Founded in 2018, Diversity Model Agency is an Amsterdam-based modelling agency that celebrates what makes us different and unique. With diversity and inclusivity at its core, it is a “platform for upcoming models of all shades, shapes and disabilities.“
Earlier this month I sat down with Diversity Model Agency’s co-founders, Sensemielja Sumter and Daisy van der Veen, to hear more about their story.
First of all, can you tell me a little bit about yourselves?
Sensemielja: My name is Sensemielja, I’m an international model and I live in Amsterdam. I’ve done modelling work since the age of 15. At Diversity Model Agency I work both frontstage as a catwalk coach and backstage as an art director, designing concepts for fashion shoots. I also do styling, mood boards, and help to put models in poses. For Diversity Fashion Week* I work on the exhibitions, fittings, and photo shoots.
Daisy: My name is Daisy and I’m also from Amsterdam. I kind of fell into this job after I met my partner, Sensemielja. She wanted to bring more diversity to the fashion industry and I thought it would be super fun to be a part of it. At Diversity Model Agency I do the administrative and financial side, emails, and videos. There’s also a lot to do for our foundation, Diversity Fashion Week.
* Diversity Fashion Week is a foundation that hosts biannual fashion shows showcasing Dutch & international upcoming designers. It includes educating and interacting with the public about the importance of diversity and inclusivity.
What’s the story behind Diversity Model Agency?
Sensemielja: When I started modelling I noticed there was very little diversity in the industry. It was always the same look, the same face. I was often the only black woman. There was hardly ever an Asian model or a plus size model. When I met my partner Daisy, we had the same vision of creating more diversity in the modelling industry and wanted to do something about it.
Before Diversity Model Agency started, Daisy and I had been working on a similar concept together with a third person. We started a foundation, casted all our models and were ready for an event. Then suddenly the third person left us, took off with our whole idea, and didn’t want to show the models anymore. Daisy and I were left with the models. We still wanted to offer them something and help them find jobs. Out of this difficult situation we decided to start our own agency.
Daisy: With Diversity Model Agency and Diversity Fashion Week we want to challenge current beauty standards and celebrate diversity between models. We’ve had models with disabilities and without, models of all ages: children, teenagers, adults, even mature models. Models with experience and models with no experience who want to give it try. We want to offer everyone a chance to be seen and feel like, ‘Hey, I’m allowed to be here too.’
DMA stands for “Diversity Model Agency”. What does diversity mean to you?
Daisy: To me, diversity means celebrating each other’s beauties. Not everyone is the same, and it’s important to embrace that. Especially from a young age, because children are so influenced by what they see around them.
Sensemielja: Diversity is very broad. For our collections, it means making clothes that can be for everyone. We’ve worked with designers who are used to making clothes for the ‘standard’ models, and now suddenly get to work with all sorts of different people and body types.
What makes DMA unique in the fashion industry?
Sensemielja: At Diversity Model Agency we really give everyone a chance. We look at the person and the potential they have. One of our models, for example, is incredibly talented and has Down Syndrome. Others had already labelled her in a certain way and didn’t even want to give her a chance, but we saw her talent.
Daisy: We also have a lot of things that make us different to other agencies. We offer free monthly catwalk lessons and personal coaching to support the models and help their self-esteem. It’s great to see their confidence grow.
Sensemielja: We also take into consideration adjustments for our models. If we have a show with Clifford, who uses a wheelchair, we make sure the stage is easily accessible. We also have models with albinism, for example, and make sure the catwalk lights aren’t flashing too much, that kind of thing.
Daisy: It’s also special to see that our models really have a close bond.
Sensemielja: Yes — and it’s not only friendships, it really feels like a family. At castings, if one of the models doesn’t make it through, they are still happy for however did get picked and go out to celebrate together. In my own experience as a model, I felt a lot of competition at castings. Here, it’s completely different. The models are really supportive of each other.
Sensemielja: I think people really need to have an open mind. People need to be educated in diversity and get used to seeing all types of different models. That’s also why we include an education [component] in Diversity Fashion Week.
Daisy: Education is really important, including for the designers. Because at the end of the day, even if we want diversity, they are the ones making the clothes. [The world has] mass productions [of standard sizes] for brands like Zara and Primark, but you’ve also got to start offering something different.
We also need to give people time to embrace diversity. At the moment, I feel like diversity is really trendy. Companies might think, ‘We need a model with Down Syndrome’ — not for the message behind it, but to go along with a certain hype. It’s good that companies are now starting to think about diversity, but they also have to really stand behind the message and understand its [long-term] importance.
Since DMA was established in 2018, what have been some of the highlights for you?
Sensemielja: One of our biggest highlights was when we were at Pride Amsterdam 2018. We were all wearing DMA t-shirts, just having fun and passing out DMA flyers. By chance we bumped into someone from Het Parool. The newspaper [representative] was really interested and included the agency on their social media.
Daisy: Another highlight was when we were nominated for the INC Awards [an annual event celebrating companies that demonstrate a commitment to inclusivity]. We were also in a television programme called Mooier Wordt Het Niet, which looked into standards of beauty and the scientific measurements needed to be ‘beautiful’. For one of the episodes, they came by to interview several of our models with albinism, vitiligo, and Waardenburg syndrome.
Sensemielja: Another really enjoyable moment for me was the casting day. We had more than 100 models who wanted to register with the agency. It was a fun day and very special to see how many diverse models there are.
Have you encountered any challenges in promoting diversity in the fashion industry?
Sensemielja: Definitely. For us as women it can be challenging to be taken seriously [as entrepreneurs]. One of the biggest challenges was when our original company was taken away from us and we had to start everything over again.
Daisy: Sometimes [when we approach a company] we don’t hear back from them. Sometimes people don’t understand what we’re doing. But despite all this we will keep educating people about why diversity is so important.
Sensemielja: We believe that when one door closes another door opens. That keeps us positive. It keeps us going.
What are your plans for DMA in the future?
Daisy: This year we are working on a collaboration with Sue’s Warriors. Sue is another Dutch female entrepreneur working towards diversity in fashion. We’ll be making a documentary together about what it’s really like to work in the modelling industry.
Sensemielja: Especially the challenges and flaws that aren’t normally talked about.
Daisy: We also want to try to break through at an international level and set an example for other companies to give diverse models a chance.
Sensemielja: And for agencies to give more attention to the models themselves. I’ve heard of models fainting on the catwalk because of eating disorders that their agencies had no idea they were struggling with. We don’t want that kind of thing to happen.
Daisy: Exactly. At DMA we always call, ask models for feedback after shows, and check how they are doing. We want to inspire other agencies to really give their work a personal touch.