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What it's really like working as a black fashion model in Russia

Thon Peter Athian, aka Nile Shadow, during Artem Shumov’s runway show at Mercedes-Benz Fashion Week Russia. (Photo: Courtesy of Artem Shumov/Mercedes-Benz Fashion Week)

Meet 23-year-old South Sudanese fashion model Thon Peter Athian (aka Nile Shadow), who lives in Moscow. Yahoo Lifestyle first spotted him during Artem Shumov’s runway show during Mercedes-Benz Fashion Week Russia. Out of more than 50 runway shows during the week, Athian was just one of only a handful of black models who were cast. This is his story on working as a model of color in the Russian fashion industry.

Athian is originally from South Sudan, where his family still lives. He had moved to Moscow to earn his degree studying petroleum engineering at the Russian State Geological Prospecting University. His focus on education is still a priority. He never planned on becoming a model, but one fateful event two years ago changed it all. Athian participated in a small indie shoot where he got connected to the modeling agency Look Models Russia. Soon afterward, he was signed.

Since then, Athian has not booked any jobs outside of Moscow, but he has been able to do a few small-scale shoots in addition to select catwalk appearances for emerging designers like Artem Shumov. Shumov is a designer with whom Athian has worked since the beginning of his career and someone he considers to be “seriously embracing diversity.”

When asked what was it about Athian that struck him, the designer tells Yahoo Lifestyle that it was never about the color of Athian’s skin — it was about his beauty both inside and out: “He’s incredibly beautiful — his face, his smile. He has such good vibes.”

But in the grand scheme of things, Shumov is the exception. How do other designers treat Athian? “Though I haven’t yet experienced any sort of racism, it has always been hard getting selected in castings, especially by the local designers with exceptions of very few,” he says.

He adds candidly, “The truth is that there’s not much diversity in the fashion industry here. Sometimes I don’t even waste my time going to castings because I am always certain they won’t take me.” Unfortunately, he doesn’t expect to see a change in this perception soon, as ultimately, “Russians like seeing things that look like them.”

Despite this outlook, Athian says he will continue to model for now, as it helps fund a portion of his tuition. “I am not sure if I can have reliable pay from modeling in [the] future, so I prefer engineering,” he says. “I don’t make enough money here. Besides, my parents know that I am here for [my] studies.”

While “modeling is prestigious work in places like New York or Paris, don’t expect a black model to make enough here in Russia,” he says. “If God [will] help me to finish my engineering [degree] successfully, that will be enough for me.”

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