Black models who have changed the face of fashion

Now that the fashion industry’s focus on the Black Lives Matter movement seems to have waned, we are not only taking this moment to celebrate the visibility of the current crop of black models such as Adut Akech, Precious Lee, Duckie Thot or Leomie Anderson, but also for a look back at the most striking black models of the last century who, despite the fact that they were confronted with racism on a daily basis, nevertheless became icons.

Duckie Thot at Balmain SS19, Catwalkpictures

Pat Cleveland

Pat Cleveland is now back in the spotlight due to her close association with Halston, the subject of the much-discussed Netflix show starring Ewan McGregor. But this former Halstonette has earned her stripes in her own way. Her appearance on the catwalk in the famous ‘Battle of Versailles’ in 1973 along with other black models such as Billie Blair and Bethann Hardison paved the way for the black model who worked in Europe in the 70s and 80s. “I lost a lot of assignments because I didn’t have the conventional all-American look that the general public liked,” Cleveland writes in her memoir, “I was also passed over for assignments that went to models who had a deeper shade of brown.” Tired of the racism she suffered in the US, she moved to Paris, became a house model for Karl Lagerfeld with Chloe, and said she would only return to the US if a black model appeared on the cover of Vogue.

Pat Cleveland at New York FashionWeek 2019, Dia Dipasupil/Getty Images North America/Getty Images via AF

Beverly Johnson

The Vogue cover star that sparked Cleveland’s return to the US was Beverly Johnson, a former athlete who was told by the industry that she was too fat to model. When Agent Eileen Ford told her she would never be on the cover of Vogue, she left for the agency Wilhelmina and secured her dream cover. But Ford had already realized her mistake when she saw Johnson on the cover of Glamor magazine that the model had acquired before Vogue. Strikingly, Pat Cleveland has said that she too was rejected by Ford because of her race.

Georgie Badiel

Georgie Badiel was Miss Africa 2004, but behind the pomp was the reality that her village in Burkina Faso was over six miles from the nearest waterhole, a walk she had to take at 6am every morning before the sun got too hot. became. After her success in the 2000s as a model for Louis Vuitton, Marc Jacobs, Lanvin and Diane Von Furstenberg, she started a charity to build wells in West Africa. According to her website, she has provided more than 270,000 people with access to clean water, and in 2018 she received her nation’s highest honor, the Chevalier de Merit Burkinabe, at the Burkina Faso United Nations Mission in New York.

Ilonka Toppenberg

Ilonka Toppenberg brought the complex issue of colorism (a prejudice or discrimination within an alleged race based on gradations in skin color, ed.) into fashion in fashion. Despite her light complexion, she had black features. In an industry fixated on the Eurocentric standard of beauty, she worked from 1987 to 1997 for the biggest European brands such as Chanel, ChloĆ©, Valentino and Yves Saint Laurent, and was chosen by both Elle UK and Elle France as one of their “Top 10 Models”. But Toppenberg has said, “Because I was a mixed model, I’ve sometimes experienced that clients thought I was either too white or too black for a job.”

Roshumba Williams

In 1987, Roshumba Williams left Chicago for Paris with $150 in his pocket, determined to become a model. She was adopted by Yves Saint Laurent as one of his booth models, and was soon promoted to runway model. “My hair, the cropped afro, stood out. I was dark-skinned, but American, and I was new,” Williams told Marsellus Reynolds, author of “Supreme Models, Iconic Black Women Who Revolutionized Fashion.” “I was something new.” Elle France was her first publication booking and while she considers that magazine and Saint Laurent her debut in the fashion world, it was her afro-sporty Sports Illustrated cover that introduced her to the world.

Iman, Andrew H. WALKER/Getty Images North Ameria/Getty Images Via AFP


Somali-born Iman Abdulmajid, described by Yves Saint Laurent as his dream woman, was also the muse of Gianni Versace, Calvin Klein, Halston, Issey Miyake, and an army of photographers for two decades. In 1994, she founded her own cosmetics brand, which paved the way for Rihanna’s Fenty cosmetics line. She was frustrated with the lack of makeup for medium-toned skin tones and had to regularly mix her own colors for makeup artists she used on shoots.

The first Naomi, as she is often called, Sims was the first black model to appear on the cover of the prestigious Life magazine, but perhaps more importantly, another first, the opportunity to grace the cover of Ladies Home Journal in 1968, a magazine that was read in 14 million households at the time. Initially, the established modeling agencies didn’t want to work with Sims because they said her skin was too dark, so she got work by approaching photographers directly until Wilhelmina finally signed her. When she retired from modeling, she also entered the beauty business and became a multi-millionaire with her wig line.

Adut Akech for Michael Kors AW21, Catwalkpictures

There are many other groundbreaking models not mentioned here, Cicely Lopez, Donyale Luna, Beverly Peele, Winnie Harlow, Alex Wek, Liya Kibede, Veronica Webb, Karen Alexander, to name a few. Marsellus Reynolds’ 2019 book “Supreme Models, Iconic Black Women Who Revolutionized Fashion,” which he describes as the “first art book devoted to black models,” features beautiful images of them along with interviews that reveal the sacrifice, courage or confidence they to enable them to conquer an industry that did not always favor them.

Fashion editor Jackie Mallon is also an educator and author of Silk for the Feed Dogs, a novel set in the international fashion industry.

This article originally appeared on FashionUnited.COM. Translation and editing into Dutch: Ilona Fonteijn.

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