By Schuyler Daffey
Mazen Alsafi, CC ’23, enters Joe’s Coffee with assured strides. It is, undeniably, the walk of a runway model. Alsafi is long-limbed, his face strikingly symmetrical, and his gaze intense. But it is not just Alsafi’s physical image that exudes casual confidence—he speaks softly and measuredly, how I imagine Norman Maclean’s voice to sound. This is the voice of someone, I realize over the course of our conversation, who knows himself deeply. This is apparent when he identifies the legacy of Malcolm X as a personal inspiration. Not only do their identities align as Black Muslim men, but Alsafi admires how “Malcolm took accountability and made his flaws open to the public.” Alsafi is conscious that he, too, is “someone who is growing and learning.”
Recently, Alsafi has focused on growing his modeling career. He was originally scouted by the New York-based modeling agency Brigade on Instagram, where his account is a stylist’s haven of bold patterns and chromatic colors. His early fashion inspirations, Lil Wayne and Kid Cudi, are clearly reflected in his clothing selection. In one photo, Alsafi styles a statement pair of feathered black pants with a white collared shirt and matching gold embossed sunglasses. In another, he wears a chunky cream sweater over a collared shirt and a silver chain necklace as he stands nonchalantly in front of an incandescent Eiffel Tower. His photos are artfully angled; unfocused yet unpretentious. There is something magnetically cool about his account, like the man himself.
At 21, Alsafi has achieved more in his brief career than many other models have achieved over the course of their lifetimes. He first debuted on the runway just over a year ago when he walked for Telfar during New York Fashion Week. A brand Alsafi has long admired, Telfar’s recent and meteoric growth in popularity is evident in the prevalence of their leather ‘T’-embossed bags. Telfar Clemens, the brand’s Liberian-American founder, has become an icon for Black and queer representation within the fashion industry through clothing designs that defy constrictive gender norms and celebrate Black culture.
When he first walked for Telfar, Alsafi recalled, the brand’s commitment to panoptic Black representation shone in all aspects of the show. Beyond the clothing, Alsafi was paired with predominantly Black staff members who could expertly style Black hair textures and highlight diverse complexions. This was incredibly significant for Alsafi, who spoke of the systemic injustices faced by Black models within the fashion and modeling industry: being exotified, being overlooked for jobs, and being inadequately styled for Black hair and skin by makeup and hair stylists.
Reflecting on this experience, Alsafi describes sauntering down the platform’s elaborate spinning ramp wearing a hoodie and maroon skirt, ill-fitting boots (so big that Alsafi had to place socks at the front of them), and glasses with an embedded camera recording a livestream from the model’s perspective. Yet Alsafi didn’t receive his confirmation call for the show until 10pm the night before. He vividly remembers his ecstasy in that moment, “jumping around, shouting, calling [his] closest friends to tell them the news.” Alsafi then mentions to me, in his characteristically modest manner, that he spoke with Clemens at one point during the day: “I told him, ‘This means a lot more than you think. I’m a big fan of your work and love buying pieces.’”
Since his debut in February 2022, Alsafi has continued to delve into different avenues of modeling. He was photographed for an Autumn Essentials editorial in the November issue of GQ Middle East and has walked for Gabriela Hearst twice (most recently in February 2023) dressed in red from head to toe. The day of that show, Alsafi remembers pulling an all-nighter for his Spanish class, highlighting his dual roles as both student and working model.
Yet these disciplines aren’t distinct for Alsafi: he is not solely a student or model, but a student of fashion. Alsafi mentions almost offhandedly that he walked for Rick Owens during Paris Fashion Week this past February. It was a “full circle moment” for Alsafi, who, during the pandemic, had connected with like-minded fashion enthusiasts on Discord over Owens’ designs. Along with his online fashion community, Alsafi would craft presentations highlighting Owens’ avant-garde silhouettes and monochrome tones as part of the designer’s instrumental role in turning gender conventions in fashion on their heads.
That all being said, Alsafi’s appreciation for the art of fashion and modeling is unquestionable. Meeting the geniuses responsible for designing the clothing he wears on the runway makes him “feel like a kid again.” Where others might look to the future in these encounters, fantasizing about the global renown to come, Alsafi recalls his past.
In Syracuse, where Alsafi spent his formative years, creativity of this scope and intensity was suppressed. For Black youth especially, dreams are “thrown under the rug” by teachers and other adults. A first generation college student for whom “money has always been a constant struggle growing up,” Alsafi initially felt a responsibility to pursue the lucrative premedical track. But during Covid, he experienced a crisis of uncertainty, “questioning myself, and my purpose, and what I wanted to do.” He has since switched to a double major in African American studies and sociology. When I ask him if he has any regrets, he responds simply: “I’d rather do what I want to do than live for other people.”
Alsafi’s life has been broadly defined by his adoration of the fashion industry, but he is also highly motivated by the flaws he observes within it. For one, he is critical of the industry’s commodification of activism, recounting his experiences with brands who adorn clothing with figures of Black political activists as a form of empowerment. Alsafi considers this counterproductive to the figures’ original messages: “If there’s not any action or political activism or organizing behind that art, then what is it good for?” This also reflects Alsafi’s greater existential preoccupation with his work, which he vocalizes halfway through our conversation with a sudden weight and urgency: “How do I allow my art to be a guiding factor in the greater struggle?” He is acutely conscious that art alone cannot enact neither economic nor social progress for oppressed peoples. However, he does believe that it can inspire and alter perceptions, potentially driving people to be changemakers. It is all a question of intent.
Alsafi’s modeling career barely scratches the surface of his catalog of creative projects. His most recent creative venture is Abolish, a multimedia organization that he founded with close friend Daequan Brooks, an Africana studies major and Senior Fashion Designer at Stony Brook University. The pair intend to position visual art, film, and design as “a barometer for political work and liberation struggle” not solely for Black people, but also for oppressed communities around the world. During our conversation, he showed me a necklace that will be released for purchase on the Abolish website in April, its silver chains attached magnetically on both sides by a pair of handcuffs. The chain is broken with the separation of the handcuffs, symbolic of breaking bondage toward liberation.
As an intern at Brooklyn’s Institute of Justice, Alsafi also shows this dedication to liberation by working to combat mass incarceration and the over-criminalization of people of color. He’s set to begin research on New York’s justice system, specializing in bill reform laws and altering inherent pre-trial weaknesses within state legislation. Alsafi’s experience observing court cases and researching the punitive operating styles of prisons has made him realize that, “for prison reform to occur, we need to dismantle the system itself.”
The nexus of Alsafi’s diverse array of interests is his desire to help others. Whether advocating for liberation on the runway, with Abolish, or through the criminal justice system, Alsafi’s passions are all bigger than himself. This is never more apparent than when he asks, amid our conversation, about me and my interests. It is actions like these that are at the core of who Alsafi is: an individual who is interested in other people.
In the future, Alsafi envisions himself living somewhere in Europe or staying in New York, a city he heralds as a mecca for creativity. Fueled by the balancing act of learning, modeling, and professional work he must maintain, Mazen Alsafi refuses to be confined by a single label or definition.