Creating opportunities for Black designers
When Liberian-born entrepreneur and designer Vanessa Lawson looked at the state’s landscape of modeling talent and agencies, she found little representation of Black and Brown models, who she felt were an underserved community in the Twin Cities.
A native of Brooklyn Park, Lawson founded Porte Agency, a model and talent agency, in 2018. The company is dedicated to leveling the playing field for those from marginalized communities in terms of visibility and representation.
Shortly after the launch, Lawson was sent on a 13-month deployment to Kuwait and Iraq as a paralegal by the U.S. Army. Upon her return to the United States, Lawson’s goal of launching Porte was sidetracked once again by the coronavirus pandemic in 2020.
Nearly four years later, Lawson held a fashion exhibit at the state capitol in February, where the work of several Black clothing designers was on display in the rotunda, followed by a discussion panel that included all of the designers.
“I’m really happy that we were able to bring it together this year and do it during Black History Month. We were the first people ever to host something like that at the Minnesota State Capitol,” she stated.
Lawson is a designer herself, having created the swimsuit brand Porte Celestial. The fashion event earlier this year was the agency’s first showcase,
Lawson has been building a roster of talent, with her first model call garnering 200 applicants. The response from the community gave her the insight that there was a large void to be filled in the talent world.
“I would hear conversations among models that they couldn’t get representation. They submitted their work, but they couldn’t get opportunities because [agencies were] already representing someone who looked like them,” Lawson recalled.
“When you go on modeling agency websites, there’s nobody that really looks like us. They just have one Black person or one Asian person. That’s not representation.”
Lawson said that the murder of George Floyd created a moment where there was a lot of rhetoric about support for Black people, but little action to show it. Frustrated by this, she decided to kick things into gear and create an opportunity for local Black designers to have their work seen at a high level.
To do this, Lawson recruited two of her peers, Destiny Carter, who she had met through the military, and Muna Mohamed, who she met in college. All three were students at the University of Minnesota and had the desire to bring change to the fashion world. They worked closely together for several months leading up to the February event at the capital.
For Mohamed, it was a chance to grow her sense of community while providing a platform for local designers. “I was definitely on board, and it was just amazing to see how many people were able to come and support and be able to talk about their accomplishment, their greatness and what they want to do for the future,” she said.
“I’ve always been one to think that bringing people together…for a greater cause was amazing,” Carter agreed. “Hearing about why she was doing it and where the event was being held, I just thought it was phenomenal that she wanted to put our voices out there and have our designers really be highlighted.
“I definitely think that my background, and just wanting to see people understand Black artists, is a part of why I really wanted to join. It was a blessing that these designers decided to take a chance on us and see what could come from it,” Carter continued.
“So that’s how we got into the mix of these designers. They’re all absolutely phenomenal, talented, knowledgeable, and they were able to really speak their truth and speak to their story in a way that I just thought was very moving and got to the point of where art connects us.”
Participants in the exhibit expressed their appreciation not only as an opportunity to promote their brands or designs but elevating the work of Black artists in Minnesota. Ra’Shawnda C. Scott, who participated in the show, founded Pieces of Kandakes Jewelry, a luxury jewelry brand, in 2019. Her designs are inspired by ancient history and African culture.
As someone who often throws events and holds workshops, Scott knew the importance of participation in the exhibit, not only for her brand but for her luxury jewelry business.
“I do realize that there is a need for more exposure for artists in Minnesota, especially for me and jewelry, just not Minnesota, just in general,” she said. “There’s a very slim lane for jewelry designers, so I’m hoping to get more exposure so that I can inspire other artists as well.
Denimani Livingstone was also a part of the exhibit and shared how much the day meant to him. “The fact that I was essentially nominated to represent within the building that’s for the people is a great opportunity.
“Being from Ghana, you know, there are certain things that we don’t imagine coming our way,” he said. “Me being able to show myself and speak and have a voice within this building is a very powerful thing.”
The Ghanaian and Liberian Livingstone has been designing for eight years, but believes none of it would be possible or worth doing without a sense of community.
“It’s essential,” he said. “We would just be solo on a hill if there wasn’t a community. I feel like this is a great opportunity for me to grow my personal community as well as the overall industry within Minnesota, so I’m also looking forward to more events like this where I can meet more people in the community. We can grow as individuals, but also grow as a collective platform.”
Lawson believes that because the fashion and advertising industries have perpetuated a Eurocentric standard of beauty along with unrealistic body expectations, which have led to eating disorders and other mental health issues, Porte should team up with organizations to counter that as well.
Looking forward, Porte is set to expand its team and is seeking more individuals to become a part of its agency. “We’re willing to meet up with whoever we need to meet up with, talk to whoever we need to talk to, to create these opportunities for our talent because they deserve it,” Lawson said.
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