Through the Decades, These Black Model Pioneers Shaped Fashion for the Better

Since the 1950s, Black models have been an integral part of the fashion industry trailblazing a path that is hard to forget, but often overlooked. As Black History Month winds down, is launching a new, multi-part series showcasing Black model pioneers through the decades that may or may not have been on your radar. Whether you’re a model junkie or looking to learn something new, the exhaustive list highlights how these pillars of model history started off in the industry, climbed to notoriety and their claims to fame, starting this month and beyond.

The 00s

Jessica White
Born and raised in Buffalo, NY, Jessica White was scouted at the shy age of 12. At 16, she attended the Personal Best Modeling Talent training agency and got her big break when Anna Wintour noticed her and gave her an editorial feature in American Vogue. White’s career took off after she signed to IMG, and became the first black model to appear five years in a row in the Sports Illustrated swimsuit edition, and received multiple cosmetic contracts with Maybelline. The Sports Illustrated model also had a video vixen stint, appearing in music videos for Jay-Z, Kanye West, and Beyoncé.

Selita Ebanks
Caymen Islands native and Staten Island raised, Selita Ebanks was discovered by an agent while visiting Six Flags in New Jersey. Ebanks made her big debut walking for Tuleh and quickly descended into a Victoria Secrets runway Angel appearing in 5 shows. The former VS model dabbled into acting and appeared on “How I Met Your Mother” and Kanye West’s “Runaway” short film.

The 90s

Gin Clarke
From southeast London, Gin Clark was discovered by Jean Paul Gaultier on a trip to London. From there she was a constant muse to Gaultier (Alexander McQueen loved her too) appearing on his runways and campaigns in 95 before Hollywood called. She took her edgy look and talent to the sets of Star Wars and The Fifth Element.

Oluchi Onweagba Orlandi
One of Nigeria’s most notable models, Oluchi was discovered after winning a modeling competition in 1998. The prize with a modeling contract for three years and she moved to New York to work. She went to walk for all the high-profile names in the late 90s/early aughts like Gucci, Dior, Givenchy, and Fendi. She’s been featured on magazine covers from i-D, Vogue Italia, Elle, and Pop. She founded her own agency based in South Africa in 2007 and hosted the only season of Africa’s Next Top Model where she discovered model Aamito Lagum.

The 80s

Aria Riccardo
Valeria “Aria” Riccardo was born in Queens, NY, and became a model at the age of 16 after attending an open call with a friend. She wasn’t really interested in modeling, what she really wanted to do was become a New York police officer like her father. But the world of fashion beckoned, and Aria went on to star in Ralph Lauren and Clairol campaigns as well as walk the runways for Givenchy, Ralph Lauren, YSL and Calvin Klein.

Gloria Burgess
Gloria Burgess was born and raised in Washington DC but led a very international life. After studying political science at university in Pakistan, in the mid-70s she traveled to Japan with a Polynesian dance troupe and was discovered by Issey Miyake. During the 70s and 80s, Gloria was one of the top models in Europe, working often for Miyake as well as Kenzo, Dior, Mugler, Givenchy and Yves Saint Laurent. Her daughters, Olivia Burgess and Glovindra, also model.

The 70s

Peggy Dillard
The youngest of 13 children, Peggy Dillard grew up in Greenville, North Carolina. She began modeling after moving to NYC to attend the Pratt Institute where she studied fashion merchandising. Initially working as a runway model solely for Black designers, Peggy’s big break came when she was eventually signed by model agent Ellen Harth. Peggy made the cover of American Vogue three times and also appeared on the cover of Cosmopolitan and in Italian Vogue shot by Irving Penn. Quickly she was considered the top Black model in the industry despite refusing to ever straighten her hair, explaining “Growing up I was taught to love hair that’s alive and healthy and to believe that it didn’t have to be straight to be beautiful.” She and her husband later opened a salon in Harlem specializing in natural hair care.

Josy Numa
Josy Numa Gil was born in Guadeloupe, French West Indies, and at the age of 16 received a scholarship to study law in Paris. She was known for making daring fashion choices, and cut off her hair and shaved off her eyebrows, starting a trend amongst models in Paris during the late 60s/early 70s. On the runway, she walked for Ungaro and Courreges and was photographed by the likes of Guy Bourdin, David Bailey and Helmut Newton.

The 60s

Mozella Roberts
Mozella Roberts was one of the first Black models to work in the showrooms of New York’s Seventh Avenue designers. Born in rural North Carolina, Mozella was raised by her great grandfather, a former slave, until the age of 6, when her mother moved the family to Pittsburgh. In 1959 Mozella married and moved to New York. It was there, in 1960, that she began freelance modeling, often pretending to be her own agent while organizing bookings over the phone. She walked for designers such as Bill Blass, Emilio Pucci, YSL and Oscar de la Renta, was a muse of Arnold Scaasi, and posed for Richard Avedon, Gordon Parks and Salvador Dali.

Kellie Wilson
Born in Washington D.C, Kellie Wilson was raised by her businesswoman mother in Hawaii, Michigan, and Chicago. A gifted student, Kellie studied psychology at the University of Chicago and fashion design at the Chicago Art Institute. It was after graduating in 1964 that she got her big break: in New York to find a job working in fashion, Kellie was instead spotted in a diner by French photographer Jean-Loup Sieff. Taken with her outlandish personal style and unusual beauty. Sieff whisked Kellie off to Paris, where she modeled in the salons of Paco Rabanne, Pierre Cardin, Nina Ricci, Christian Dior, Lanvin, and Courrèges. Eventually based in Chelsea, in the heart of Swinging London, Kellie was photographed by the likes of Richard Avedon, Clive Arrowsmith, Bert Stern and Duffy, and worked often with iconic British designers Jean Muir, Mary Quant, and Ossie Clark. Andy Warhol shot a screen test with her at The Factory in 1966. In 1970, Kellie was diagnosed with cancer and underwent surgery. She tragically passed away a few years later, in September 1973, at age 31.

The 50s

Dorothea Towles Church
Born in Texas, Dorothea was the first successful black model in Paris. A member of Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority Inc. she followed her sister, a concert pianist and singer, on a two-month vacation to the city of lights. Dior hired her to replace one of its regular models and she spent the next five years walking for designers like Jacques Fath, Elsa Schiaparelli, and Pierre Balmain. When she returned to the US, she spread the wealth by touring with her collection of couture at black colleges to fundraise for AKA. She was on the cover of Jet Magazine and earned success but still dealt with racial prejudice. Pierre Balmain notoriously refused her request to borrow dresses for an Ebony magazine photoshoot because he was concerned white clients would be displeased and that black women couldn’t afford him. She eventually signed with the New York modeling agency, Grace del Marco, and was thought to be the only black model that made her entire income in the profession at that time. She died at age 83 in New York City.

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