Iman makes the case for fashion’s humanity

The pioneering icon is defending her image, and that of other Black models, from the forgetful fog of history

Supermodel Iman, an executive producer of the new "Supreme Models" documentary series on YouTube, at Apotheke NoMad in New York on Sept. 15.
Supermodel Iman, an executive producer of the new “Supreme Models” documentary series on YouTube, at Apotheke NoMad in New York on Sept. 15. (Erik Carter for The Washington Post; hair by Nicole Newland; makeup by Keita Moore; styling by Jason Rembert)

NEW YORK — From the beginning, modeling was always meant to be a business proposition, not a flight of fancy or a personal indulgence. And so, fashion was a remarkable, lucrative ride for the woman who came to be known simply as Iman: the model whose swan’s neck made a world-weary editor swoon, the Black woman who dominated a runway with a walk that was more grace than va-va-voom, the refugee who arrived in New York from 7,000 miles away — an African woman wrapped in the sexist, racist and absurdist cliches that this country still attaches to the multitudes from the continent, the Middle East or our southern border.

“I was a refugee. I had family to take care of,” Iman recalls. “Get me the damn advertising. And that’s what I got. At my height, I was one of the top models with the most advertising campaigns. That’s what I wanted. That’s where my head was. I didn’t care if I had Vogue.” But, of course, she had Vogue covers, too. Virtually every international iteration. “It allowed me to not only take care of myself, but to take care of my parents, take care of my brothers, make sure they got a good education.”

Iman Abdulmajid hadn’t been a young girl who dreamed about high heels, fanciful clothes and cover shoots for glossy magazines, but rather one who envisioned a life in politics or international relations, which would have had her following in the footsteps of her father, who recently died and who was a diplomat. Instead, world events intervened, a roving photographer took her picture and made up a silly (but troublesome) story, and in 1975 the doors of the fashion industry swung wide to welcome a Black woman who decision-makers deemed enticingly exotic even as those same doors cracked open only grudgingly for Black girls from down the block or around the corner.

For years, Iman, 67, encapsulated the gnarly complexity of identity, diversity and representation. The fashion industry — and the wider culture — continues to sort through these issues with only modest success. Sometimes, it has seemed as though the forward trajectory of the past has stalled or simply been forgotten and we find ourselves celebrating the same victory over and over again.

In 1994, Iman launched a cosmetics brand with a color palette that catered to customers with skin tones in the many shades of almond, coffee and chocolate that the big firms ignored. In 2007, she took her style aesthetic, one influenced by her global travels, to shopping television and online. She involved herself in philanthropy in her birthplace of Somalia, as well as in the United States. And for the past decade, she has championed diversity in a fashion industry that had become more homogenous since her heyday in the 1980s. She did these things before Rihanna launched her Fenty line of cosmetics, before Kim Kardashian and her siblings built an aesthetic empire rooted in Black culture and before a host of celebrities and corporations began posting black squares on social media. Iman wasn’t necessarily the first in all the arenas in which she played, but she was foundational.

From the archives: A beauty’s mark

Her history is part of the larger story of Black models which is the subject of “Supreme Models,” a six-part documentary series on YouTube based on Marcellas Reynolds’s 2019 book. Premiering Monday, the documentary puts the history of Black models — Karen Alexander, Veronica Webb, Joan Smalls, among many — on the record. They are as influential as the writers, musicians or actors who shape our understanding of who we are, but their impact is often overlooked.

“Fashion is important,” Reynolds says simply.

“Iman was the great ambassador for Africa, especially back then when we didn’t really see African people except in a National Geographic way,” he says. “And here was Iman, with her beautiful, accented English and speaking five languages. She opened the door for every African model who followed.”

Iman helped the culture shift its attitudes about beauty. She nudged it along. She signed on to “Supreme Models” as an executive producer to help ensure that people remember that Black beauty is political, powerful and ever-present.

“My image is my currency,” Iman says. “I have to protect that.”

As a working model, she defended her image from unflattering photography, the assault of age, and a fashion industry dominated by a Eurocentric point-of-view that often didn’t know how to fully celebrate her skin, her hair, her Africanness. “When that young girl is going to pick up that magazine, she’s going to see me. And I cannot be seen like however they want to see me, however they want to highlight me. I’ve got to get a hold of this, of my brown skin, of who I am. My dignity. My grace. That has to be shown so that young girls can see it.”

“That’s where representation matters,” she says.

Now, she’s defending her image, and that of other Black models, from forgetfulness, from the fog of history.

Iman arrives at The Mark hotel on the Upper East Side of Manhattan for a late-afternoon meeting. She walks toward a booth in a softly lit corner of the restaurant, dressed in black trousers from the Frankie Shop, a green blouse from her Iman Global Chic collection and a Sergio Hudson blazer. When first asked about her attire, she seems surprised by the question, but quickly reels off the credits. But she wanted to be sure. So two days later, unsolicited, she emails confirmations. She is supportive of young Black designers such as Hudson. But she also has her limits.

“LaQuan (Smith) says, ‘I have to dress you.’ I said, ‘You know, I’m 67.’ So he said, ‘But you can show a little bit of skin.’ I said, ‘I can, but I should not.’ Dear God!”

Anyone expecting to see a spindly stilt of a woman would be both disappointed and pleasantly surprised. Iman is of a different generation of models, whose stature and physique more closely approximated that of mere civilians. She is, of course, thin. But she does not look breakable. She is tall. But she does not tower over those around her. More than anything, she has a notable presence — a head high, back straight, sure-footedness. And she is beautiful. Not quirky or eccentric or jolie laide, which is how no small number of today’s working models might be described. She is beautiful in the way that the word was used back before it was expanded to be more inclusive and democratic and nonjudgmental.

Her appearance is what made photographer Peter Beard, who was White, stop her on the street in Nairobi where she was a student and ask if he could take her picture. Her appearance is also what riled some African Americans after Beard declared Iman the most beautiful woman he’d ever seen and the fashion industry went gaga.

“I got it from both sides. I got it from both White and Black,” Iman recalls. White people exoticized her. Beard claimed he’d discovered her out in the African bush. “I always say, ‘I’m not a mango.’ ”

And some Black Americans were incensed that the industry had gone all the way to Kenya in search of a model of color instead of hiring those right in front of them. “It was an uncomfortable time,” recalls her friend Bethann Hardison, one of the fashion industry’s most outspoken advocates for diversity. “It was offensive to people who were American, Blacks that were here, from Chicago. That was offensive that they were making so much of this girl who was supposedly found in the bush. She came in on a very tough ride.”

At least one Black editor was convinced that the fashion industry embraced Iman simply because her narrow nose and fine lips aligned with a Eurocentric idea of beauty, which made her more palatable to White consumers. “African Americans were asking a legitimate question: ‘Why do we need African models when we have enough here. Why not give this group a chance?’ So it’s very legitimate,” Iman says. She was angry, however, when her features were described as White. “I have no White in me. I am pure Somali.”

This last point is important not simply as a statement of fact but as a matter of identity, as a way of maintaining a sense of herself after having to give up so much of her life’s foundation when she was still a child. She and her four siblings went from privilege to deprivation.

In the 1960s, her parents were involved in Somalia’s fight for independence and eventually her father became a diplomat stationed in Saudi Arabia. Because of restrictions on girls’ education there, Iman was sent to boarding school in Egypt.

In 1969, there was a coup in Somalia; the embassies closed; and the family returned home. In 1972, as government officials were being jailed and even executed, the family fled the country in the middle of the night, Iman recalls. She was 16 when they drove to the Kenyan border, crossed into the country on foot, and became refugees.

“I went from an ambassador’s daughter with chauffeur driven cars to: You’re on your own,” Iman says.

She was helped by the same kinds of nonprofit, nongovernmental agencies that continue to resettle those fleeing civil wars and uprisings. They helped her enroll at the University of Nairobi with her tuition paid for one year. “Organizations on the ground like that were the ones who made my life and my trajectory possible.”

With a knowledge of Italian, which she’d been taught in school — a vestige of Italy’s colonialist history in Somalia — she worked at the bureau of tourism translating brochures and fielding questions from Italian visitors.

The rest of her story has become a part of fashion lore. Beard saw her on the street and asked to take her picture. She reluctantly agreed but only after asking to be paid for her time. She set her fee at $8,000, which was the cost of her tuition. “Before I got into that situation, becoming a refugee, my mom always said, ‘Know your position as a woman. Know what you can walk away from,’ ” Iman says. “ ‘Don’t compromise yourself.’ ”

Fashion’s Racial Reckoning

The right people in fashion’s hierarchy saw the photographs. She flew to New York and signed on with Wilhelmina Models. Fame. Money. A starring role in the history of an industry that shapes our ideas about beauty, human value and identity.

“I was the little Black, gay boy on the south side of Chicago. In my grandmother’s house, there was Ebony and Jet. And in my mother’s house, there was Essence. Since going outside was a war zone for me, reading them transported me,” says Reynolds, 55. “I never met my father and there was an issue of Ebony with Iman on the cover with her first husband Spencer Haywood and her oldest daughter who was a little girl then. I was transfixed by the little girl. And I remember thinking, ‘This must be what it’s like to have a father.’ I held on to that issue of Ebony. I put it under my mattress. Other little boys are putting Playboy under there; I’m putting an issue of Ebony with a nuclear Black family on the cover.”

“Fashion is intrinsic to our humanity,” Reynolds says.

The book was a marathon. The documentary was a sprint.

“It took eight years for me to sell ‘Supreme Models.’ White men would tell me to my face that a book about Black women wouldn’t sell. I’m so surprised this documentary happened so soon after the book came out,” Reynolds says. “I think that’s a testament to where we are now. It’s the zeitgeist. We’re interested in Black stories.”

“Supreme Models” is a six-part documentary series on YouTube premiering on Sept. 26. (Video: Youtube Originals, Photo: Youtube Originals/Youtube Originals)

The documentary comes in the wake of the protests sparked by the murder of George Floyd. The first of three episodes previewed opens with an overview of the industry and the challenges facing Black women. Another is dedicated to the decisive moment in 1973 when Black models dominated the runway at a groundbreaking show at Versailles. Woven throughout are the origin stories of veterans such as Iman and Karen Alexander who worked regularly for Ralph Lauren, as well as younger Black women who have expanded the definition of diversity to include plus-size figures and the wearing of the hijab.

“Supreme Models” arrives as the fashion industry is once again looking inward and assessing how successfully it’s reflecting the culture. In fact, activists are litigating the same old offenses once again. Iman retired in 1989. Within 10 years, the industry had essentially barred Black models from the runways and magazines. Iman’s attention was focused on building her cosmetics brand; while she wasn’t looking, the runways had become increasingly less diverse.

“Once she learned what was going on she could become very infuriated,” recalls Hardison, a former model and talent agent. “She would start saying the models needed a union. … She’d say boycott. Once it was brought to her attention she became a real factor.”

Iman named would-be offenders. “I said, I think it was the BBC or the CNN, I said, ‘Listen, every woman I know, Black or White, covets the Celine bag.’ And I said, ‘I have never bought one and I will never buy one. As much as I’m responsible for my wallet, [designer Phoebe Philo] is also responsible for what she wants to do on her runway.’ ”

The Black Lives Matter Movement Hits a Different Kind of Wall

The Black Lives Matter movement has accelerated this chapter of change. A quick look at virtually any fashion magazine offers proof of a more diverse array of models — although as always, the industry is infatuated with a “look” and right now that means dark-skinned women. Perhaps the Black Lives Matter movement has solidified change so that it won’t slip away. Perhaps it will force more diversity in boardrooms and back offices.

During the 2020 summer of protests, Iman drove into the city from her home in Upstate New York to join protesters in Brooklyn. In that moment, she was not the financially secure entrepreneur who is first-name famous. She was Iman Abdulmajid who understood what it was like to be othered, to be viewed with suspicion, to be different. She was the former refugee who became an American citizen in 1977 but who refuses to lose her Somali accent with its rolling r’s because it’s one of the last vestiges of her heritage, just like her last name.

She never changed it even when she married David Bowie, né David Jones, in 1992. She didn’t change it after the September 11 terrorist attacks when getting to her home not far from Ground Zero required showing her identification and a surname like Abdulmajid gave people pause.

Iman is the model. Abdulmajid is everything else. And she, too, is fiercely protected.

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