had very short natural hair or relaxed hair with extensions. After my hair got cut, they were not happy with the look and I had to grow it out and relax it to start getting booked. There has now been a natural hair movement around the world where lots of black women are now ditching the relaxer and growing their natural hair out.
After 14 years in the business, I still receive fewer castings than non-black models. There have been many occasions where my agencies have sent me to castings "just in case" the client might see me and like me. There will never be a client that will admit to not booking a model because they're black, but with experience you just know. So they will just request to see non-black models. Also being told by your agents that it is harder for you because you're black is not an easy pill to swallow.
As far as the fashion and beauty industry goes I feel like there some work still has to be done in terms of diversity. I'd like to see things like photos not being overly photoshopped, more models of color on runways and campaigns, not the same five models of color in all of the campaigns, models over 25 not being made to feel like they're grannies, not being asked your age at castings, booking models of color because they are great models and not because it's trendy. My list is quite long!
For now diversity seems like a trend, and I'm not yet fully convinced that all is equal yet. What I noticed with the fashion and beauty industry, when there is a bit of an outrage about lack of diversity one or two companies will work with some black girls and after a while they go back to doing what they did until the next protest or outrage. The natural movement is in and also all eyes are on Africa. We are now seeing lots of girls rocking their afros on runways and, funny enough, they are making headlines because of it. I am very happy that more black models are getting work and I hope that it will continue to be so. Only time will tell.”
“I knew I had a reason and purpose for being in the industry so I stayed until it was revealed to me. I hung in there and did what I could because I am someone who doesn’t give up very easily. At the end of the day my belief is, if you won't book me someone else will. So after 14 years I have gotten to a point where it does not bother me anymore. I put my energy towards those who appreciate me for my talent and not for my skin color. And now I'm able to take all of my experiences to make a positive change in the world.”