10 Famous Black Women Who Shaped the Fashion Industry

By: Morgan Smith

It’s finally February! Which means the long and on going month of January is over and…it’s Black History Month! I wanted to introduce you to famous African American queens who have impacted and helped pave the way for Black women in the fashion industry:

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Helen Williams

Helen Williams is credited with becoming the first dark-skinned (she appeared more brown skin than our perception of dark skin today, but she was darker than most models of the time which is why she was considered dark skin) model to cross over into mainstream in the ’50s. The French embraced her more than Americans because the French admired her skin color and beauty. By crossing over into mainstream media, she conquered obstacles created for dark-skinned models in a society where white or light skin women were the norm.

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Beverly Johnson

Beverly Johnson was the first Black woman to appear on the cover of American Vogue in 1974. In the next year, she became the first Black woman to appear on the cover of French Elle magazine. This was a game changer that opened many doors to the fashion world for African American women as a whole and she used her fame to advocate civil rights.

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Naomi Sims

She was recognized as the first Black supermodel and the first face of the term “Black is Beautiful”. Sims was the first African American model to appear on the cover of Ladies’ Home Journal in 1968, breaking barriers regarding race and women in the business world. She also went into the wig business for styles for African American women after modeling- which turned into a multi-million-dollar empire along with many other ventures she invested in. She is the reason behind my obsession with wigs. A pure QUEEN.

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Zelda Wynn Valdes

Valdes was best known for designing the famous Playboy Bunny costume that is forever implanted in our minds (ICONIC). She is also known as the first African American to open a boutique on Broadway in New York City. She sold to many famous stars at her boutique including Dorothy Dandridge, Gladys Knight, and Ella Fitzgerald.

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Anne Lowe

Anne Lowe was the first recognized African American fashion designer. Her most notable achievement was designing the wedding dress of Jacqueline Kennedy which happens to be the most photographed dress in history. She was known as “society’s best kept secret” because she was African American and designing for very famous “societies” such as the Roosevelt family, the Du Pont family, and the Rockefeller family.

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Ola Hudson

Hudson was a professional costume designer for musicians of the time; she designed outfits for Diana Ross, David Bowie, and John Lennon. Her designs greatly influenced the styles evident in rock ‘n’ roll today. She also just so happened to be the mother of the famous rockstar, Slash.

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Grace Jones

Jones is credited with being the original “carefree black girl”. She is best known for her androgynous clothing choices, which influenced cross dressing in the 1980s and posed as inspiration for many musical artists outfit choices today. She has worked with many photographers and designers who considered her as a muse due to her vibrant features.

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Mildred Blount

Blount was known as the “milliner to the stars” and widely regarded as the “leading milliner” in the ’30s and ’40s. She created hats for celebrities and other high society clients such as Joan Crawford and Marian Anderson. She also designed the hats for the cast of Gone With the Wind.

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Iman is a famous supermodel who is known for working with many notorious designers who admire her exotic, Somalian look and features. Yves Saint Laurent himself described her as his “dream woman”. She is described as an influential fashion icon for promoting and bringing attention to the need for diversity on the runways. Iman even ventured into cosmetics with Iman Cosmetics which offered foundation shades for Black women who had trouble finding their perfect shades.

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Pat Cleveland

Cleveland is among one of the first African American women to become a supermodel and print model, being described as a “walking muse”. Despite being told by Eileen Ford, co-found of Ford Models, that she would never make it, Pat Cleveland paved her way through the industry while combating racism. She appeared in the first issue of Essence which was the first glossy for Black women and worked with many which opened doors for her to walk runways in Europe and appear in other popular magazines.