Black-owned modeling school fights for inclusion

It’s a school day of sorts at Strut Models, and runway model hopefuls are here to learn the basics, like how to, well, walk.

It’s just one of the lessons Strut’s owner, Shaw Bernard, teaches the young men and women who come to her agency, looking for a career on the catwalk, or in front of the camera.

“There are real skill sets that you need to develop,” Bernard said. “And so we go through that with them, through posing classes and things like that. And I tell them all the time about being educated and being informed, helping with personal style and things like that. We have conversations about hygiene cause listen, that’s real.”

What You Need To Know

  • Shaw Bernard founded the first Black, Caribbean, woman-owned agency in the city
  • Bernard spent 20 years modeling and earned a criminal justice degree from John Jay before opening Strut Models
  • Strut represents models of all races, but Bernard fights hard to make sure Black models are seen and included

Bernard’s parents brought her to New York City from Trinidad and Tobago when she was just 14. Modeling was the farthest thing from her mind.

“I wanted to be a lawyer,” she said. “I didn’t think about anything fashion related. It wasn’t a thing that we discussed anyway on a small island.

But it was certainly on the minds of just about everyone who saw her, she said.

“I moved here, and I started getting these questions. ‘Are you a model? Are you a model?’” Bernard added.

She’d spend the next 20 years modeling for some of the biggest names in fashion. She knew it wouldn’t be easy, finding work in a competitive and mostly, at that time, unregulated business, but she quickly found out that being Black made it so much harder.

“I remember very specifically hearing, when castings would come up and things like that, especially around Fashion Week, you know, ‘no black models,’” she said. “I have very vivid memories of going into castings and leaving so deflated, standing on the corner crying.”

Even more painful: there was no one to warn her that behind the glamour was a pattern of blatant bigotry.

She said, “no one specifically said, you know, your road is gonna be even harder because you’re a woman of color. I just went through it and saw it and then dealt with it.”

When her modeling career began winding down, Bernard made sure she had options, like a criminology degree from John Jay College. But she knew in her heart her experience would be most useful helping young models navigate this complicated, and often cruel, business.

She started Strut, first as a modeling school, then a “mother agency”, a kind of starter agency that discovers and nurtures talent, and finally as a full-service, boutique agency. It’s the first Black, Caribbean, woman-owned agency in the city. She believed she’d be breaking new ground.

“I didn’t know any other Black woman that did this,” she said. “I’ve since learned on my journey about Beth Ann Hardison and that she owned an agency as well, and I feel like I’m continuing in that legacy, just wanting to fight for what I call true diversity and true inclusivity.”

Strut represents models of all races, but Bernard fights hard to make sure Black models are seen and included.

And she shows up to support her models. There were two Strut models in the A. Potts presentation at New York Men’s Day, and she was there.

“It’s nostalgic in a sense because they’re doing everything that I wanted to do,” she said. “And so I’m just in awe of being able to help them accomplish that and do it in a way that’s safe and inclusive and obviously diverse. You know, all of the things that I wish I had.”

Designer Aaron Potts, who knows too well the challenges that come with being a Black designer in what has been a decidedly white space, says he’s grateful for Bernard’s dogged pursuit of inclusion.

“I actually get a little emotional,” he said when NY1 caught up with him at his show. “Because it is so important to me that I work with Black business owners, Black creatives, Black talent, and the fact that Shaw is a model, a businessperson, a Black woman, and she has the most amazing, diverse kids? For me, it’s a no brainer.”

And that for Shaw Bernard, is why she built Strut Models in the first place.

“You know, if you’re not accepted at another table, build your own,” she said. “And it’s essentially what I’ve done with Strut, but in building that table, I’ve built it in a way that it can be inclusive. I don’t want to be at the table by myself. You know, I want to set the foundation and invite other people along for the journey.”