This Saturday is Juneteenth, now a federal holiday according to a bill just signed by President Biden. This September will bring a reemergence of New York Fashion Week as in-person shows are being planned by, among others, Tom Ford, the Chairman of the CFDA. The anniversary of George Floyd’s murder is now in the rearview mirror. While these three events might not seem directly connected, they indisputably are. No industry was left untouched by the impact of Floyd’s killing. But there is some concern that the fashion industry’s period of self interrogation around its systemic racism, which produced news of diversity initiatives and the release of inclusivity reports almost weekly, has subsided as the possibility of “normality” returns.
As the industry seems to have diverted its attention from BLM we take this moment not only to celebrate the visibility of our current crop of Black models such as Adut Akech, Precious Lee, Duckie Thot or Leomie Anderson, but to remind ourselves of some of fashion’s most arresting Black models of runways past who, despite encountering racism on a daily basis, still rose to become icons.
Pat Cleveland is now back in the public eye due to her closeness to Halston, the subject of the buzzy Netflix show starring Ewan McGregor. But this former Halstonette deserves the spotlight in her own right. Her ownership of the runway in the famous 1973 Battle of Versailles together with other Black models such as Billie Blair and Bethann Hardison paved the way for the Black model working in Europe in the 70s and 80s. “I lost plenty of jobs because I didn’t have the conventional all-American looks that higher-ups at fashion magazines considered pretty,” wrote Cleveland in her memoir, “I also got passed over for jobs that went to models who were a deeper shade of brown.” Tired of the racism she suffered in US, she moved to Paris, became house model for Karl Lagerfeld at Chloe, and declared that she would only return when a Black model appeared on the cover of Vogue.
The Vogue cover star which brought about Cleveland’s return to the US was Beverly Johnson, a former high school athlete who was told by the industry she was too fat to be a model. When agent Eileen Ford informed her she would never make the cover of Vogue, she left for Wilhelmina agency instead and secured her dream cover. But Ford had already realized her mistake when she saw Johnson on the cover of Glamour magazine which the model had secured before Vogue. It’s worth noting that Pat Cleveland has also said she was rejected by Ford based on her race.
Georgie Badiel was Miss Africa 2004 but behind the pageantry lay the reality that her Burkina Faso village was 10 miles from the nearest well, a walk that she had to make every morning at 6am before the sun grew too hot. After her success during the 2000s modeling for Louis Vuitton, Marc Jacobs, Lanvin, and Diane Von Furstenberg, she launched a charity to build wells in West Africa. According to her website she has provided over 270,000 people with access to clean water, and in 2018 at the Burkina Faso United Nations Mission in New York she received her nation’s highest honor, the Chevalier de Merit Burkinabe.
Ilonka Toppenberg brought attention to the complex issue of colorism in fashion. Despite being light skinned she possessed classic Black features. In an industry fixated on the Eurocentric standard of beauty, she worked for the biggest European brands like Chanel, Chloe, Valentino and Yves Saint Laurent from 1987 to 1997, and was chosen by both Elle UK and Elle France as one of their “Top 10 Models.” But Toppenberg has said, “Being a mixed model, I sometimes experienced that clients thought I was either too white or too black for a job.”
In 1987 Roshumba Williams left Chicago for Paris, determined to be a model, with 150 dollars in her pocket and a suitcase that she had won from grocery store Kroger filled with Saltine crackers and Kool-Aid. Hired by Yves Saint Laurent as one of his cabine models, she was soon elevated to the runway. “My hair, the shortly cropped afro, stood out. I was dark-skinned, yet American, and I was new,” Williams recalled to Marsellus Reynolds, author of Supreme Models, Iconic Black Women Who Revolutionized Fashion. “I was something fresh.” Elle France was her first print booking and while she credits that magazine and Saint Laurent as having debuted her to the fashion world, it was her afro-sporting Sports Illustrated cover that introduced her to the world.
Somalia-born Iman Abdulmajid, described by Yves Saint Laurent as his dream woman, was also muse to Gianni Versace, Calvin Klein, Halston, Issey Miyake, and assorted photographers for two decades. In 1994, frustrated by the lack of make-up shades for skin of color, and regularly having to formulate her own for make-up artists to use on shoots, she founded her own top-selling cosmetics brand, paving the way for Rihanna’s Fenty cosmetic line over two decades later.
The first Naomi, as she is often called, Sims was the first Black model to appear on the cover of prestigious Life magazine, but perhaps more importantly was another first, the opportunity to grace the 1968 cover of Ladies Home Journal, a magazine read in 14 million homes at the time. Initially, the established modeling agencies wouldn’t work with Sims because they said her skin was too dark, so she gained work by directly approaching photographers until Wilhelmina eventually signed her. When she retired from modeling she too entered the beauty business, becoming a multi-millionaire from her best selling line of wigs.
There are many other trailblazers 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,” provides glorious editorial images of them along with interviews which reveal the sacrifices, courage or self-belief they possessed to allow them to conquer an industry that often didn’t welcome 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