Covered in a glittering suit from head to toe, 17-year-old Nya Gatbel was shaking before she headed down the runway of her first international show at Milan Fashion Week in February.
“I can’t even describe how I felt in that moment,” she said. “I was so nervous when I walked around the corner – but then I did it, and it just kept on rolling after that.”
The Calgary teen set her roots down in the city when she was just a toddler, once her family fled Ethiopia as refugees in 2002. But now, years later, she’s just finished her first runway show in Milan and then moved on to Paris Fashion Week.
After her South Sudanese family finally arrived in Calgary, Gatbel recalls opening magazine after magazine as a young girl, but said she never saw a face that resembled hers.
“When I turned on the TV or opened up a magazine, there wasn’t anyone I could relate to,” she said. “That definitely created a lot of self-esteem issues for me because, when everyone looks the opposite from you but they’re the standard of beauty, it cuts you down a bit – especially as a little girl.”
Antonija Klotz, president of The Nobles Management modelling agency, signed Gatbel last year, adding that she noticed a “movement” in the fashion industry and in Calgary, which called for more diversity and more stories.
“It’s exciting, especially at this time,” said Klotz. “It’s really a movement. It’s important that other young girls and guys, mothers and fathers, brothers and sisters, understand that they have that platform to tell their story.”
Klotz herself is an immigrant from Croatia, moving to Calgary in 1979, saying that she’s, “Just grateful being Canadian, and having all the opportunities, that we may not have had if we lived in Ethiopia or Croatia.”
“It’s about being able to be a part if something diverse and exciting, and having access which is critical and important,” she continued.
Calgary is home to Canada’s largest South-Sudanese diaspora, and Gatbel says she’s hopeful that, with being a part of the diversification of fashion, other young girls who look like her will feel beautiful.
“It’s absolutely amazing, and that’s ultimately one of the reasons that I love modelling,” she said. “You have the chance to create this platform, and I want girls to be able to look at these runway shows and see girls that have my skin tone and my hair texture and feel like they can be beautiful. Really, I just want others to feel comfortable in their skin, too.”