The powerful philanthropy of Noëlla Coursaris Musunka

As told to Clara Baldock

International model Noëlla Coursaris Musunka has been featured in Vogue and Vanity Fair, and in campaigns for Crème De La Mer and Max Factor. In 2007, she founded Malaika, a nonprofit grassroots organisation that empowers Congolese girls and their communities through education and health programmes. The foundation operates in the village of Kalebuka in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Coursaris Musunka is also an ambassador for The Global Fund to Fight Aids, Tuberculosis and Malaria.

“I’ve always advocated “modelling with meaning”. For me, this means using the opportunities that come with being a model to make a real difference: to speak up on behalf of those who cannot. As models, our job is changing to become more relevant to the times we are living in, and as a mother, I’d like my daughter to grow up seeing fashion images that show that one’s value and worth extends far beyond surface level. Since I started out, I have noticed a shift in fashion storytelling; more and more often, women are featured for their accomplishments, not just their appearance, and we’re seeing more shapes and diversity too.

“I was born in Lubumbashi in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. When I was five, my father passed away and my mother didn’t have the means to take care of me, so I was sent to live with relatives in Europe. During the 13 years I was away, I had very little contact with my mother – just a few letters – but I did have the opportunity to get an education. I went to business school and began a career as a model, first appearing in a campaign for Agent Provocateur after my friend entered me into a competition.

I’ve always been fiercely proud of my Congolese-Cypriot heritage, and I love seeing other women of African descent, like Thandiwe Newton, using their position and voice to pave the way for others. There’s so much creative talent coming out of the DRC at the moment. When I returned to Congo aged 18, though, it was a shock to see the living conditions there. My mother and the people in her community had no running water, electricity or infrastructure, and young girls especially had very little chance of going to school. It was a particularly poignant moment for me, realising that I could have been one of these girls, and the idea for Malaika was planted in my heart.

I started simply by sponsoring 10 girls to go to school; over the years Malaika has grown into a whole village ecosystem – a school, a community centre and an agriculture programme. My advice would be to dream big, but start small. At the school we provide free primary and secondary education. At our community centre we use sport for social change and offer vocational education, with classes in health and literacy. Our Mama ya Mapendo programme offers sewing and embroidery classes, so that women can improve their skills and find independent ways of supporting themselves. We’ve also built or refurbished wells to provide clean water and created a sustainable, organic farm and garden so that the school’s students and staff can have two meals a day.

My work with Malaika is deeply rooted in my own story and personal experience. Although my childhood wasn’t easy, these experiences gave me both a powerful sense of gratitude and drive to make sure others have the same opportunities that I did. This principle is at the very core of what we do – empowering the next generation of change-makers by ensuring they can access education. After all, education is freedom. By going to school, girls can envision a better future for themselves and that gives me a sense of purpose; Veronique hopes to be a pilot, Abigael an IT engineer and Christine a doctor. It also begins to form a cycle, because each student then understands the importance of education for future generations, helping to create a community in which girls can not only achieve their own career prospects, but also reinvest what they have learnt in other people.

Malaika is proof of what can be accomplished by using the platform that fashion provides. The industry, and the people that work in it, are learning to recognise the responsibility that comes with having the audience that they do. Being part of that world has brought a lot of value to my philanthropic work. I have met influential people and been able to collaborate with amazing brands – such as Roksanda Ilincic – on projects that raise awareness about Malaika and help generate funds. Embracing how seemingly different areas of my life – model, philanthropist, mother – can intersect and benefit each other, helps me to juggle everything.


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‘Design can change minds and make you fall in love’

Aimee Farrell

As the founder of London’s Studio Frith, British graphic designer Frith Kerr conjures bold, offbeat and brilliantly irreverent visual identities for cultural titans and creatives – from Frieze Art Fair to fashion designer Alexa Chung.

“I believe design has the ability to connect to people emotionally. It can change minds and make you fall in love. Graphic design is a very concise visual language and a potent strategic tool. There are great poetics in design; the Nike swoosh, for instance, is an incredibly poetic visual mark, which is perhaps why so many people are happy to wear it on their shoes.

“I don’t see design as gendered, although all cultural influences have an impact on our aesthetic choices. And it’s possible that my experiences as a woman have taught me to be more daring. I don’t mean louder or bigger, but more daring in purposeful ways.

“I have worked with lots of female-owned businesses – from fashion designers Roksanda Ilincic and Anya Hindmarch to chef Skye Gyngell. They are all extraordinary women doing exceptional things in business. I think the point is that these women have to be extraordinary to get ahead, and we’re very lucky to have them as clients. We attract people who want something distinctive, who want serious work but with a playful quality. In general, I work with creative clients across art, fashion, retail, film and restaurants to evolve brand identities. Our job is to create the visual world of a business. It’s a very specific task, and a very particular problem to solve. We condense their entire creative endeavours into a word, a mark, an expression. That’s what I mean by concise poetics.

“I grew up in a creative family in a pleasant but boring London suburb during the 1980s. My escape was books. I was an avid reader of Ballard, Bukowski and very dark crime novels. But although my parents were both creative – my mother a fashion illustrator and my father a graphic designer – when I was growing up I rebelled against the idea of becoming a designer. It was only when I went to art school that I realised I could find my own way in it.

“I always had a sense that a traditional graphic design company wasn’t going to be the right fit for me. While I was studying at the Royal College of Art my tutor, Margaret Calvert [co-designer of many of the UK’s road signs], encouraged me to set up alone. I established Kerr/Noble with my friend Amelia Noble. We had a tiny office with a phone, no computers – and no work. We made a list of the clients we’d like to work for; one of them, the Victoria and Albert Museum, ended up being our first. Then 12 years ago, I independently started Studio Frith. It was a very natural evolution.

“At Studio Frith, what sets us apart, I think, is our level of research and reflection – whether that’s sitting in the British Library scrolling through books or on the ground walking around a space, that’s how we develop ideas. When we worked on a campaign for Frieze Art Fair, we were looking for synergies between the New York and London fairs. The final campaign featured birds from Randall’s Island in New York and Regent’s Park in London. We realised that the birds and the art fairs used these huge spaces set apart from the rest of the urban space for the same reasons. We had a sense of the art world also migrating and landing upon these green spaces. Without rigorous research you don’t get to those ideas, or reveal those hidden truths. Everything we do is research-led. My philosophy is that the truth is more engaging and compelling than anything we can invent, which always brings me back to one of my all-time favourite books from my teenage years: Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood.

“Our specialism is our forensic approach; it’s absolutely key to how we think about things. We become experts for our clients, working collaboratively much like a team of anthropologists, and that’s how we evolve an original language for a brand. I feel as though we’re only getting started. I’ve never lost that sense that this is just the beginning.”

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