Teenage Nigerian-Korean model breaks down barriers in Asian fashion

Biracial 16-year-old Bae Yu-jin has been making waves in South Korea’s fashion industry. She aims to bring diversity to Asia’s catwalks

PUBLISHED : Friday, 05 October, 2018, 8:48am
UPDATED : Monday, 08 October, 2018, 10:01am

As 16-year-old Bae Yu-jin enters the room, she presents herself politely with a simple bow, her hands placed gently on top of each other – a traditional and respectful Korean gesture when meeting someone new or older.

With darker skin than the average Korean in a nation where pale skin is highly sought after and long, straight, sleek black hair dominates, her Afro hairstyle stands out.

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Her individuality makes her a draw on the catwalks in Seoul. She is an up-and-coming model who is making waves in South Korean fashion, and has appeared in magazines such as Vogue and Dazed. She was recently in a shoot for Italian brand United Colors of Benetton.

Born to a Korean mother and Nigerian father, Bae grew up in Seoul. Her mother tongue is Korean and, like many students across the country, she is trying to perfect speaking and writing in English.

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Bae’s biracial appearance means she is often mistaken for a foreigner rather than a Korean.

“Honestly, in Korea, I think that it is a natural thing to speak in English to those who have a different skin colour,” she says. “And I understand because they don’t look Korean and Koreans believe that it is a well-mannered thing to speak to them in English.

“In some ways, I believe that it is prejudicial, but I do understand why people do it. I believe it has matured me in some ways.”

Aside from her skin colour, Bae’s tall and slender physique was bound to set her apart from her peers. “Since I was young, I always wanted to wear beautiful clothes, but I was too tall and my feet were too big as well,” she says. “Instead of wearing pretty clothes, I had to wear oversized clothes.”

Her passion for clothes instigated a career in modelling. “I had to constantly get my clothes mended and shortened so I also thought, ‘Why not just make my own or try modelling, where it allows me to wear many different types of clothes?’”

At a time when black women grace the front covers of the world’s biggest fashion magazines, Bae recognises the opportunity she has been afforded.

“Back in the day, people thought negatively about black people. But by seeing black people on the front cover of magazines it changes my way of thinking,” she explains.

Rihanna made history by becoming the first black woman to feature on the front cover of the September issue of British Vogue in its 102-year history. Beyoncé Knowles, Tiffany Haddish, Zendaya, and Lupita Nyong’o were among other women of colour gracing September magazine issues this year, making 2018 a landmark for diversity in fashion publishing.

Bae understands that it’s harder for black women to progress in the fashion industry, but believes that, with perseverance, “in 10 years I will be famous all over the world”.

“I want to be,” she adds.

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There is still a long way to go, but already she is among the many young women who are bringing diversity to Asian fashion.