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A video on Isaac Herron’s Instagram documents the moment when he first saw himself, clad in a red Adidas sweatshirt, glossy and elongated, on the wall of a Footshop store in Prague, the Czech capital. In the image, dark shades cover his soft eyes and the light shines off his smooth, brown forehead. He stands with one knee bent, striking a pose with hands clasped at his hip.
Customers walk past the image of Herron, on their way to shelves full of carefully displayed, trendy sneakers. The photo stands out, and not just because of its size or the bright red clothing featured. Herron, a black and gay man, is not a typical model in this ethnically and socially homogenous country, where LGBTI rights can be contingent; for example, there is the right to legally change one’s gender – but only if willing to surrender the right to reproduce.
New Aliens, a Czech modeling agency, is devoted to changing that, with a mission of redefining representations of gender, sexuality, and race in the country's modeling industry. The 80 “non-models” managed by the agency, between the ages of 14 and 50, embody an unconventional beauty that New Aliens founders Jakub Ra and Monina Nevrla feel often goes unappreciated in the Czech Republic.
Ra, slight and angular with piercing dark eyes and a shaved head, and Nevrla – who glides with the smooth motions of a dancer, with dark, blunt bangs framing a thoughtful face – turn heads as they enter a room. The two have a strong personal presence, and seem irresistibly authentic in their challenge to societal standards.
“We want really to highlight our community, our people, and their approach to modeling and to themselves,” says Ra. “We want also to make Czech society a better one, to teach and educate and inspire.”
Despite changing global attitudes, most Czechs remain staunchly devoted to a traditional beauty ideal: tall, thin, white, and refined. Models like Paulina Porizkova, the first woman from Central Europe to be featured on the cover of Sports Illustrated, and Eva Herzigova, one of the stars of the Wonderbra advertising campaign, were adored for their adherence to the ideal, setting the beauty standard for many years to come.
Deviation from traditional beauty does not go unnoticed. In January 2017, German grocery store Lidl received a barrage of hatred after featuring a black Senegalese model in a Czech advertisement. One of the first verbal attacks came from Vitezslav Novak, the chairman of Svoboda a Prima Demokraci (SPD), a Czech political party known for its anti-immigrant sentiment, which holds 22 seats in the Czech lower house of parliament.
Olo Krizova – a Czech model and creative director of the Czech Fashion Council, a non-profit organization dedicated to supporting the Czech fashion industry – says there was a brief period after 1989 when it seemed as if the modeling industry was beginning to change.
“It started to develop more, and it became very open,” she said. “Everything was possible.”
But by the turn of the century, the industry settled down, and the showcasing of diverse types of beauty went out of style.
Krizova remembers Ra and Nevrla first talking to her about the idea of starting an alternative modeling agency, focused on unique looks, and artistic expression through more than just the models’ appearance.
“New Aliens is coming with a new point of view, a new aesthetic. But it’s also not new because it's something that we have seen before, many times,” said Krizova.
Their Turn of the Wheel
Ra and Nevrla have known each other since they were kids living in Prostejov, a city of 44,000 people, about 65 kilometers (40 miles) northeast of Brno. Growing up, both Ra and Nevrla were bullied by classmates for being different. Their childhood experiences were instrumental in the creation of New Aliens and its mission, to create a safe environment for those who feel different.
Ra and Nevrla reconnected in Prague in 2016 and began to find ways to merge their artistic visions. Nevrla, a dancer and artist, admired Ra’s mission of inclusion, and began scouring the streets for people who could be featured in Ra’s photography work.
Friends who were fashion designers took notice, and Ra and Nevrla began taking on new projects. Interested in unifying their work, the two approached Peter Susan Sagat, a lecturer at Tomas Bata University, and an expert on fashion.
The three creatives began putting together a full-service modeling agency and fashion consultant hybrid. By the spring of 2017, they had hammered out the details of the project and launched an Instagram account.
The organization booked its first job in July 2017 with Bomton, a Czech beauty salon. Then New Aliens was invited to take part in Fashion Live!, Bratislava’s fashion week, with seven New Aliens models walking down the long catwalk in slinky tops, a gingham onesie, and black toenail polish.
For Ra and Nevrla, their presence at Fashion Live! was important, as Prague’s own fashion week had garnered much less interest in their models.
“[Fashion Live!] wanted to show the diversity of beauty which was, I think, really risky,” says Nevrla. “But [it was] a good step for the progress of the fashion scene.”
The agency’s current portfolio of models, with more being added weekly, represents a wide range of races, genders, and sexualities. While this diversity allows clients to pick and choose the look they desire, it can also pigeonhole models into their most visible identity.
For Espio Vasquez, a trans non-model, identity has felt more like a barrier to success with New Aliens than a benefit.
“Sometimes I feel like I’m just the token trans person in the agency,” says Vasquez. “I haven’t done anything since October, and out of the three projects I’ve done with them, only one of them was paid.”
According to Krizkova of the Czech Fashion Council, the agency often takes on unpaid jobs for their models, with the hopes of the work leading to further exposure and ultimately more paid opportunities. Some projects are unpaid because they are part of art installations, and the agency is willing to lend a helping hand to the arts community. But at other times, the agency has to settle for no payment even when they ask for compensation.
Offered one unpaid job by Vogue, New Aliens asked for payment, citing travel costs and living expenses for their models. When Vogue denied the request, New Aliens still completed the project, said Krizova.
As New Aliens began taking on more models, Nevrla and Ra instituted bi-monthly meetings in the hopes of maintaining open communication and gaining feedback from their models.
“We did not know how to manage people,” said Nevrla. “We do it by our hearts, how we feel we should do it.”
There was a steep learning curve for the founders, who had to find the balance between free expression and maintaining order within the agency.
“When you build something like this, you've got to have rules,” says Nevrla. “We are learning day by day, every day, how to do it.”
According to Krizova, the business component of New Aliens will be the hardest part for Ra and Nevrla, as first-time entrepreneurs entering an industry that is already struggling to compete in the global scene, partly a result of the small size of the Czech Republic.
“We have great models, and we have great designers,” says Krizova. “But we are not strong in business. The industry is not developed.”
However, she thinks New Aliens will come out on top. While fitting into the global trend of diversity, she says, New Aliens also manages to stand out.
“We have really interesting faces here,” said Krizova. “And we have something special in personality because of [our Czech] heritage.”
Not Just a Camera Angle
As New Aliens’ exposure has grown, Ra and Nevrla have also worked to further their models’ other artistic endeavors. Part of the idea for an inclusive community was centered on unhindered artistic expression. While working with New Aliens, models have created a feminist queer online magazine, organized poetry readings, and built a virtual reality world, in which scanned avatars of New Aliens models walk about underneath a star-filled sky.
“We give them space to express themselves, as much as we can,” says Nevrla.
For Herron, the 24-year-old model from California featured in the Footshop advertisement, the agency’s emphasis on arts has helped make him feel accepted. Herron spoke with Ra and Nevrla about writing an essay focused on his identity as a black, gay man, and they helped him get a piece published in Kink, an online Czech culture magazine.
“They want us to be creative, and they want us to just do whatever we want,” said Herron. “They're going to do everything to help facilitate that.”
Herron arrived in the Czech Republic not knowing where to turn, but he was immediately ushered into the New Aliens community, one that he found unwavering in its mission of inclusion. The agency hosts parties, lectures, and other events that allow the models to meet others in the arts community.
“I still haven't met every single New Alien,” says Herron. “But if you are a New Alien, you just know you’re family, like, instantly family, no matter what.”
New Aliens continues to sign new talent, and recently wrapped up a two-month residence at the INI Gallery in Prague, where non-model art was featured. In late February, one of the New Aliens models, Daniel B, walked for Gucci in Milan’s fashion week.
Models are allowed to leave New Aliens whenever they want, a freedom which is rare in the modeling world. Ra and Nevrla instituted that policy, knowing they cannot meet the requirements of many models – they cannot offer consistent jobs or a guaranteed income. But they hope to make up for it with the sense of community at the agency and the feeling of inclusion in a country where the models might otherwise feel excluded.
“Some Aliens will go their own way, but they will be connected forever,” said Nevrla.
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The 2019 edition of Prague Media Point will highlight these types of inspiring examples and more. We will offer a mix of scholarly presentations, including keynote addresses; sessions with innovators explaining their solutions; and networking opportunities to promote the exchange of know-how. As in years past, the conference will have a special regional focus on Central and Eastern Europe, though we look forward to covering cases and trends from other parts of the world. – WHAT’S WORKING
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