When she was passed up for a modeling contract with a major cosmetics brand, Flaviana Matata had one reaction.
“I remember wanting that job so much,” she says, reflecting on the casting that took her all the way to the final round. “Sometimes you want it so badly, but instead of being jealous or bitter, it’s okay to celebrate others.” (It didn’t hurt that the “other” in this case was fellow Tanzanian model and friend Herieth Paul.)
That instinct to celebrate other women—shown most recently by her presentation of the Banana Republic No Boundaries honor at ELLE’s fourth annual Impact Awards—lays bare a sense of self that she says was ironically shaped, in large part, by the men in her life.
“My mother passed very early, and I was raised by a bold and proud Tanzanian man who instilled invaluable principles in me and my four siblings,” she says. Among them: staying grounded, speaking up, and pushing past the boundaries she’d inevitably face as a black woman in the fashion industry.
“The foundation my father laid allowed me to never lose sight of who I was and it has kept me through every transition.”
Confidence breeds freedom, Matata attests, not as much with her words as with the resolve she exudes in talking about her career path to date.
“I always believe that everything happens for a reason. They say that if something is for you, it will happen. I don’t have a [fairy] godfather or godmother, one of those agents in your everyday life that’s going to push you, so for me it’s been about figuring out how the industry works.”
Sometimes, that requires a lot of personal juggling; other times, it means looking to those who’ve charted a similar course for a guiding light. But mostly, it means being free and accepting what the universe is going to give you, Matata says.
“I know there are certain things that I can’t do, but you [can’t] be so uptight. Just explore and learn as you go.”
It isn’t surprising that Matata follows the same self-assured approach when it comes to her personal style.
“Who I am will never change, but my personal style is as diverse as my experiences,” she says. In other words, trends aren’t her thing. Rather, it’s a mix of style and substance focusing on clothing ready for the possibility of whatever’s to come.
“Whether I’m rocking high-waisted trousers, classic sundresses, or runway gowns, I use my clothes and style to live out loud, to just be who I am or who I feel like. At the end of the day, you have to feel good about what you’re wearing. I just don’t want to be limited.”
But being limit-averse places Matata in the crosshairs of a conundrum at times—and she admits that it isn’t always a comfortable place to be.
“I think that’s why I haven’t been to a place where people expect me to be, because I don’t follow fashion policies.” It’s especially tough to stay grounded at “super high-fashion things,” she says. But then she remembers her dad’s advice.
“If I go somewhere where I feel I don’t belong or I’m not welcomed, I’ll do other things. I don’t believe in putting all of my eggs in one basket.”
Training her gaze on the next opportunity seems to be the impulse that keeps Matata going. But lately, it’s also the fifteen girls her foundation, The Flaviana Matata Foundation, is helping put through college.
“At the heart of the foundation is opportunity,” she says. “Opportunity through education.”
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With millions of girls all across the globe being denied access to education, FMF aims to offer the resources and supplies needed to put them through school. It’s a mission not far removed from Banana Republic’s P.A.C.E. initiative, the company’s commitment to assist and empower women making its clothing in developing countries.
“In Tanzania, and Africa in general, there is a sense of community that is unmatched in any environment I’ve experienced. Because of that I knew from the onset of my success that providing a platform and investing back into the community that raised me was a necessity. I’ve been supported to get to where I am. Who am I not to support others?”
Make no mistakes though: Altruism, for Matata, isn’t a trend moment either.
One of the most significant moments of her mission thus far was watching the first 15 girls supported by FMF graduate from secondary school last year. With the next opportunity in sight, she says, “We’re looking forward to supporting these girls, to [helping them] graduate from college, get a great job, and be able to come back to the foundation, mentoring girls or volunteering their time.”
This month, she’s helping fellow “change makers and rule breakers” see their missions through, too, by presenting Banana Republic’s No Boundaries Award at ELLE’s Impact Awards.
“We’ve reached a point where we have to say, ‘If you have a seat at the table, you have to pull others up,” she says. “We have one life to live. We have one voice and I try to use mine in every way.”
DP: Nate Best; Styling: Lindsay Grosswendt; Hair and Makeup: Renee Garnes
Shot on location at the Phillip Johnson-designed Wiley House in New Canaan, CT.