For this week’s Fashion Throwback Thursday, gal-dem are paying homage to the Somali-American model, business woman and activist Iman Mohamed Abdulmajid, who has been hugely influential in the fashion industry since she began her modelling career in the 1970s. Her looks have been adored by designers such as Yves Saint Laurent, who used her as the muse for his “African Queen” couture collection, and Thierry Mugler, who she often walked for in the 1980s while holding various wild animals like baby leopards and monkeys. However, Iman is inspirational not just because of her modelling successes, but also because she is a tireless activist. As the world’s first black supermodel, she was a pioneer in changing the world’s perception of beauty beyond that of the Caucasian ideal, but along the way has had to battle against a lot of racism, exoticism and fetishisation from the industry and the press.
For instance, Iman was discovered by photographer Peter Beard on the streets of Nairobi, where she was studying, as a refugee. However, Beard told the press that he discovered Iman in the jungle in an attempt to create a larger media buzz around the aspiring model. In an interview with Roy H. Campbell, Iman spoke out against Beard’s embellishment saying that: “Somalia is a desert. I had never even seen a jungle. And I was even more insulted when they started asking the questions and talking only to Peter because they thought I did not speak English [when] I could speak English and five [other] languages.”
Throughout her modelling career, Iman has continued to speak out and campaign against racism in the fashion and beauty industry. In 1994, she started her own cosmetics line, The Iman Collection, aimed at women of colour because she was sick of having to mix her own foundations to suit her skin tone. She collaborated with Missy Elliot to launch a lipstick called Misdemeanor, some proceeds of which went to Break The Cycle – an organisation that seeks to end domestic violence. And, more recently, she founded the Diversity Coalition with Naomi Campbell and Bethann Hardison, a campaign that urges fashion councils to require designers to put more models of colour on their catwalks.
As a celebration of Iman’s career and achievements, let’s take a look at some of her most iconic looks from the 1970s-90s…
With Naomi Campbell on a photoshoot, in South Africa, in 1995. Image: Rex
“The absence of people of color on the runways and photography reinforces to our young girls that they’re not beautiful enough, that they’re not acceptable enough.” – Iman, in an interview with CNN