By Evan Majors
Rashad Irvin, Wilhelmina Models newest contract model, wants to be an advocate for change in an industry still slow to open its doors to people of color, especially Black men.
When you are born poor in Detroit, Michigan, aka “The Motor City,” a certain type of toughness is imbued in your DNA. You must be resilient, resourceful and ready for anything because the streets are unforgiving. To be from one of the most dangerous (according to a recent Forbes list) American cities, one must possess an unwavering spirit in order to bounce back and arise, like the city itself, from the ashes of adversity. A blue-collar type of hustle as well doesn’t hurt, and the work ethic of someone who isn’t afraid to get their hands dirty. As a Detroit native, these traits are ingrained in Rashad.
As Wilhelmina Models newest exclusive Black male model, 23-year-old Rashad Irvin has a “pretty” face that belies the tough streets he hails from. “I’ve never been afraid of hard work,” says Irvin as we eat pancakes and French toast on a chilly Saturday morning at a literary-themed bistro on the Upper East Side of New York City; an atypical meal, I thought, for a male model since their sculpted abs are their moneymakers. “Pizza is also my weakness,” says Irvin, with a boyish grin.
At first glance, Rashad doesn’t look like your typical male model. He looks more like a college jock, which he was at the University of Toledo as wide receiver for the school’s football team, until a torn ACL his junior year sidelined him and ended his NFL dreams.
In addition to his boyish good looks, great smile, perfect mocha complexion, and undeniable charm, Rashad is thoughtful, has a propensity to think before he speaks, some would say an oft forgotten trait in many millennials. He’s smart, and so damn nice, almost too nice. You can tell he was raised “right,” which he attributes to his parents who have been married for over 20 years. Rashad has the type of nice-guy attitude that just might get chewed up and spit out, especially in the world of high-fashion modeling. “One thing I want everyone to know about me is that I am a super friendly guy,” says Irvin. “I don’t see myself as just a model. My purpose is not just to shoot campaigns and make money. I want to open the doors for more people, for men of color. I want to be an advocate for change in this industry.”
In an industry that continues to be underrepresented when it comes to Black models, especially Black male models, it is refreshing that someone from the “selfie generation” cares about helping others. “It’s a problem because we’re definitely underrepresented,” says Irvin. “A lot of times when I go to castings I am the only Black model there. Sometimes that’s better for me because if the client wants a Black guy, then I’ll get the job, but it should not be that way. I want to show other Black guys that modeling as a career is available to them.”
“I want to show other Black guys that modeling as a career is available to them.”
Back in Michigan, circa 1994, Rashad was walking through the Fairlane Mall in the Detroit western suburb of Dearborn. A local fashion stylist stopped him and asked if he had ever modeled. This chance encounter led to him being photographed and featured on a fashion website. From there, other area photographers noticed and started reaching out. “Getting my photos taken initially felt weird and awkward,” says Irvin. “I was out of my comfort zone and that made me uncomfortable because I wasn’t good at it. I did not like it at first.”
It’s been said that male models receive a lot of DM’s, which Irvin confidently confirmed. One such DM would change the course of his professional life, forever. “I got a direct message on Instagram from a friend telling me about an open casting call sponsored by Wilhelmina and Bleu Magazine in New York,” says Irvin. A few days later, in December of 2016, Rashad boarded a bus in a McDonald’s parking lot headed to the Big Apple on a twelve hour bus ride to follow his new professional dream. “When I got there, the line was wrapped around the corner,” says Irvin. He’s referring to Harlem’s popular eatery, Row House, where the casting call was held. “I waited in line for about an hour before I met with Olga from Wilhelmina,” says Irvin. “There were a lot of guys there.”
For a model, male or female, it is no small feat to get signed exclusively to one of the biggest (if not the biggest) internationally known model management agencies in the world. It’s an even bigger deal if you’re a person of color because the fashion industry has been slow to make male models of color the face of high-end fashion brands. “It’s funny, I’ve been doing this for a really long time,” says 20-year fashion industry veteran and Head Scout for Wilhelmina in NYC, Olga Tavarez, who is responsible for signing Rashad. “As soon as I see someone who I think has potential, they stand out in a room to me. I was seeing a lot of men. A lot of people showed up from everywhere that day. As soon as Rashad walked in, it was like this aura was around him, and I just felt it, and I just felt like he was the guy,” says Tavarez.
Being “the guy” as a male model is more than just having six pack abs. “He just came across as super nice, sweet, and told me where he came from. He came from Detroit that day on a bus just to meet me and that impressed me,” says Tavarez. “I can tell he just had all the elements. He has a great smile, which is very important in our business. It was all those things. I could just tell from his features and knowing the height and body requirements, he just fit and then talking to him sold me.”
On my phone call with Olga I bring up the issue of diversity and why there aren’t more high-end male models of color, especially those who are the face of major luxury campaigns? “We really need more urban guys in all colors,” says Tavarez. “Latino, Black, whatever, it is for the agencies and for fashion. I feel like it’s currently the thing that’s happening in culture right now and the fashion community is following suit and getting in line with it.”
“I don’t feel like I have not gotten a job because of the color of my skin,” says Irvin. “I don’t like to think like that; I look past that. I did what I was supposed to do and if I didn’t get the job, then I’d keep it moving.”
Before we leave the restaurant to head out into the chilly Manhattan air, I ask Rashad, what’s his life’s purpose? “My life’s purpose is to master myself. I am not just a hanger.” He continues, “The biggest investment you can make is working on yourself,” says Irvin. “I write down all my goals. I want to be the best version of myself.” This type of mindset, the ability to remain focused on an end-game, separates the amateurs from the professionals. We expect to see much more of this professional.