By Staff | Photographs by Hong Sar
Sydni Dion Bennett became the first Black teen to win Miss Illinois Teen USA in 2018, but as she prepared to represent Illinois on the Miss Teen USA stage, she struggled finding nude-colored shoes.
“In pageants, there’s a common shoe, and everyone wears that shoe, and it’s only in one color,” said Bennett, now 19. “To me, it was just kind of like, why is it only in one color because nude necessarily isn’t only one color, which is kind of like our mantra for our company.”
Bennett launched her business, Diverse Style, in 2019. The company carries four styles of shoes in three colors: cashew, cinnamon and black.
“My desire was that people like me wouldn’t have to spray-paint their shoes to match their skin color,” she said. “Within dance and pageants, I’ve had to do that.”
Bennett began participating in pageants when she was 14. She’s been dancing since she was 6. She recently moved to California and has been signed to multiple modeling agencies, she said.
She’s also enrolled in cosmetology school, with a special interest in hair.
“It’s a little hard ‘cause I’m learning how to cut hair on camera,” Bennett said, referring to one way her teacher has adapted to the coronavirus pandemic — by using a doll’s head to teach students virtually on camera.
Also because of the pandemic, manufacturing has been down, so Diverse Style hasn’t been able to receive new products, Bennett said. However, she said, people have been buying shoes online.
Sydni Dion Bennett, center, founded her company Diverse Style, more than a year ago. Four shoe styles, available in cashew, cinnamon, and black, are designed to match more skin tones than the “nude” color offered by many brands. (photograph provided by Nicole Bennett)
Diverse Style customer Breanna Myles, 17, has been competing in pageants for five years and is the current Princess America Florida Teen.
Before purchasing a pair of Diverse Style shoes, Myles wore a lighter nude heel while competing, but the shoes didn’t match her skin color, she said.
“I think that it’s so amazing that [Bennett] made this to be inclusive of everyone, not just lighter skin tones or darker skin tones, just a range of skin tones because really there is no true nude,” Myles said.
Diverse Style has been a trailblazer in expanding products with more nude shades. Last year, after a petition, Bloch and Capezio, announced they would be add darker shades of ballet pointe shoes. Also, Band-Aid announced on June 10 that it would launch a range of bandages in light, medium, and deep shades of brown.
“It’s a good thing now that it’s actually brought to people’s attention and they’re able to produce things like that,” Bennett said. “But the main question for me is why wasn’t this an idea in the beginning when you first launched it, like to think about everybody and not just what they would think of as would fit everyone.”
Diverse Style is donating 10% of its proceeds to foundations that support the Black Lives Matter movement, Bennett said.
She said the pageant industry is diverse and many within it are taking a stand in the Black Lives Matter movement.
“[They] don’t really think about skin color when they’re choosing who’s gonna win,” she said. “So I would say that they had been very supportive and spoke what they thought, which is great for me to see.”
Now, Bennett is focused on working to grow her business.
“I want to be able to bring more skin or more colors into it and be able to produce more designs that people like and want to wear on pageant stages or everyday life.”
Hope Kahn is a student at the University of Maryland and a contributing writer to iGeneration Youth, an all-youth news service, where this story first appeared. She was previously a senior project reporter at The Trace.
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