Black Women Who Changed the Game in Fashion [UPDATED]

  • March 12, 2023
Photo:  frederic meylan/Sygma (Getty Images)

Photo: frederic meylan/Sygma (Getty Images)

Throughout history, Black women have been on the cutting edge of fashion as designers, models and magazine editors. But although they consistently set the trends, they’re not always given the respect or credit they are due.

So we thought we’d take some time to honor the women who have broken down barriers and blazed trails in an industry that has been less than welcoming to people of color. These are just a few of the most influential Black women in fashion history.

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Robin Givhan

NEW YORK, NEW YORK - APRIL 11: Robin Givhan attends The Fashion Scholarship Fund 85th Annual Awards Gala at the Glass Houses on April 11, 2022 in New York City.

NEW YORK, NEW YORK – APRIL 11: Robin Givhan attends The Fashion Scholarship Fund 85th Annual Awards Gala at the Glass Houses on April 11, 2022 in New York City.

Editor Robin Givhan has covered fashion from practically every angle. Her honest, no-holds-barred approach to writing about the industry made her the first fashion writer to receive the Pulitzer Prize for Criticism in 2006.

A long-time fashion editor and critic for The Washington Post, Givhan has written about everything from Jill Biden’s inaugural dresses to a critique on the choice of Pharrell Williams as the new Men’s Creative Director at Louis Vuitton in the Washington Post.

Brandice Daniel

NEW YORK, NEW YORK - NOVEMBER 30: Brandice Daniel attends the 2022 Footwear News Achievement Awards at Cipriani South Street on November 30, 2022 in New York City.

NEW YORK, NEW YORK – NOVEMBER 30: Brandice Daniel attends the 2022 Footwear News Achievement Awards at Cipriani South Street on November 30, 2022 in New York City.

Brandice Daniel founded Harlem’s Fashion Row in 2007 as an agency dedicated to uplifting designers of color. Her commitment to the cause has provided emerging designers opportunities for mentorship, publicity and connections with well-established brands like Nike.

Donyale Luna

American model and actress Donyale Luna, March 1966.

American model and actress Donyale Luna, March 1966.

Born Peggy Ann Freeman, model Donyale Luna was discovered in her hometown of Detroit in 1963 by photographer David McCabe, who was visiting on assignment. Luna moved to New York City at 19 and quickly made her mark, walking in runway shows for major designers, including Yves Saint Laurent, Paco Rabanne and Valentino. And when she appeared on the cover of British Vogue in 1966, she made history as the first Black woman featured on the cover of a major fashion magazine.

Elizabeth Keckley

Illustrated portrait of Elizabeth Keckley (1818 - 1907), a formerly enslaved woman who bought her freedom and became dressmaker for First Lady Mary Todd Lincoln.

Illustrated portrait of Elizabeth Keckley (1818 – 1907), a formerly enslaved woman who bought her freedom and became dressmaker for First Lady Mary Todd Lincoln.

Born into slavery, Elizabeth Keckley used her dressmaking skills to earn enough money to buy her freedom in 1860. Once free, she took her talent from St. Louis to Washington D.C., to start her own business. And in 1861, she picked up one of the most high-profile clients in town, becoming the personal dressmaker and stylist to then-First Lady Mary Todd Lincoln.

Gabriella Karefa-Johnson

Gabriella Karefa-Johnson

Gabriella Karefa-Johnson

Named one of Business of Fashion’s Top 500 people shaping the global fashion industry in 2022, stylist and editor Gabriella Karefa-Johnson is arguably one of the most important voices in fashion right now. In 2021, she made history as the first Black woman to style a Vogue cover. And as their Global Contributing Fashion Editor-at-Large, Karefa-Johnson has styled some of Vogue’s most stunning covers, including issues featuring Serena Williams, Amanda Gorman and Gigi Hadid. In January of 2023, she joined creative forces with Target on their latest Future Collective drop, a colorful, size-inclusive collection of clothing and accessories.

Ann Lowe

Ann Lowe

Ann Lowe

Designer Ann Lowe was raised in the business of fashion. She learned tailoring skills from her mother, a dressmaker for wealthy women in the South. And when she passed away unexpectedly, a 16-year-old Ann was left to finish a collection of ball gowns for the First Lady of Alabama.

Lowe eventually moved to New York City, where she designed dresses for socialites like the Rockefellers and the Roosevelts. In 1968 she became the first Black woman to own a store on Madison Avenue. But while her talent was undeniable, she rarely got the flowers she deserved. Lowe made actress Olivia de Havilland’s 1946 Oscar dress and Jacqueline Bouvier’s dress for her 1953 wedding to John F. Kennedy, but didn’t receive credit.

Stella Jean

Stella Jean

Stella Jean

In 2011, Stella Jean became one to watch as one of the winners of Vogue Italia’s Who Is On Next talent contest. One year later, the self-taught Hatian-Italian designer presented her debut collection at Milan Fashion Week. Her work caught the attention of Giorgio Armani, who chose her Spring/Summer 2014 collection to show at his Teatro Armani show space in Milan.

The creative ways she mixes bright colors and bold global prints pay homage to her multicultural heritage and have earned her celebrity fans, including Beyoncé, Rihanna and Zendaya. Jean is also a tireless advocate for other designers of color. The only Black designer on Italy’s fashion council, she recently decided not to show her collection at Milan fashion week as a show of support for emerging Italian designers of color.

Iman

Photo:  Taylor Hill (Getty Images)

Photo: Taylor Hill (Getty Images)

Somalian-born actress and supermodel Iman Abdulmajid was discovered by a photographer while she was a student at the University of Nairobi. Her striking features made her a fixture on the covers of Vogue and Harpers’ Bazaar and a muse for famous fashion designers, including Gianni Versace and Yves Saint Laurent in the 1970s and 80s. In 1994, Iman launched a successful cosmetics line, Iman Cosmetics.

Grace Jones

NEW YORK, NEW YORK - SEPTEMBER 09: Grace Jones attends the FENDI 25th Anniversary of the Baguette at Hammerstein Ballroom on September 09, 2022 in New York City.

NEW YORK, NEW YORK – SEPTEMBER 09: Grace Jones attends the FENDI 25th Anniversary of the Baguette at Hammerstein Ballroom on September 09, 2022 in New York City.

With a career spanning over four decades, Grace Jones has established herself as a style icon. After moving from Jamaica to New York, Jones signed her first modeling contract at 18 and walked runways for well-known designers including Yves Saint Laurent and Kenzo. But even after she stepped away from modeling to focus on her singing and acting career, Jones continued to slay the style game, known for her androgynous and always fashion-forward looks that leave everyone talking.

Beverly Johnson

PALM SPRINGS, CALIFORNIA - JANUARY 05: Beverly Johnson attends the 34th Annual Palm Springs International Film Awards at Palm Springs Convention Center on January 05, 2023 in Palm Springs, California.

PALM SPRINGS, CALIFORNIA – JANUARY 05: Beverly Johnson attends the 34th Annual Palm Springs International Film Awards at Palm Springs Convention Center on January 05, 2023 in Palm Springs, California.

Beverly Johnson has appeared on more than 500 magazine covers. But the one she will probably always be remembered for is Vogue’s August 1974 issue, in which she became the magazine’s first Black cover model. “Every model’s dream [is] to be on the cover of Vogue. You have arrived when you made the cover of Vogue. And then when I found out I was the first person of color on the cover and what that meant, I was like, Wow, this is really a big deal,” she said in an interview.

Pat Cleveland

NEW YORK, NEW YORK - OCTOBER 17: Pat Cleveland attends the 16th annual God’s Love We Deliver Golden Heart Awards at The Glasshouse on October 17, 2022 in New York City.

NEW YORK, NEW YORK – OCTOBER 17: Pat Cleveland attends the 16th annual God’s Love We Deliver Golden Heart Awards at The Glasshouse on October 17, 2022 in New York City.

When she signed with Ford Models in the 1960s, Pat Cleveland was told she wouldn’t make it in the business because “there was no work for colored girls.” But she would get the last laugh, walking in runway shows for designers like Valentino and Yves Saint Laurent. In his 2003 memoir, Andre Leon Talley called Cleveland “the first black supermodel, the Josephine Baker of the international runways.”

Tyra Banks

Photo:  Taylor Hill (Getty Images)

Photo: Taylor Hill (Getty Images)

Tyra Banks began modeling as a teenager, heading to Paris shortly after high school to pursue her career. By the mid 1990s, Banks made a conscious decision to embrace her curves. And it paid off as she became the first Black woman on the cover of the Sports Illustrated swimsuit issue and the Victoria’s Secret catalog. Banks has had a series of acting and hosting gigs on both the big and small screen. And in 2003, he became the host and executive producer of America’s Next Top Model, a reality competition show for aspiring models.

Naomi Sims

Naomi Sims came to New York City in 1966 to study merchandising and textile design at the Fashion Institute of Technology. But while there, a counselor suggested she had the perfect look for modeling. Sims fought discrimination in the industry for years. But in 1968, she landed the cover of Ladies’ Home Journal, becoming the first Black model to appear on the cover of a mainstream magazine. After retiring from modeling, Sims launched a successful wig business, Naomi Sims Collection, and wrote a series of books on modeling and beauty. “Naomi was the first,” designer Halston told The New York Times in 1974. “She was the great ambassador for all Black people. She broke down all the social barriers.”

Dorothea Towles Church

In an industry that was not always welcoming to Black models, Dorothea Towles Church made a name for herself as the first successful Black model in Paris. Church worked with designers like Balmain and Christian Dior in the 1950s and 60s, breaking down long-established color barriers to become one of the most celebrated working models in France at the time. “If you’re beautiful, they don’t care what color you are,” she once said.

Samira Nasr

Photo:  Monica Schipper (Getty Images)

Photo: Monica Schipper (Getty Images)

In 2020, Samira Nasr was named Editor-in-chief of Harper’s Bazaar, the first Black woman to hold the position in the magazine’s 150-year history. Born to a Lebanese father and Trinidadian mother, she has always stressed the importance of changing the face of fashion to be more inclusive. And in a statement announcing her position, Nasr confirmed her commitment to increasing representation at the magazine. “My lens by nature is colorful, and so it is important to me to begin a new chapter in Bazaar’s history by shining a light on all individuals who I believe are the inspiring voices of our time,” she said.

Tracy Reese

Tracy Reese

Tracy Reese

Designer Tracy Reese made a name for herself working in some of the most prestigious fashion houses, including Perry Ellis. So when she launched her own line in 1997, the industry was here for it. Her bold colors and prints are beloved by some the most fashionable women around, including Michelle Obama and Sarah Jessica Parker. Reese currently serves on the Board of Directors of the Council of Fashion Designers of America, Inc. (CFDA) a non-profit trade association created to strengthen the impact of American fashion in the global economy.

Naomi Campbell

Photo:  Estrop (Getty Images)

Photo: Estrop (Getty Images)

Naomi Campbell is one of the most recognizable faces in fashion. She’s starred in ad campaigns for the likes of Versace, Ralph Lauren and Dolce and Gabbana, and has made all kinds of history in the industry as the first Black woman to appear on the covers of French and British Vogue and the first Black model on the cover of Time. In 2019, Campbell’s achievements earned her the British Fashion Council‘s Fashion Icon award,

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