Tuesday, August 4, 2009

Naomi Sims: Some kind of symbol

Long before the parade of people of color that now inhabit the fashion universe — some parts of it anyway — being a black female model was a groundbreaking thing indeed. Years before Tyra Banks or Naomi Campbell or Iman held sway over the attention, the notion of black as beautiful on the runway was rarer than the still rare thing it is today.

Back in the day of the ‘60’s, when an Afro was more a political statement than a hairstyle, back when the world of high fashion and haute couture was Off Limits to blacks and browns, back when black people needed some kind of symbol, Naomi Sims emerged and became what African Americans needed during those previously trying times: a straight-up Superstar.

Sims died on Saturday in Newark, N.J., after battling breast cancer. Prepare to curse again the painfully early exit; this supermodel who personified blackness, diversified as a businesswoman, and made the template for others hoping to crash the hallowed precincts of the fashion industry was only 61 years old.

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In 1968, it was tough to be somebody if you were somebody black in America. By November of that year, Martin Luther King Jr. was gone and with him went much of black America’s collective sense of itself. Cities like Baltimore, Chicago and Washington, D.C. went up in flames; and black American men kept dying in the meat-grinder of a war in Vietnam, engaging in the noble patriotism that would see black soldiers die in numbers that comprised 13 percent of all U.S. forces by the end of the war, five years on.

Naomi Sims turned up on the cover of Ladies Home Journal that month, a crowning touch on a career that was, even then, turning heads much the way she did when she walked down the runways of the world. Gracing the cover of the Journal at the age of 20, the first African American model to do it, almost immediately won her the title of supermodel (that phrase that’s been thrown around almost irresponsibly in the decades since).

But back then, Naomi Sims was special for other reasons. When she showed up on magazine covers from Cosmopolitan to Ebony, Life to The New York Times, it validated something to black mothers and grandmothers who’d endured generations of being told their touch of class wasn’t classy enough. It was all right to be who they were: people moving through life, oblivious to the haters, with heads held high on the runways of life.

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And this was about more than showboating on the catwalk, more than wearing clothes that other sisters could only dream about dreaming about. Naomi Sims represented in other ways. In 1972 she was offered the title role in Warner Bros.’ urban ass-kicking blaxploitation staple “Cleopatra Jones,” by that point the latest in a line of such films that defined the era of the early 70’s. But Sims said hell naw, rejecting the script reportedly offended by its black characters’ clowning and caricature.

She did even more. Following on her experiences as a model forced to work on her own hair and makeup — a sensible result after working with photographers and studio assistants who didn’t have a clue how to light and photograph dark skin — Sims planted the seeds for a business.

“She noticed that most commercially available wigs were designed for Caucasian hair,” The New York Times reported Monday in its Sims obituary, “so she began experimenting with her own designs, baking synthetic hairs in her oven at home to create the right texture to look like straightened black hair.”

In 1973, scratching that entrepreneurial itch, she started her own business. Inside of five years later, her wig designs were generating annual sales of about $5 million. She went on to write books on beauty, success and self-image, maintaining a perspective that accentuated the positive for African American women.

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In her own regal, high-powered but accessible fashion, Naomi Sims paved the way for any number of black and minority fashion models; Ann Fudge (former CEO of Young & Rubicam); and even Oprah Winfrey, whose exploits as an independent black businesswoman were inspired by the supermodel from Mississippi who was raised in a foster home half a century ago.

Naomi Sims helped create possibilities for black women in a field that, to this day, is still underrepresented by people of color. As today’s fashion models sashay down the runway, some of them — the few black models you’re likely to see in Milan, New York or Paris — can thank Naomi Sims for opening the door of perception just a crack wider for black people.

They, and we, can thank her for helping black people build that door for themselves.
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Image credit: Cosmopolitan cover: Hearst Magazines. Sims on the runway: Bill Cunningham for The New York Times.

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