When I heard that a writer was needed to do a retro feature on the history of the black model for Papierdoll, I immediately jumped on it. I thought that the assignment would be a great refresher for me, and I might be able to highlight the history of the black model and the history black models are still making.
I wanted to approach the history of the black model by using my own memories and through research. I talked with my mother and aunts about the first time they remember the black model becoming a part of the fashion industry.
My mother told me of Beverly Johnson, with whom I am familiar simply through her popularity. Back in 1974, Beverly Johnson became the first black model to appear on the cover of American “Vogue.” Years later, there was arguably one of the best Supermodels in the world, Miss. Naomi Campbell. Campbell was the first black woman to appear on the covers of “Time Magazine,” French “Vogue,” and British “Vogue.”
But, B. N. (Before Naomi) there was the incomparable Pat Cleveland. The native New Yorker was a pioneer in the modeling industry, with an amazing career that would rival even the most known caucasian model today. Cleveland was able to do both print modeling as well as runway, which was unheard of before she came on the scene in 1964. Although Naomi Campbell is the first model that comes to mind when the term supermodel is thrown around, Pat Cleveland could very well have been who that word was coined for. She was one of the first women to really work the runway. By incorporating her Broadway stage background, Pat Cleveland made fashion shows the extravagant stage shows they are today.
Although there were many firsts for black models back in the 1960s, ’70s and ’80s, there are still firsts being done by black models. Take Veronica Webb, for example. Webb began her modeling career when a make-up artist discovered her. The Detroit native was the first black model to receive a major cosmetic contract in 1992. That number made me reflect in awe, “Wow, Veronica Webb was the first Black model to have a major cosmetic contract as recent as 1992!”
There is also the Somalia born beauty, Iman. Her first assignment was for American “Vogue” in 1976. She was a big success in the modeling world and was the muse for many designers like Yves Saint Laurent, Calvin Klein, Donna Karen and Versace. Iman continues to be successful, and relevant in today’s fashion and beauty industry. In 1994 she launched Iman Cosmetics, which is a line exclusively for women of color.
Although this retro feature is a history of the past, black models are still creating firsts and making history. In some ways, it’s unfortunate that it has taken decades. In a lot of ways, it is great their firsts are taking place in a time when the world is changing everyday. A great recent development that is celebrated and talked about in the fashion industry is the fact that for the first time in it’s 57-year history, Estee Lauder has signed Ethiopian-born Liya Kebede to a multi-million dollar contract. That is a great feat in and of itself.
Personally, I think it is a shame that the industry as a whole does not step up and change, especially with the rapid multi-cultural global environment. Today’s collections in fashion have plenty of modern influence, with slight touches of the past. If the clothes really represent modern influences, the people on the runways should also reflect the people that buy these clothes as well. It’s not just one color that fashion touches, it touches every color.
While it was appropo to highlight black models this month, February should not be the only month to put the spotlight on the black models in the fashion industry. It is difficult for blacks in any industry to be recognized and given credit. It is important to be a force that does more than complain about the lack of black models, black authors and black designers. Whether intentionally or not, Tom Ford took a stand and put Liya in his Gucci show when no one else wanted to. The history of the black model is an ongoing story. Whether it be an online forum or simply between fashion friends, it’s important that the story is spread. Hope I can reminisce with you again very soon.