Iconic Black Models Shaping Fashion’s Past, Present And Future

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Black models have reshaped the modeling and fashion industries forever. From fashion shows like the Battle of Versailles that spotlighted iconic models like Bethann Harison to models like Precious Lee and Paloma Elsesser who are reshaping what a supermodel looks like, these figures are creating more space for people who look like them. The notion that representation matters is a genuine fact. Alton Mason was the first Black male model to open for French fashion house Chanel. Another Black male model who has paved the way for models like Mason is Tyson Beckford, a history-defining individual. 

Donyale Luna was dubbed the “first Black supermodel” after her rise to fame in the 1960s. Our 50th Anniversary Issue paid homage to Luna with Zendaya in the iconic “OK” eye pose that Luna used in a shoot for Twen in 1966. Another model we’re spotlighting is Pat Cleveland who also gained momentum in the ‘60s, appearing in the first ESSENCE issue. Another model we all know and love Naomi Campbell is a household name. She’s fabulously taken the industry and has reigned ever since she started as just a teenager in the mall. Anok Yai’s resume of runway shows and campaigns is already quite long. She’s been the face of many brands, most recently for Mugler’s fragrance “Alien Hypersense.” 

We’re touching on the models we believe have shaped and reshaped fashion throughout the past, present, and future. Keep scrolling to learn more about them.

Bethann Hardison

Iconic Black Models Shaping Fashion’s Past, Present And Future
BEVERLY HILLS, CALIFORNIA – MARCH 10: Bethann Hardison attends the 2024 Vanity Fair Oscar Party hosted by Radhika Jones at the Wallis Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts on March 10, 2024 in Beverly Hills, California. (Photo by Karwai Tang/WireImage)

Bethann Hardison is a trailblazer. Hardison’s work in the fashion industry should be applauded as she and her team have worked tirelessly for diversity in the modeling industry. She was one of the many models who walked in the Battle of Versailles, an iconic fashion show that exhibited designs from Parisian and American designers to raise funds for the Palace of Versailles. She’s appeared in Allure, Vogue, and Harper’s Bazaar and has been able to pave pathways for Black models. Now, she’s an advocate for diversity in the industry with her own agency called Bethann Management Agency, which has been a beacon for fashion’s lack of diversity. In 1988, Harison and fellow model Iman launched the Black Girl Coalition to advocate for Black models. Her new film, Invisible Beauty documents her career and her activism in fashion. She is now a consultant for the CFDA as well as Gucci. 

Pat Cleveland 

Iconic Black Models Shaping Fashion’s Past, Present And Future
PARIS, FRANCE – FEBRUARY 29: (EDITORIAL USE ONLY – For Non-Editorial use please seek approval from Fashion House) Pat Cleveland attends the Chloé Womenswear Fall/Winter 2024-2025 show as part of Paris Fashion Week on February 29, 2024 in Paris, France. (Photo by Stephane Cardinale – Corbis/Corbis via Getty Images)

Pat Cleveland is a well-renowned global figure who has seen so much in her career. Born in New York City, Cleveland experienced racism even throughout her career. When she was discovered in New York, she quickly gained traction and became a well-known name among designers like Stephen Burrows. She appeared in Vogue and the first issue of Essence, as well as Ebony, and became a muse to artist Salvador Dali. After growing tired of the racism she experienced regularly, she moved to Paris. There, she became a Muse to designer Karl Lagerfeld while he was at Chloé. She ended up modeling for luxury brands like Valentino, Yves Saint Laurent, Mugler, Christian Dior, and Oscar de la Renta. Cleveland became a go-to model for American designer Halston. She also participated as a model in the Battle of Versailles in 1973. She reached supermodel status in the ‘80s and even André Leon Talley called her “the first Black supermodel” in his memoir A.L.T: A Memoir. 

Beverly Johnson

Iconic Black Models Shaping Fashion’s Past, Present And Future
NEW YORK, NY – FEBRUARY 4: Beverly Johnson attends Beverly Johnson: IN VOGUE Closing Performance at 59E59 Theaters on February 4, 2024 in New York. (Photo by Patrick McMullan/PMC/PMC)

Beverly Johnson is the reason supermodel Pat Cleveland returned to the United States to model. Johnson appeared on the cover of American Vogue in 1973, the first Black model to do so. Cleveland had vowed not to move back to the U.S. until a Black model was on the cover of Vogue. This was her claim to fame and catapulted designers to use Black designers. She’s not just a pretty face though, along with shifting beauty standards she has also written books and has quite a few acting credits. Johnson appeared in movies such as Crossroads, Def Jam’s How to Be a Player, and Ashanti. She also had TV roles on Martin, Law & Order, and The Parent ‘Hood. Johnson has received the Women’s Entrepreneurship Day Organization’s Model Pioneer Award in 2022. This year marked the 50th anniversary of her first Vogue cover which she celebrated with a one-woman Broadway play that showed in February entitled Beverly Johnson: In Vogue. 

Donyale Luna 

Iconic Black Models Shaping Fashion’s Past, Present And Future
Model Donyale Luna attends a dinner party hosted by Salvador Dali at Trader Vic’s restaurant in New York City, on March 16, 1975. (Photo by Harry Morrison/WWD/Penske Media via Getty Images)

Iconic supermodel Donyale Luna has left an unforgettable mark on the fashion industry. Paco Rabanne used her as a model many times as he used only Black models in 1964. She was the first Black model to be on the cover of Harper’s Bazaar with an image of her sketched onto the cover. She was another muse of the artist Salvador Dali. She went on to appear in Cosmopolitan, American Vogue, Interview Magazine, and Playboy. Her unique look brought her to popularity as she became a household name in the fashion industry. In 2008, she appeared in an all-Black Vogue cover. Our 50th-anniversary cover featured Zendaya in the iconic “OK” pose that Luna did on the Twen cover. Luna’s presence in the fashion industry has inspired models like Naomi Campbell who praised Luna in her speech at the CFDA’s in 2019. A documentary on the model in 2023 was released on Max and was co-produced by Luna’s daughter, Dream Cazzinga. It’s entitled Donyale Luna: A Supermodel

Naomi Campbell 

Iconic Black Models Shaping Fashion’s Past, Present And Future
Naomi Campbell attends a photo call to publicise the V&A’s forthcoming NAOMI exhibition, celebrating her 40 years in fashion, at The Dorchester hotel in Park Lane, London. Picture date: Wednesday March 13, 2024. (Photo by Ian West/PA Images via Getty Images)

Naomi Campbell is a household name in the fashion industry. As an impressionable teenager, Campbell became a model, appearing on the cover of British Elle at 15 years old. She walked for a slew of designers including Versace and Alaïa. She was the first Black model on the cover of French Vogue and the first Black model to be on the September issue of American Vogue. She gained supermodel status in the ‘90s and since then has dominated the industry with a long-standing career often opening and closing runway shows for high fashion brands from Prada to Louis Vuitton to Chanel.

Campbell was also the first Black model to ever open a Prada show in 1997. When she’s not on the catwalk, she’s advocating for others with multiple organizations that she supports like the Nelson Mandela Children’s Fund. She joined the Black Girl Coalition in 2013 with fellow models Bethann Hardison and Iman. For our 40th Anniversary issue, Campbell appeared on the cover alongside supermodels Iman and Liya Kebede. Recently, an exhibition held at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London honoring Campbell’s 40-decade career is showing from June 22, 2024, through April 6, 2025.

Tyson Beckford

Iconic Black Models Shaping Fashion’s Past, Present And Future
Tyson Beckford at the City Harvest 40th Anniversary Gala held at Cipriani 42nd Street on April 25, 2023 in New York City. (Photo by Kristina Bumphrey/Variety via Getty Images)

There are not many household names in regard to male models, but Tyson Beckford is the exception. Beckford rose to fame after a Ralph Lauren campaign in 1993. He got his start when he modeled for a piece for The Source a year prior. By the mid-’90s, he was gaining momentum by walking fashion runways and becoming the face of numerous campaigns. He quickly gained supermodel status which was rare for a Black male model. He had delved into acting, appearing in the film Biker Boyz as well as Zoolander and Into the Blue. After returning from modeling in 2008, he reappeared in an IVY Park campaign in 2022, bringing him out of retirement just for a bit. 

Precious Lee 

Iconic Black Models Shaping Fashion’s Past, Present And Future
Precious Lee at the Versace x NET-A-PORTER event in Bel Air, Los Angeles, California on March 7, 2024. (Photo by River Callaway/WWD via Getty Images)

Precious Lee is one of the few curve models to gain supermodel status. She started modeling at 18 years old while attending college at Clark Atlanta University. She signed to Ford Models after moving to New York. In 2017, she walked the runway for Christian Siriano, her first-ever runway gig. She went on to walk for Balmain, Versace, Moschino, and Michael Kors. She’s appeared in American and British Vogue and Harper’s Bazaar. She became one of three curve models to walk for Versace in 2021 in the history of the brand. Her cover appearance on British Vogue featured curve models Paloma Elsesser and Jill Kortleve dubbing her a supermodel.

Alton Mason

Iconic Black Models Shaping Fashion’s Past, Present And Future
PARIS, FRANCE – MARCH 03: (EDITORIAL USE ONLY – For Non-Editorial use please seek approval from Fashion House) Alton Mason attends the Mugler Womenswear Fall/Winter 2024-2025 show as part of Paris Fashion Week on March 03, 2024 in Paris, France. (Photo by Pascal Le Segretain/Getty Images)

Male supermodel Alton Mason started his career in 2015 and has shaken up the fashion industry since. He’s the first Black male model to walk for Chanel in 2018. He’s walked for brands like Gucci, Tom Ford, Valentino, Fendi, Louis Vuitton, Off-White, and a slew of others throughout his career. Mason grabbed the attention of agencies through his unique personal style which can be described as maximalist. He’s not afraid to express himself, and that has molded him into the model he is today. His very first job as a model was for rapper Kanye West’s Yeezy season 2 collection in 2016. In 2017, the creative director of Gucci at the time, Alessandro Michele, requested Mason for their Pre-Fall campaign. Mason was also photographed by the late designer Karl Lagerfeld for the Chanel 2018 Métiers d’Art show, where he created his historic moment as the first Black model to open a Chanel runway.

Anok Yai 

Iconic Black Models Shaping Fashion’s Past, Present And Future
CANNES, FRANCE – MAY 21: Anok Yai attends the 2023 “Kering Women in Motion Award” during the 76th annual Cannes film festival on May 21, 2023 in Cannes, France. (Photo by Stephane Cardinale – Corbis/Corbis via Getty Images)

Anok Yai was discovered while attending Howard University during homecoming week in 2017. The image that photographer Steve Hall took of her went viral on Instagram and consequently garnered attention from many modeling agencies. After signing with Next Model Management, she became the second Sudanese model to open a Prada show. Since then, she’s walked for many brands like Fendi, Chanel, Miu Miu, Louis Vuitton, Paco Rabanne, Carolina Herrera and more. She’s been on the covers of Vogue, Elle, Harper’s Bazaar, i-D, and many more. She earned the “Model of the Year” title from models.com Industry and Readers’ vote in 2023 and gained supermodel status a year prior from W magazine. In 2023, she opened her first Mugler runway show and became the face of its latest fragrance “Alien Hypersense” this year. 

Paloma Elsesser 

Iconic Black Models Shaping Fashion’s Past, Present And Future
NEW YORK, NEW YORK – APRIL 08: Paloma Elsesser attends the Fashion Scholarship Fund Gala Honoring Tracee Ellis Ross, Michael Burke and Pete Nordstrom, Hosted by Paloma Elsesser at The Glasshouse on April 08, 2024 in New York City. (Photo by Jamie McCarthy/Getty Images for Fashion Scholarship Fund)

Paloma Elsesser is another curve model that has reached supermodel status—a feat that is not easy. She’s one of the few, but her presence in the fashion industry is undeniable. She was discovered by iconic makeup artist Pat McGrath and went on to model for other brands from Nike to Fenty Beauty. She began walking the runways of brands like Proenza Schouler, Ganni, Collina Strada, Ferragamo, Fendi, and more. She’s graced the covers of Vogue, W, Elle, Teen Vogue, and Glamour. In 2019, she appeared in Uncut Gems which was her acting debut. Elsesser also won “Model of the Year” at the 2023 Fashion Awards, a huge feat for a curve model. It showed many plus-sized models that it is possible to do. 

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