Black History Month

11 Barrier-Breaking Moments By Black People In The Fashion Industry, In Celebration Of Black History Month

February is Black History Month, but these milestones are worth celebrating always.

This February, we are looking back on Black history in America — the good, the bad, and the very ugly —and also celebrating the ways America has been shaped by the amazing cultural contributions of Black people, and the transformation of our country to be a more accepting place for people of all backgrounds.  

One of the most interesting spaces to note such progression is within the fashion industry. Historically, the runway has not been very welcoming of diversity as it only celebrates those who fit a certain mold. Milestones throughout history, however, have represented change, allowing Black industry-shakers to make deep and meaningful impacts on the industry. 

In celebration of Black History Month, we are pointing to 11 of these historical moments that have paved the way for Black models, designers, and more to gain representation within the industry, and effect fashion in many positive ways. Whether these these milestones occurred at home or abroad, all have influenced American fashion today. 

1. Dorothea Church was the first successful Black model to work in Paris.

Church, who was born Dorothea Mae Towles, was an American who modeled for Black magazines in the United States before moving to Paris. In 1949, she was discovered by Christian Dior and ended up working with high-profile designers like Elsa Schiaparelli and Pierre Balmain. When she returned to the States in 1954, she toured Black colleges to show her Paris haute couture collection. She was considered to be the first successful Black model in Paris. 

2. Donyale Luna became the first Black model to appear on any magazine cover.

Often described as the "first true Black supermodel," Luna made history in 1965 when a sketch of her appeared on American women's fashion magazine Harper's Bazaar. In 1966, she was featured on the cover of British Vogue.  

3. Tracey "Africa" Norman is the first Black transgender model to appear in high profile campaigns.

Norman graced the pages of Italian Vogue and appeared in Clairol ads in the 1970s. She kept that she was transgender a secret and sadly lost work when her true identity was discovered. However, she recently began modeling for Clairol again at the age of 63 and is sharing her full story as part of the campaign.

4. In 1974, Beverly Johnson was the first Black model to appear on American Vogue.

Helga Esteb I Shutterstock 
Helga Esteb I Shutterstock 

Beverly Johnson broke boundaries when she appeared on the cover of the August 1974 issue of American Vogue, and appeared on the cover of  ELLE France in 1975.

5. Zelda Wynn Valdes became one of the first major Black designers.

In, 1948, Valdes was the first African-American to open her own boutique, Chez Zelda, on Broadway in New York. From there, she dressed many major celebrities in the 1940s and 1950s, and is credited with creating the Playboy Bunny outfit. 

In 1970, she became the head costume designer at Arthur Mitchell's performance company, the Dance Theatre of Harlem. She spent 18 years with the company before retiring.

6. Duro Olowu wins "New Designer of the Year Award" after only running his business for a year.

7. In 1992, Veronica Webb became the first Black model to land a major beauty contract.

Sam Aronov I Shutterstock
Sam Aronov I Shutterstock

Webb holds the honor of being the first African-American model to have an exclusive beauty contract when she signed a deal with Revlon to be a part of its Color Style line, a range designed for women of color.

8. In 1993, Tyson Beckford signed an exclusive deal with Polo Sport.

Tyson Beckford, a model of Jamaican and Chinese descent, is considered one of the most successful male models of all time. One of his first major milestones was when he signed a contract to be the face of Ralph Lauren's Polo Sport campaign.

9. Sean 'P. Diddy' Combs wins a prestigious CFDA Fashion Award.

Combs, a celebrity and rapper, created a successful and respected clothing brand when he won the Council of Fashion Designers of America (CFDA) Award for Menswear Design of the Year for his clothing line, Sean John, in 2004. His win help pave the way for other celebrities to launch clothing brands.

10. In 2008, Vogue Italia unveils its "all-Black" issue.

Italian Vogue's then-editor, Franca Sozzani, created an issue that featured exclusively Black models. The issue was so successful, that it sold out in 72 hours in the United States and United Kingdom and an extra 30,000 issues were ordered. The issue feature Black American model,s including Tyra Banks, Pat Cleveland, and Veronica Webb.

11. Model Maria Borges became the first Black model to walk the Victoria's Secret runway with natural hair.

FashionStock.com I Shutterstock
FashionStock.com I Shutterstock

The gorgeous model walked the runway at the 2015 Victoria's Secret Fashion Show sporting a short afro. She told ELLE, "Walking out my third show wearing my TWA [teeny-weeny afro] was one the sexiest moments of my career so far!"

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