Supermodels in Black: The Women Who Rocked the Industry

1973 Battle of Versailles

Without doubt, Naomi Campbell puts the SUPER in supermodel. She has remained at the top of the game after more than thirty years. Recently she has made an effort to diversify her interests; she has not only become an advocate and mentor, she has also joined a group of fashion insiders in an effort to publish VOGUE Africa. She also has a weekly YouTube chat show “No Filter with Naomi.” Her latest guest was none other than the iconic, trailblazing, Somalian Supermodel Iman. I implore you to check out this hour with these two titans of fashion as they chat openly about blatant racism in the industry, overcoming discrimination and disparity in wages, while still maintaining a high level of success–and while leveling the playing field for the upstarts. With frivolity and behind-the-scenes gossip thrown in for intellectual fodder, it’s an epic hour! It was also during this hour long chat that I began to think about the trailblazers. It’s so important that we acknowledge and recognize the fore-mothers who went out on faith to carve a lane when there was none. This is a tribute to the black models who opened runways to fashion icons like Naomi and Iman.

Iman and Naomi Campbell featured on the titillating episode of “No Filter With Naomi”

The monumental success of Campbell, Iman and scores of Nubian models to follow, can be directly traced to the 1950s success of trailblazer Helen Williams.

The history of the modern day Supermodel goes back a few decades, way before its explosion in the 1990s. It was during the 1950s when Americans were optimist for the good life that was paramount after World War II. It was a time when the American dream seemed attainable for all of us. Advertising reflected this ideal, as did air travel; Dior‘s new look was all the rage; Dovima was splashed in many glossy ads. Dovima was the first model with instant face and name recognition, because she was the first face of Revlon.

Well on the flip side, the first Black international model of notoriety is New-Jersey born Helen Williams. Williams began modeling in 1954 when she was 17 years old, immediately appearing in Ebony and Jet Magazine. Because of the intense racism in the industry during the 1950s, she was encouraged to go to Paris. In Paris, she flourished. Williams was the toast of the couture shows of that season. She eventually relocated to France where she worked extensively for noted couturiers Christian Dior and Jean Dresses. Upon her return to the United States in 1961, despite many roadblocks she went on to become the face of several ad campaigns of major brands such as Budweiser and Sears. She was the first client of the fledgling Ophelia De Vore‘s Grace De Marco modeling agency, which was the biggest agency that signed women of color. Miss De Vore’s previous charm school was responsible for discovering untapped Black models and actresses of her day–whenever they needed a pretty Black girl for a movie or print, they went to Miss Oplelia De Vore.

Donyale Luna’s iconic 1966 VOGUE cover; the Afro-Cuban model opened doors for the next generation.

Before retiring in 1970, the success of Helen Williams opened quite a few opportunities for models of color in the 1960s. Afro-Cuban Donyale Luna was the first Black model to land on the cover of British VOGUE. Naomi Sims was next in line to be the Sepia answer to Twiggy in the late 1960s and into the 1970s, when the color lines became slightly muted. The Black Power movement was a cultural phenomenon, that did not go unnoticed by the fashion industry. Black models became the rage internationally, when in 1973 a select group of Black women annihilated the runway at the “Battle of Versailles.” This fashion extravaganza pitted French and U.S. designers against one another for dominance in the global industry. The Black models featured by the American designers stopped the show and put black models permanently on the map. The top European couturiers featured Black models in their shows the following season onward! In 1975 Beverly Johnson scored the elusive cover of American VOGUE, the first Black model of many to achieve this including Naomi Campbell.

Helen Williams, the trailblazing foremother of black models in her breakthrough Budweiser ad. Williams, who married her childhood sweetheart, lives a quite life in New Jersey. She occasionally works as a stylist, and makes appearances at selective social events.

3 Comments

  1. Diandra, everything your write is educational. I love how you teach across the ages and see the power, beauty and relevance of fashion and culture through the Black gaze. You’re beautiful.

  2. Thank you for reminding us of these beautiful Black Goddesses. They set the trend “Black is Beautiful”. Reading your blog brought light to my heart. Took me back to 70’s…

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