Super Model Naomi Sims
In 1968, I was ten years old. Even then, I was a fashion magazine-a-holic. Though I was in love with the likes of Vogue and Harpers Bazaar, even I knew that something, or someone was sorely missing. There weren't any models that looked like me. Then one day, this changed. Suddenly, gracing the cover of Ladies Home Journal and Life Magazine was a woman that I considered to be the most beautiful creature I'd ever laid my young and impressionable eyes on.
Fashion industry pioneer, Naomi Sims, died on this past Saturday from a lengthy battle with cancer. She was 61 years young.
First of all, I have to say that I am appalled at the lack of news coverage. I know she wasn't Michael Jackson or Farah Fawcett, but if it weren't for this determined, confident, and brave spirit, we would not be privy to the likes of Iman, Naomi Campbell, and Chanel Iman, just to name a few. This great woman and the first black supermodel opened doors too numerous to mention in one blog post or in a single volume book for that matter. Her impact on the history of the Fashion Industry is undeniable.
It's hard to believe that her modeling career only lasted 5 years before she gave up the catwalk to become a successful beauty industry entrepreneur. She was muse to many top designers of her day, such as Giorgio di Sant'Angelo, Bill Blass, and is known most notably for her close professional relationship with then reigning king of night-life fashion, Halston. After a prestigious and uncanny career in front of the camera, Sims went on to develop a multi-million-dollar business as connoisseur of beauty for women of color.
Not too shabby for a young, gangly, dark skinned black girl from Oxford, Mississippi. Born in 1948, Sims overcame many obstacles from her troubled childhood, including her parent's divorce shortly after her birth, a move to Pittsburgh, and her mother's ensuing illness which led to painful stints in foster homes.
Instead of allowing her circumstance to tear down her self-esteem, Naomi Sims used the unpleasantness of her younger years to propel her into her destiny. After graduating from Westinghouse High School, she followed her older sister, Betty, to New York. She made the conscious decision to become, simply put, "somebody really important."1
In an industry that, at a tumultuous time in Black American history, had very little use for black models, Naomi Sims literally knocked down doors and busted through barriers. A scholarship to the Fashion Institute of Technology landed her in New York in 1966. Her quest to make some much needed cash was met with many a slammed door as agency after agency rejected her attempts at being signed as a model.
A smart and timely collaboration with Wilhelmina Cooper, an ex-model starting her own modeling agency led to $1000 a week earnings within the year for the young model. A national television campaign for AT&T soon followed and the "new face of fashion" was born.
Photo courtesy of Naomi Sims Retrospective
Naomi Sims understood better than most the need for black women to experience glamor and a style that was uniquely their own. Her high quality, beautifully made wigs afforded women of color the opportunity to change their look with styles that accentuated their features. Sims eventually expanded her empire by becoming the author of 5 books on beauty and modeling.
The Fashion and Beauty Industry has lost one of its greatest representatives. Naomi Sims was living proof that your environment, no matter how difficult or uninspiring, does not have to dictate your destiny. For every young, black aspiring model, she was the key to the realization of their dreams. She was both their present and their future, showing them the path to entrepreneurial success after the runway. Thank you Naomi Sims. You, your beautiful face, and gracious style will be missed.