30 Black Models That Made Fashion History

Becca Endicott
30 Black Models That Made Fashion History
57 Start slideshow

The world of fashion hasn’t exactly been known for it’s diversity over the years. The first half of the twentieth century elevated a mere handful of black style icons—like the eternally-glamorous flapper Josephine Baker and the 1940’s jazz songstress Billie Holiday—and the march of progress within the fashion industry itself was even slower. It seemed that modeling agencies, designers, and editors all tended to look for one type of body, one type of face, and one skin color. Baker and Holiday were major outliers in the racially-segregated, largely conservative milieu of the early to mid-twentieth century, as black women were afforded very little recognition in any field by mainstream media during this time period.

MORE: Underwear Models Through the Decades: 25 Sexy Photos From the 1940s to Now

In an era defined by the prejudicial treatment of black Americans and the concurrent rise of the Civil Rights Movement, the black community started to develop outlets for exploring the impact of fashion, entirely separate from the unwelcoming environment of the fashion industry at the time. African-American lifestyle publication Ebony magazine was launched in 1945, and its cross-country runway show, the Ebony Fashion Fair, was launched a decade later, in 1958. Together, they provided a much-needed outlet for black women systematically excluded from the pages of white-targeted fashion publications like Vogue and Harper’s Bazaar

MORE: The 5 Plus-Size Models You Should be Following on Instagram

While Ebony and other publications targeted at a black demographic are still very much part of the picture today, the racial exclusion practiced throughout the industry finally began to dwindle with the rise of the Civil Rights Movement. In 1966, two years after the passage of the Civil Rights Act, Donyale Luna became the first black model on the cover of any Vogue, when she was photographed for the magazine’s British edition

MORE: From Cindy Crawford to Karlie Kloss: The 18 Hottest All-American Models

Slowly but surely, black models began to break through the racial divide in fashion. In the 1960s  and ’70s, ground-breakers like Luna, Pat Cleveland, Grace Jones and, eventually, Iman, started appearing on the scene, oftentimes championed as one designer’s muse. Cleveland and Luna were undisputed darlings of the mod YouthQuake fashion scene of the sixties, and they set the stage for more and more black models to break into the industry.

Even then, a runway show might contain one black woman to thirty white women, and it took a long time for black models to become widely accepted. Eventually, however, Beverly Johnson became the first black woman to cover American Vogue in 1974, and the black It Girls of the sixties and seventies gave way to mainstream black supermodels like Veronica Webb and Naomi Campbell in the 1980s and ’90s, who were succeeded in turn by contemporary superstars like Joan SmallsJourdan Dunn, and Chanel Iman.

MORE: 7 New Runway Models You Should Know

And—while women of color are still outnumbered by Caucasian women on the runway—the number of high-profile black models is ever-increasing. Just this past month, African-French model Cindy Bruna appeared in an advertising campaign for Prada, just the third black woman ever to do so. While Prada’s runways still aren’t winning any prizes for diversity, Bruna’s appearance in its campaign is a clear indicator that fashion is moving further and further away from the racial boundaries that have limited the scope and impact of the industry during the past century.

MORE: Models Are Getting So Skinny That Editors Are Doing WHAT?! 

In honor of Black History Month and Fall 2014 Fashion Month, we’ve compiled a list of 30 black models that have shaped the fashion industry in the last forty years, from the iconic to the up-and-coming.

0 Thoughts?
1 of 57

Grace Jones. The Jamaican singer, actress, and model was one of the first black women in the business, where she modeled in Paris for designers like Yves Saint Laurent and Kenzo, before appearing on numerous magazine covers. Known for outrageous, avant-garde personal style, she's depicted here in 1960.

Photo: Michael Ochs Archives

Grace Jones in 2012.

Modeling led Jones to acting, and she appeared in a number of films, including a role as a Bond Girl in A View to a Kill. She has also had a successful musical career as a disco artist, and performed at Queen Elizabeth's Diamond Jubilee in 2012. 

Photo: Julian Finney/Getty Images

Donyale Luna. Pictured here in 1966, Detroit-born model Luna was the first black woman to cover any Vogue, appearing on the cover of U.K. Vogue in 1966. She also appeared as a sketch on a 1965 cover of Harper's Bazaar. 

Photo: Roy Milligan/Getty Images

Along with notorious sixties It Girls like Edie Sedgewick and Viva, Luna was one of Andy Warhol's "Superstars," and appeared in several of his films, in addition to some of Fellini's films. Unfortunately, she fell into the drug culture of the era, and died of an overdose in Rome in 1979. She's pictured here in 1973.

Photo: Keystone/Getty Images

Naomi Sims. Sims started modeling after getting a scholarship to the Fashion Institute of Technology, and was one of the first models to sign to the Wilhemina Agency. She became the first black model to cover Ladies Home Journal in 1968. 

Photo: Anthony Barboza/Getty Images

This portrait of Sims is from 1983 when—following her career as a model—she started her own beauty empire, and wrote a number of books on modelling and beauty. She passed away in 2009 after a battle with breast cancer.

Photo: Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

Bethann Hardison. Hardison was a major supermodel in '60s and '70s, working for Ford Modeling Agency. She was a participant in the legendary "Battle of Versailles" fashion show in 1973, which pitted old-world designers like Yves Saint Laurent and Christian Dior against American newbies like Bill Blass and Halston. 

Here, Hardison is pictured attending the Hearts of Gold Gala in New York City, November 2013. She became a modeling scout, and discovered fellow superstar Naomi Campbell. Recently, she has been involved in a campaign to improve the diversity of the fashion industry, targeted at the CFDA. 

Image via Facebook

Photo: Mike Coppola/Getty Images

Pat Cleveland. Cleveland was discovered at age 14 by an editor at Vogue, and was later picked up by Ebony magazine. She began to walk for American designers in the '60s, and then moved on to Europe in the '70s, vowing not to return to the U.S. until Vogue printed its first cover with a black model. Here she is in Halston in 1977.

Photo: Ron Galella/WireImage

True to her word, Cleveland did not return to New York until 1974, the year of Vogue's first black cover model. She continued modeling into the '80s, and then mostly retreated from the industry when she married and had children, but continues to make occasional runway and editorial appearances. Here she is at a screening of "Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom" in New York in 2013.

Photo: J Carter Rinaldi/FilmMagic

Billie Blair. Blair had a cult moment in the late '70s and early '80s, walking in shows for the likes of YSL, Christian Dior, and Calvin Klein. She's pictured here in 1980, at a show for Michael Vollbracht.

Photo: Rose Hartman/WireImage

Blair is pictured here, second from the right, at a reunion of the models from the infamous Models of Versailles event in 2011 at the Metropolitan Museum. The original event, in 1974, featured a number of African- and Asian-American models in a fashion "walk-off" with high-profile French models. Other models featured at Versailles include Bethann Hardison, Pat Cleveland, and China Machado.

Photo: Mike Coppola/WireImage

Iman. One of the most well-known black models, the Somali-born beauty was discovered while at university by photographer Pete Beard in 1975, and landed her first job for Vogue in 1976. This job solidified her place in the industry, and launched her career as one of the most recognizable supermodels of all time. Above, Iman walks the runway at the Jean Paul Gaultier show in 1983, when she was 28.

Iman left modeling and started her eponymous beauty label in 1994. Since then, her company has become one of the leading makeup brands for women of color. In 2010, she received a "Fashion Icon" award from the CFDA, and Iman has been married to musician David Bowie since 1992. Here, she attends a screening of "Mandela: Long Walk To Freedom" at the Ziegfeld Theater in New York City in November 2013. 

Mounia. An artist from Martinique, Mounia was spotted by Yves Saint Laurent at an event honoring Givenchy, and she quickly became his muse—and the first black model to walk in his haute couture shows. Here she is walking the YSL runway in 1985.

Photo: Bertrand Rindoff Petroff/Getty Images

Here, Mounia is pictured with actress Catherine Deneuve at Yves Saint Laurent's funeral in 2008. At the time of his death, she stated, "I was YSL’s first Black muse…he called me Moumounn. The collection that made me a celebrity was the one inspired by ‘Porgy and Bess.’ Catherine Deneuve stood up and started clapping! After that I had more than 15 covers."


Beverly Johnson started modeling while she was a student at Northeastern University. She was championed by Alexander Liberman, then editorial director of Conde Nast, and ended up booking her first jobs. In 1974, Beverly Johnson was the first black model on the cover of American Vogue, and a year later, she was the first black woman on the cover of French Elle. This portrait of her was shot in 1987.

Photo: Donaldson Collection/Getty Images

Since her heyday in the seventies, Johnson has been honored by Oprah Winfrey, and named to the New York Times list of the most influential people in fashion. She currently stars in a reality show on the O Network called Beverly's Full House, about her relationship with her daughter. Here she is at an event for Glamour in 2013.

Photo: Taylor Hill/FilmMagic

Waris Dirie is a Somalian model, who fled an arranged marriage and eventually ended up in London. She was discovered in the late eighties and covered the Pirelli Calendar in 1987. She subsequently booked advertising jobs for Chanel, L'Oreal, and Revlon, and she is pictured here in 1992.

Photo: Franziska Krug/Getty Images

Waris Dirie attends the Women of the Year lunch in London, October 2013. Like many other models hailing from Africa, Dirie is involved with raising awareness on female circumcision, and started the Desert Flower Foundation for that cause in 2002. She also started the Desert Dawn Foundation, which raises money to for education and medical care in Somalia.

Photo: David M. Benett/Getty Images

Veronica Webb. Webb was discovered in the mid-eighties, and—upon signing on as a spokesmodel with Revlon—became the first black model to win a major cosmetics contract. Above, she's walking the runway for Betsey Johnson in 1988.

Photo: Rose Hartman/WireImage

During her modeling career, Webb walked for Alaia, Chanel, and YSL, among others. She has since published a collection of autobiographical essays, and a number of articles for magazines including Interview, Paper, and Elle. In 2013, she still looks as beautiful as ever.

Photo: D Dipasupil/FilmMagic

Naomi Campbell. Perhaps the most famous black model, Campbell was officially discovered at age 15 while shopping in London, though she had appeared in a Bob Marley music video as a child. After she was scouted, she became a top supermodel of the late '80s and '90s, along with Linda Evangelista, Cindy Crawford, and others. Here, she's pictured in 1989.

Photo: Ron Galella, Ltd./WireImage

Campbell strikes a pose in the winners room at the National Television Awards in January 2014 in London. While she's dropped out of the public eye a bit since her days as tabloid fodder in the '90s and mid-aughts, she's still a powerful presence in the fashion industry, and landed a gig judging on reality show "The Face."

Photo: David M. Benett/Getty Images

Katoucha. This model (who typically goes by her first name) was a Senegalese model who was discovered in France, where she modeled for Thierry Mugler, Paco Rabanne, Christian Lacroix, and eventually Yves Saint Laurent. Here she is on the runway in 1992.


In 2004, Katoucha stopped modeling in order to focus on her main philanthropic project, raising awareness on female circumcision in Africa. Tragically, she passed away in 2008, shortly after this photo was taken, after falling from her houseboat on the Seine. She is still remembered as one of the most important supermodels of the eighties. 

Photo: Foc Kan/WireImage

Beverly Peele. Peele started off in the industry at the tender age of eleven, and was walking runway shows by the time she was 12 years old. She had landed her first cover, at Mademoiselle, by age 14, and racked up a number of high fashion jobs in the '80s and '90s. Above, she's pictured in 1993. 

Photo: Ron Galella/WireImage

After giving birth to a daughter at age 18, Peele mostly dropped out of the fashion world, and went through a difficult period of addiction. This came to a head in 2005 when she was arrested for identity theft. Today, she's focused on creating a rehab center for people with addiction issues, particularly around substances and food. Here she is at a Christian Audigier fashion show in 2005.

Photo: Gregg DeGuire/WireImage

Roshumba Williams. Williams (pictured here with Iman in 1994) was discovered by Yves Saint Laurent in Paris in 1987, and became widely known when she was featured in Sports Illustrated in the early '90s.

Photo: Ron Galella/WireImage

Here, the model attends the AMAs in 2012. Since the start of her career, Williams has transitioned to some acting, and she released a book about modeling in 1999. In recent years, she has been a fixture on the reality tv circuit, and acts as a judge on the hairstyling show Tease.

Photo: Jeff Vespa/WireImage

Kimora Lee Simmons. The biracial beauty (born to a Korean mother and African-American father) became Karl Lagerfeld's muse at just 14, and closed his haute couture show in 1989. From there, she went on to become a fashion mogul, starting Baby Phat, the sibling line to her then-husband Russell Simmons' brand Phat Farm.

Photo: Jeff Kravitz/FilmMagic

After Baby Phat, the model was appointed president of retail company JustFab. She's pictured here at the opening of the JustFab boutique flagship store in Glendale, California in 2013.

Photo: Paul Archuleta/FilmMagic

Tyra Banks. Banks started modeling at age 15, and was signed to Elite Model Management at 16. Her career took off when she booked at 15 shows during Paris Fashion Week in 1991. Banks was the first black woman to cover both GQ and the Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Issue. Above, Banks walks at the Victoria's Secret Spring Fashion Show in 1999.

Photo: Ron Galella/WireImage

No longer a runway fixture, Tyra is primarily known these days for her wildly successful show "America's Next Top Model" and her daytime talk show "The Tyra Banks Show", which ran from 2005 to 2011. 

Photo: Rob Kim/Getty Images

Alek Wek. This Sudanese-British beauty was discovered in the Crystal Palace outdoor market in London when she was 18 years old, and gained exposure when she starred in Tina Turner's "GoldenEye" music video. She then began working for a number of labels, including Chanel, Moschino, and Christian Lacroix, swiftly gaining supermodel status. Above, Wek walks a runway in 1999.

Photo: Evan Agostini/Getty Images

In addition to her successful modeling career, Wek also designs a line of handbags under the handle Wek 1933, and works for charitable associations to raise awareness about the state of Sudan, and to advocate for the rights of refugees. Here, she's pictured at an amFar event in 2014. 

Photo: Gilbert Carrasquillo/FilmMagic

Kiara Kabukuru. The model emigrated to the U.S. from Uganda, and was scouted in 1986, when she was 16. She was in the Pirelli Calendar in 1998, walked the Victoria's Secret runway show in 1999, and has covered Spanish and American Vogue

Image via Facebook

After suffering a devastating car accident in 2000, Kabukuru took years off from modeling for a series of reconstructive surgeries. She eventually returned to the industry in 2008, and has been working steadily ever since. She is pictured here at the amfAR Inspiration Gala in 2013. 

Fun fact: Kabukuru is good friends with Gisele Bundchen and godmother to Bundchen's son Benjamin.


Photo: Michael N. Todaro/FilmMagic

Joy Bryant. Yale-educated model and actress Bryant grew up in the Bronx in New York, and started her career in the late nineties, working for labels like Tommy Hilfiger and Ralph Lauren. Here she is at the CFDA awards in 2000.

Photo: Ron Galella/WireImage

Bryant left modeling to forge a successful acting career. Currently, she's on the drama "Parenthood." 

Photo: C Flanigan/Getty Images

Liya Kebede. Kebede was spotted by a film director while attending school in Addis Ababba, and started out walking for Tom Ford at Gucci in 2000. She went on to appears in numerous ad campaigns, and covered U.S. Vogue three times. In 2002, French Vogue dedicated an entire issue to her, clinching her place in fashion history.

In 2008, Kebede started a clothing line called Lemlem, which preserves Ethiopian textile traditions, and is sold by a number of high-end retailers. She is also involved in other philanthropic projects, in particular her own Liya Kebede Foundation, which aims to reduce infant and mother mortality rates in Ethiopia.

Photo: Paul Zimmerman/WireImage

Jessica White. White was scouted in 1999, at age 13. She worked for many major labels in the early 2000s, and has been featured in nearly every Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Issue since she was first cast in 2003. In this photo, she's attending an SI launch party in 2004.

Photo: James Devaney/WireImage

After taking a break from modeling due to substance abuse issues, White picked up some small acting roles and was rumored to be dating Tom Cruise last year. 

Photo: Paul Zimmerman/WireImage

Chanel Iman. This model was signed with Ford in 2003, at age 13, and has been working steadily ever since.She was on the cover of Teen Vogue twice in 2007, and once in 2009, and has also covered i-D, Vogue, and Italian Elle. She's also walked the Victoria's Secret runway as an Angel. Here she is bringing the early-millenial glam at a Teen Vogue bash in 2004.

Photo: J. Vespa/WireImage for Teen Vogue

In addition to her modeling career, she appeared in Beyoncé's music video for her song Yoncé, and has worked to raise awareness about droughts in East Africa. She also opened her own clothing boutique outside of L.A. in 2010, called The Red Bag. Above, at a Super Bowl party in 2014.

Photo: Charles Norfleet/FilmMagic

Jourdan Dunn. British-born model Dunn was discovered in while shopping in London at age 16, and made her runway debut in Fall 2007 (above, walking for TSE that same year.) In 2008, Vogue Italia published an issue of entirely black models, and Jourdan Dunn was chosen to cover. In 2008, she was also the first black model in a decade to walk the runway for Prada.

Photo: Randy Brooke/WireImage

During the London Olympics in 2012, Dunn represented her nation as part of the closing ceremonies, one of only two black models honored along with Naomi Campbell. She has since spoken about the inequalities that she has experienced as a model of color. Dunn is pictured here at the CFDA Fashion Fund Celebration in 2013.

Photo: Monica Schipper/FilmMagic

Joan Smalls. This multi-ethnic stunner (her mom is of Puerto Rican descent, her dad African and Irish) came onto the scene in 2007, when she finished college and was immeditately signed by Elite Model Management. She became an industry fixture when she was signed exclusively to Givenchy for Ricardo Tisci's Haute Couture show for S/S 2010. Here, she poses in the Rachel Roy Presentation for Spring 2009.

Photo: Randy Brooke/WireImage

In 2012, Smalls was named the highest-ranking model in the world by Models.com. She has covered almost all global high-fashion magazines, and is a brand ambassador for Estee Lauder. She walked the runway just a few weeks ago for Jean Paul Gaultier at Paris Couture Week, and, in January 2014, was dubbed "The Return of the Supermodel" by Elle.

Photo: Pascal Le Segretain/Getty Images

Herieth Paul. A Tanzanian/Canadian model who was scouted in 2010, Paul signed with an agency in Ottawa, and shortly thereafter made the move to New York, and began walking for major shows. She covered Vogue Italia alongside fellow models Arizona Muse and Freja Beha. She was also on the cover of Canadian Elle in 2011.

Image via Facebook

Herieth Paul in the story "Gray Zone," for Fashion Magazine. This past fall, Paul was in a widely acclaimed ad campaign for Tom Ford. 

Image via Instagram

Grace Mahary. Born in Canada to Eritrean parents, this newcomer was scouted at a Toronto shopping district as a teenager. She made her debut in 2011, and by 2013, she was closing Hedi Slimane's Spring/Summer show for Saint Laurent, and was booked exclusively to Ricardo Tisci for Givenchy for F/W 2013.

Photo: David Cooper/Toronto Star via Getty Images

Mahary has walked for tons of major fashion houses lately, including Prada and Marc Jacobs. During Paris Couture Week, she walked for Chanel and Dior (among others), and has been spotted lately at New York Fashion Week, walking for Herve Leger and Richard Chai.

Photo: Dave M. Benett/Getty Images

Cindy Bruna. An up-and-coming French model of North African descent, Bruna made her runway debut in the 2013 Victoria's Secret Show. She also recently walked a number of couture shows in Paris, including an entomology-inspired collection for Jean Paul Gaultier.

Photo: Randy Brooke/WireImage

Here she is photographed at a Victoria's Secret after-party in 2013. Along with colleague Grace Mahary, Bruna recently walked in Richard Chai's F/W 2014 show. She also appears in a recently released 2014 ad campaign for Prada. She is only the third black woman ever featured in a Prada campaign.

Photo: Craig Barritt/Getty Images for Victoria's Secret

Binx Walton. Wunderkind teenage model Walton was signed by Next Models two years ago, at age 16, but is rumored to have originally been scouted in her hometown of Nashville when she was just thirteen years old. Above, walking in Roberto Cavalli in F/W 2013.

Image via Instagram

After signing with Next, Walton's image was transformed to crop her hair and emphasize her androgynous, strong facial features. Since her makeover, she's walked for Chanel during Paris Couture, and is featured in Celine's ad campaign for S/S 2014.

Image via Twitter

Next slideshow starts in 10s

Proof That Beyoncé is a Full-On Hipster

Proof That Beyoncé is a
Full-On Hipster