From the 1970s through the ’90s, some of the most legendary models, race notwithstanding, were introduced to the world, and the industry was wholly fascinated with the likes of Pat Cleveland, Beverly Johnson, Naomi Campbell and others. But there is a curious modern reality: After yet another season of White-washed shows, Black fashion watchers (we know you’re out there) wonder if we’ve regressed. Of the 9,538 model bookings that took place across 373 fall 2015 fashion shows in New York, London, Milan and Paris, 80 percent were White; Black models comprised less than 8 percent. The following are excerpts from exclusive EBONY talks with three generations of runway icons. Their testimonies affirm that Black models are ambassadors representing far more than the physical grace of Black people; they also represent our pride.
Pat Cleveland on being a pioneering model post-civil rights:
It was hard being around during a time when people just weren’t ready for us, [but] I found it was a blessing to be out front and one of the first representing Black culture. For me, [the combination of] movement and Black music was my thing; it just filled my soul. People, in turn, felt that rhythm in us. Designers loved the way we expressed ourselves. Society was curious about Black women and how we remained beautiful despite [our struggles].
Veronica Webb on being the Black girl in the room:
When I started, I always felt like the Black girl in the room—and I usually was. But it was OK because at least I was in the room. Iman always told me, “Just get in the room, then take care of the rest.” That was one of the best pieces of advice I received.
Karen Alexander on shocking
I had an agent in London who called my agent in New York and said they didn’t want to represent me because I was too dark. And I did a fashion show in Paris where the designer was calling for the Black [girls], yelling, “All n– –rs!” Those moments are woven into my model experience. I am no more numb to those moments today at 49 than I was at 15 when I started. It still shocks me.
Beverly Johnson on the hijacking of style and culture:
Everything in fashion is inspired by Black culture, and that’s what’s so ironic. It’s our contribution to fashion that’s done all this, and not only do we not get to participate, but they also steal our ideas, our hair, our clothes. The new models talk to us about what’s going on in the industry, and we are floored. They are very much aware of the disparities with their White colleagues. Being at shows and not seeing one girl of color is really disturbing.
Read more in the September 2015 issue of EBONY Magazine.