As the end of February comes to a close, it is important to look back on the commemorative celebration that characterises the shortest month of the year, Black History Month. And while this heritage month might’ve originated during the American civil rights movement of the 1970’s, it is not limited to the acknowledgement of grand political or social activism achievements within the African-American community; the purpose of this celebration is to shed light on black excellence in all fields and industries across the world.
This February, Couturesque looks back on a handful of fashion’s most notable contributors who have paved the way for black artists, models, designers and editors to excel in the business, not with words or slogans but with hard work, dedication, and pure talent.
ZELDA WYNN VALDES
Zelda Wynn Valdes was one of the first successful black costume and fashion designers. Back in 1948, she opened her own store “Chez Zelda” on Broadway in New York City, and eventually became president of an organized coalition of black designers, the National Association of Fashion and Accessory Design or NAFAD. At the time, her client list included mega celebrities like Joyce Bryant, Josephine Baker, Ella Fitzgerald, and Mae West. However, her popularity is generally attributed to her iconic design of the infamous Playboy bunny costume, which was specifically commissioned by Hugh Hefner himself.
No one embodied the glamour and creative zeal of the 1960’s quite like Peggy Ann Freeman a.k.a. Donyale Luna, fashion’s first black international supermodel and cover girl. With her high cheekbones, her large, curious eyes and her slim 6’2” frame, Luna booked jobs with photographer Richard Avedon, designer Paco Rabanne, and starred in a 6-page spread on Harper’s Bazaar, all before leaving the U.S. to share her talent with the rest of the world.
In 1965, this international supermodel became the first black cover girl for British Vogue. Yet, like many black artists building their own paths in a seemingly Eurocentric world, Luna often felt like an outsider in both the black and the white community as she often distanced herself from race politics, dedicating herself fully to her craft and creativity. Nevertheless, her work successfully introduced the world to a look that had, for the longest time, been fetishized or overlooked by many.
TRACEY “AFRICA” NORMAN
As one of the familiar faces of Clairol’s hair dye, Tracey “Africa” Norman also went on to become one of the first successful black models, all the while attempting to omit a significant aspect of her identity. Not only was she a minority, being one of the few black faces in the industry, but she was also the first transgender black model. Yet, it wasn’t until the peak of her triumphant career, in the early 80’s, when she was outted during a photoshoot, that she was effectively discredited by a society where tolerance and acceptance were still in its early stages development.
In 2016, a few decades after the doors were incessantly slammed in her face, 63-year-old Noman received a second chance at her life’s work, by becoming the face of Clairol’s new “Color As Real As You Are” campaign. In an interview for the campaign, she explains that this time around, she was finally being accepted for who she truly was, “a woman of colour, of course.”
One of the more modern pioneers of the business is makeup artiste extraordinaire, Pat McGrath. Daughter of Jamaican immigrants, this British makeup guru went onto to become i-D’s beauty director, the creator of a unique line of cosmetics, and global cosmetics creative design director for Procter & Gamble, which includes renowned brands such as Dolce & Gabbana and CoverGirl. With her extensive portfolio, it isn’t surprising that in 2017, McGrath also became the recipient of the CFDA's Founder's Award, making her the first makeup artist and the first black woman to win the award.
McGrath’s work continues to impress her audiences in high profile shows like Prada, Louis Vuitton, Valentino, and more. Yet still, she says that her talents were drawn from her mother’s experimenting who she claims would “always [mix] up colours because there wasn't anything out there for black skin.”
Ghanaian-born Londoner, Edward Enninful’s name has become synonymous with ultimate success ever since it was announced that he would take on the role of Editor-in-Chief of British Vogue, becoming the first male and the first black candidate for the job.
Enninful began his career as model before landing the opportunity of a lifetime as i-D’s fashion director at the age of 18. Since then he has worked as one of the heads of reputable publications such as W magazine, and at American Vogue and Italian Vogue, where he lead the first "Black Issue” in 2008, featuring a cast of black models such as Alek Wek, Jourdan Dunn, and his close friend Naomi Campbell. In a conversation with his first British Vogue issue’s cover girl, British model Adwoa Aboah, Enninful highlights the importance of cultivating solidarity within the black fashion community. “We knew we wanted to be in this industry. We knew what we had to say, and we just did it. Nobody was going to tell me that I didn’t belong in this industry,” the Editor-in-Chief says.
For these artists and craftspeople, oftentimes an accomplishment came with multiple layers. On top of being the first black pioneers, they also became one of the first supermodels, the first transwoman, the first makeup artist, and the first male editor, to obtain recognition for their contribution to fashion. And while their careers may be marked by a series of “firsts,” eventually, we hope to see all the vacant “first” and “only” slots filled by the next generation of black creatives, so that seeing more black faces in higher positions becomes the norm, not the exception. For those who assume racial apathy as the solution for underrepresentation, it is important to remember that the only way to tear down barriers is not by turning a blind eye on what makes us different by claiming that we “do not see colour,” but by embracing our unique traits and celebrating them as a collective.
When Zelda Wynn Valdes, Donyala Luna, or Tracey “Africa” Norman set out to make a name for themselves, the industry wasn’t as easy to navigate as they might’ve imagined. Yet these influential figures never let the colour of their skin serve as a hindrance to their craft. Instead, they used their skills and their background to embellish their artistry and make it acceptable, if not imperative, for others to do the same. And just as “Negro History Week” has been transformed into Black History Month, there will come a time when Black History ceases to be a short-term remembrance of the past and finally receives the long-term celebration it deserves, that of black people’s contributions past, present, and future.